The first room finishes off with several pieces by Alvar Aalto, who translated the industrial aesthetic of the Bauhaus into a craft tradition, substituting bent wood for the bent metal of the Bauhaus. Particularly compelling is Aalto's "Paimio" lounge chair from 1930-31, a stunning combination of bent plywood curves. Interestingly, Aalto sets up the second part of the show in the adjacent smaller gallery because that section begins with the Cranbrook designers whom he influenced. A founding figure at Cranbrook was Eliel Saarinen, who had a close relationship with Aalto.

The change in mood between the two sections is profound. Most of the pieces in the first part are muted in color, while the second part is an explosion of hues. "European modern is pretty severe and somber, but American modernism is happy," Michael says.

The Cranbrook group includes Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen — Eliel's famous son — and Florence Knoll. The success of most of these designers relied on Knoll's position as the design director of Knoll Associates (later Knoll International), which had been founded by her husband, Hans. Most of the Cranbrook crowd took sculptural approaches, while Knoll and her mentor, Mies, with whom she had worked at IIT, were architectonic in theirs.

"Paimio" lounge chair, by Alvar Aalto, bent plywood.
"Paimio" lounge chair, by Alvar Aalto, bent plywood.

Details

Through January 3, Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, 1311 Pearl Street, 303-832-8576, www.kirklandmuseum.org.

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Michael makes the riveting point that Knoll revolutionized interior design at mid-century in the same way that the figure and ground relationship in European abstract surrealist painting did in the 1930s. Her work, he says, created what could be called the "grounds," while the sculptural work of Bertoia and Saarinen were the "figures." This revelation is undeniable when you consider the organic forms of the seats of Saarinen's chairs, for example, perched on thin legs or pedestals, just like the handling of the forms in a Miró painting.

The last part of the show highlights the work of Italian designers from the '50s to the '70s. The relationship between the Italians and the Cranbrook group is complex, because both drew inspiration from each other. This had a lot to do with Gio Ponti's periodical, Domus, which published designs from around the world. Denver has a special relationship with Ponti because he was the chief architect of the Denver Art Museum's North Building, and the Kirkland has many examples of his work. Ponti worked with Italy's world-famous crafts tradition, creating pieces made of wood, but the other Italian designers in the show, such as Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass and Vico Magistretti, took a more industrial approach, pioneering new ways to use injection-molded plastic. The nature of plastic production encouraged the use of soft curves instead of sharp angles, thus in part determining the aesthetic the designers embraced.

One of the strongest suits Streams of Modernism has in its hand is the way the McCoys have coherently laid out a thoughtful narrative about the rise of modern design during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. And lucky for us, the Kirkland has in its collection the pieces necessary to pull off this idea.

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