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Dive in to Streams of Modernism at the Kirkland Museum

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

The history of modern design is one of the focuses of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, and the Kirkland's founder, Hugh Grant, has avidly acquired more than 3,000 interesting examples of furniture and accessories by a who's-who list of international designers. In the process, Grant has turned the small museum into a world-class center for this kind of material, much of which has been on view, filling every nook and cranny. Still, until now, the museum had presented only one coordinated design exhibit.

The design collection has attracted its own distinct audience, which includes the husband-and-wife designer team of Michael and Katherine McCoy, who moved to Denver in 2004. The McCoys spent more than twenty years as co-directors of the design department at the legendary Cranbrook Academy and nearly a decade teaching at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Both institutions have a special place in the history of American design: Cranbrook engendered its own movement in the post-war period, while the ID was founded as the new Bauhaus.

The McCoys have also worked as practicing designers, with Michael specializing in furniture and Katherine in graphics. And although they spent most of their time in the Midwest, the McCoys have had a long relationship with Colorado and have maintained a vacation home in Buena Vista since the early 1970s. This home has morphed over the years from a small cabin to a large complex where they spend most of their time; in addition, they've purchased a loft in the Golden Triangle as a Denver base.

After coming to Denver, which Michael calls "an interesting design and architecture town," the couple discovered the Kirkland and approached Grant with the idea of doing a show. The result is Streams of Modernism, on view there now.

The show's title reveals the couple's interest in how designers influence one another, and the streams of ideas they're looking at are akin to a braided creek in the mountains, with channels coming together and then splitting apart, only to come together again. The McCoys selected the pieces together and determined the sequence in which they appear in the show, which is essentially chronological.

The exhibit's design is emphatic, intelligent and absolutely sensational. The McCoys have placed each piece of furniture on a three-foot-square modular black stand, and these floor modules, in turn, determine the placement of the graphics on the walls. Designed by Katherine, the wall panels are dominated by enlarged portraits of the furniture designers themselves. These portraits have been given a very pop-art appearance, both through the large dots used to fill in the pictures and because of the hot, Day-Glo colors used in duotones that carry them out. "They're like posters, because these particular designers are kind of like the rock stars of design," explains Michael.

Both the stands and the wall graphics separate the show from the permanent collection on display in other spaces, and that makes Streams of Modernism easier to understand than the typical changing exhibit at the Kirkland. One problem I've had with Kirkland shows in the past is that it is hard, if not impossible, to determine what is part of a particular exhibit and what isn't, with the permanent collection typically intruding on the special displays. The solution the McCoys came up with put that issue to rest, as did Grant's decision to empty out two entire galleries to make room for their display.

Streams of Modernism begins in the large exhibition space with a section focused mostly on European modernism beginning in the late nineteenth century. The only American designer in this section is Frank Lloyd Wright, who is represented by two pieces — a floor lamp from 1915 and a "Peacock" chair from 1920. Both are examples of Wright's prairie style and are made of light-colored wood boards. Wright's simplicity and his taste for rectilinear designs made his work widely influential in Europe in the early twentieth century, but not for the trio of European designers — Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Josef Hoffmann and Peter Behrens — whose work follows his in the show. On the other hand, Wright was a source for designer/craftsman Gerrit Rietveld, whose work is also here. Rietveld was part of the de Stijl movement made famous by Piet Mondrian and, in a sense, he translated Mondrian's geometric abstractions into furniture such as chairs and tables. The exhibit includes Rietveld's "Red / Blue" chair, a "Zig Zag" chair and a lamp table.

I have a minor quibble with this particular sequencing, since I think it would have made more sense to have Wright finish out the first vignette as opposed to starting it off, both because of the dates of his two pieces included and because his work leads directly to Rietveld's. Despite the placement, though, the relationship between Wright and Rietveld is exactly the kind of thing the McCoys are trying to communicate.

Moving around the room, viewers next arrive at the international style designers of the 1920s and '30s, including Le Corbusier, and the key figures associated with the Bauhaus, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. These designers did work that referred back to Hoffmann, and especially to Behrens, in whose office both Le Corbusier and Mies worked early in their careers. These connections again make the point that the McCoys are stressing: Designers influence those who follow them.

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.

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.