It was back in 1990 when the Denver Art Museum hired curator R. Craig Miller to establish a department of architecture, design and graphics. Miller was working at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was stolen away by Met alum and longtime friend Lewis Sharp.
Sharp has made many savvy moves in his nearly fifteen years as director of the DAM, but creating the design department has got to be the best. Since there are only a relative handful of art museums in the country that have made a commitment to the field, first-rate examples of design have been easier to come by, and they are much cheaper than paintings and sculptures. This has allowed Miller to collect artifacts of the highest quality.
Over the years, the department has presented changing displays of its ever-growing and more impressive permanent collection -- which now numbers some 3,000 pieces -- and hosted or organized a number of special exhibits. It has also made a real contribution to the city at large, because without the department, and Miller, the Michael Graves-designed central library and the Daniel Libeskind museum annex being built across the street from the DAM wouldn't exist. In both cases, Miller used his international connections to get the two architecture stars, along with a raft of other big names, to enter the design competitions held for the buildings.
But Miller's talents don't end there. In his regular duties as a curator, he has done a wonderful job, as is evident with the unbelievably rich and thoughtful US Design 1975-2000, which just opened. The show is the second in the "Masterworks" series organized by Miller. The first was Italian Design: 1960-1994, presented in 1994.
US Design is a heroic attempt to lasso most of the different intellectual currents in the various design fields from the last quarter-century and jam them into a single, coherent presentation. The task must have been daunting, but the result is unquestionably a triumph. With this show, Miller has demonstrated the courage to wade into the uncharted waters of the recent past and has clearly established himself as one of the world's foremost authorities on late-twentieth-century design.
About 60 percent of the show comprises decorative design and industrial design pieces chosen by Miller. The remaining 40 percent is split between graphics and architecture in the form of models, drawings and photos. To bring together the separate portions, Miller enlisted the help of two other experts: Philip Meggs, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who selected the graphics; and David De Long, from the University of Pennsylvania, who chose the architectural material. All three contributed essays to the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibit.
Sprawling in scope and size, US Design is densely packed; objects and ideas go by so fast that it's hard to keep up with them all. Sensibly, Miller has established several points of view -- not so much by answering questions as by raising them and leaving them unanswered. Making things even more challenging is that many of the ideas from the last quarter of the twentieth century were very complex and, as often as not, contradictory to one another.
These conceptual conundrums will remind some of Robert Venturi's epoch-making book, Complexities and Contradictions in Architecture. And that's just as it should be, given the tome's role as the Old Testament of postmodernism. Venturi's Learning From Las Vegas, then, would be the New Testament. Miller sees the two volumes as reflecting the two sides of postmodernism -- highbrow and lowbrow, respectively.
Miller has begun the exhibit by pairing Venturi with Graves, another prophet (or should I say profit?) of postmodernism. The two artists anchor "Inventing Traditions," the first of four major sections in the show.
Miller has combined a Venturi chair and chest with four pieces by Graves -- a table, a chair, a swatch of carpet and a mural. Heretofore, I had considered the two to be at opposite poles of postmodern theory. I'd seen Venturi as the philosopher prince of postmodern and Graves as the movement's most shameless proselytizer and populist (he does jobs for Disney and Target, for heaven's sake). But viewing their work together made me realize how closely interconnected their ideas really are. This is just the first of countless revelations and fresh insights with which Miller has peppered this show.
In Venturi's "Sheraton 664 Side Chair," from 1979-84, two pieces of bent plywood covered in black laminate have been connected at the joint of the back and the seat, very much like a mid-century modern chair. The back is pierced and richly painted with a colorful cartoon-like parody of an eighteenth-century Sheraton-style ornamental motif. Thus, instead of just sitting there like furniture is supposed to, this self-conscious piece silently comments on the history of furniture.
Graves's 1980-81 "Lounge Chair" and 1989 "Dining Table" are less strident, but they do the same thing: In both, it seems that the Viennese Biedermeier style is morphing into Parisian art deco in some unknown postmodern future where three-dimensional space is axiomatic.
But Venturi and Graves are first and foremost architects, and Miller included models and materials related to two of their most important buildings. Venturi's Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, done from 1985 to 1991, is examined in depth. So is Graves's 1984-87 Clos Pegase Winery in the Napa Valley. As they did with furniture, both men took a reflexive and critical attitude toward the history of architecture in order to create their otherwise very different buildings.
In the next section, "Celebrating the Everyday," Miller looks at the way in which some designers began to refer to popular culture in their work. There are many prototypes here and unique pieces that are as much a part of the fine arts as they are examples of design.
One eye-catching item is the famous "Otto Cabinet," from 1990-91, by Lyn Godley and Lloyd Schwan. The cabinet, which is crudely made compared to the Venturi and Graves furniture, is shaped like a guitar and has been partially painted a jarring color combination of grass green and orange-peel orange.
Also in this section are a number of things by Dan Friedman, including his oddball "Cosmos I" floor lamp, a painted metal dome punctuated with bare lightbulbs. Behind a room divider that mimics the shape of the cabinet, Miller has installed a group of very arty chairs -- none more so than Allan Wexler's "Picket Fence Furniture," a set of four seats that can be joined together in a rack so that the resulting contraption resembles a white picket fence. (The effect is enhanced by the fact that Wexler made it with a casual approach to craftsmanship, just as he would a real fence.)
In a way, the next part of the exhibit, "Redefining Expressionism," turns its back on postmodernism and looks at post-postmodernism, or neo-modernism, or whatever you want to call it. Miller points out that many of the expressionistic designers represented in this section adhere to postmodernist tenets. Regardless of their intentions, however, the pieces still have a modern appearance.
Good examples are seen in Lisa Krohn and Tucker Viemeister's "Phonebook Answering Machine," from 1987-88, and David Gresham's "Book Computer," from 1985. Both are prototypes, and neither was ever put into production.
For Miller, expressionism has various meanings. In the case of the computer, the poetic references between meaning, form and use -- a computer in a shape based on a row of books -- is what makes it expressionistic.
Miller sees some of the other objects as expressionist for an entirely different reason: their shapes respond directly to the human body through ergonomic design. He's included things like the "Radius" toothbrushes by Kevin Foley and James O'Holloran, a pair of Rollerblade in-line skates, and a pair of Raichle ski boots.
Miller also sees expressionism in the old-fashioned modern way -- as a tradition in American architecture and design that goes back to Frank Lloyd Wright and comes forward to deconstructivism. It's another major revelation in this show. Through a series of architectural models, photos and drawings, radical theorist Peter Eisenman is linked to the craft-oriented Bart Prince, an heir of Wright's. This is clear and unequivocal. And if Eisenman relates to Prince, doesn't Frank Gehry fit right in between?
US Design is light on Gehry. There's a single photo, for instance, of the Guggenheim Bilbao. But Miller did include two examples of Gehry's decorative designs -- 1979-82's incredible "Bubbles Chaise Lounge," a cluster of cardboard curlicues covered with a cardboard cushion. Truly insane, even considering the cardboard chaise, is the infamous "Fish" lamp from 1984, a tall wooden stand surmounted by an internally illuminated fish made from chips of ColorCore plastic laminate. The irrationality of both the chaise and the lamp make them classic expressionistic objects.
By the time we get to the final section, "Expanding Modernism," the moral of the story Miller is telling is clear: Modernism is back after the postmodern hiatus of the past twenty years.
The principle displays here are a pair of room settings, each of which explores a different aspect of this revived modernism; on the left is organic modernism, on the right the hard-edged industrial variant. Like postmodernism, this new modernism is reflexive and interpretive and harks back to the past.
In the organic group, a pair of Karim Rashid's 1999 "Soft" blown-glass light fixtures seem like they could have come off the set of Goldfinger. And there's definitely a Rat Pack-era Vegas quality to Ali Tayar and Attila Rona's "Plaza," a screen made of aluminum and rubber. Gisela Stromeyer's "Hula Hoop" and "Oval" lighting, both from 1987, also have that chic, retro-lounge look.
The backward-looking references continue with the industrial grouping. This time, though, we don't think of nightlife, but of the pioneers of modern design. Daven Joy's "430 Dresser" -- so exquisitely made, I literally gasped -- is very George Nelson. Christopher Deam doubtless looked at Florence Knoll's credenzas and buffets before creating the "Gallery Blonde" and "Gallery Black" storage cabinets. And Rashid's "Space" chaise follows right in Marcel Breuer's footsteps, especially in the discrete relationship between the tubular frame and the neoprene seat and back.
By finishing the show here, Miller gives us a happy ending: Modernism has vanquished postmodernism. Plus, the lessons of postmodernism -- that more, and not less, is actually more -- have been absorbed by modernism. "More is more" describes Lehlan Murray's exhibition design as well, and perhaps his cluttered, over-the-top installation throughout the exhibit indicates the not-too-distant future of interior design.
As I left the show, a number of things crossed my mind. First, that neither postmodernism nor neo-modernism had saturated the culture the way modernism had during the previous 25 years, from 1950 to 1975. And second, that even with all that Miller included, he left out a lot. The most obvious missing in action is architect Philip Johnson. Miller told me he left Johnson out because he was not an innovator. Then again, US Design demonstrates that the era was marked by interpretation, derivation, analysis and hermeneutics, and not innovation, which, it seems to me, makes Johnson the godfather of postmodernism and, thus, post-postmodernism.
Finally, I realized that I hadn't even looked at the graphics or the textiles that run through the entire show. I'd already planned to go back anyway, though, and I'm sure you'll feel the same way.
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