The decorative arts — furniture, ceramics, glass and so on — are the stepchildren of the fine arts. In fact, they used to be known as the minor arts, distinguishing them from the major ones: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and architecture. This distinction fell by the wayside during the last century, however, as designers became more and more interested in integrating their aesthetics with those of fine artists.
In Colorado, we're lucky to have two major decorative-arts collections, both of which focus on modernism and postmodernism. One is at the Denver Art Museum, and the other is at the Kirkland Museum. The DAM's impressive collection is sadly consigned to the small spaces on the second floor of the Ponti tower, so only a handful of selections are on view. The Kirkland, on the other hand, presents thousands of pieces, but the shortcoming there is that the works are crowded into its smallish space.
But some choice pieces from the Kirkland have been allowed to spread out in the capacious lower-level galleries at the Arvada Center for Time Travel: Decorative Art From the Kirkland Museum. The show was organized by Kirkland director Hugh Grant and the museum's registrar and collection manager, Christopher Herron, with installation by the Arvada Center's Collin Parson. The show includes more than 300 objects, along with nearly fifty paintings, by Colorado artists that are used to accent the various vignettes that have been created to illustrate the different styles and movements from the turn of the nineteenth century to the late twentieth. As is the case at the Kirkland itself, the groupings are done so that it's almost like walking into someone's home.
Longtime readers of my column know that I think a chronological presentation makes the most sense; it's an effortless way to put in historical content. So I was a little disheartened to find that though Time Travel viewers can figure out how the pieces relate to each other date-wise if they come with that knowledge beforehand, the show itself isn't arranged that way. To follow the course of design history, start in the northwest corner of the lower galleries, where the Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and Prairie-style pieces have been installed, and then work your way toward the front. Once there, head back toward the rear in the series of parallel spaces to the southeast.
The oldest works in the show are those related to the Art Nouveau movement, which provides a bridge between the aristocratic styles associated with royalty and the church, and modernism. Though it first appeared in France, Art Nouveau's influence extended throughout Europe and the United States. Known for luxurious materials and finishes, Art Nouveau is most significant for the way it put forward a linear conception of form — something that would anticipate later modern styles, though not postmodernism. Among the standouts in this group is an anonymously done breakfront with a thick marble top; a pair of gilt metal side chairs, which are also anonymous; and two gorgeous carved wood chairs by Louis Majorelle, a significant Art Nouveau designer.
To the left of this grouping is a setting made up of chairs and other objects that illustrate the Wiener Werkstätte, a Viennese school of design that spun out of Art Nouveau. Though some Wiener Werkstätte pieces had that same luxurious aspect, they also mark an attempt to create good design for the masses — in particular, the work of Josef Hoffmann produced by Thonet, a number of examples of which are included in the show.
To the right are the Arts and Crafts works, which are characterized by staggering simplicity. In them, ornament is downplayed because the furniture is highly functional. The goal of the artists — like brothers Gustav, Albert and Charles Stickley, whose work is still in production a century after it was first created — was utopian, in that they believed in the idea of good design for everyone.
Prairie style is closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and the show includes a handful of works done in this manner, including examples by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Prairie architect who is best remembered today. There are also Wright pieces, like chairs and even a fabric swatch, that exemplify his later Usonian-style approach, which grows directly out of the Prairie material.
Heading back toward the front door of the lower galleries are Art Deco and nodern pieces mostly by American designers. These chairs and tables, many done in tubular chrome, leatherette and lacquer, took their cue from more vanguard approaches. Like the Arts and Crafts furniture, the early American modern — mostly from the 1930s — also had a social agenda meant to democratize design for the benefit of everyone.
This is the same underpinning as the Bauhaus and International-style objects that are displayed nearby. The idea was that good, functional and rational design would improve people's lives. The irony, of course, is that the Bauhaus was an art school in Germany in the '20s and early '30s, so their theory clearly didn't work. Their simple and beautiful solutions to chair and table design, not to mention buildings, did little to stop the growth of one of the most disastrous philosophies to rear its ugly head in all of world history — the Nazi movement — and the school was closed down forcibly and its faculty and students forced to flee. Interestingly, designs by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer done eighty to ninety years ago still say 'modern' and are still being made — so they did get something right.
Much of the rest of the show is given over to pieces done in the last fifty years, such as chairs and tables by Paul Frankl, a giant of American design. Frankl came of age in the '20s, but a set of furniture on display here dates from the '40s. Other post-war American masters whose efforts are on view include Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen and Florence Knoll.
The other two powerhouses of furniture, Denmark and Italy, are also well represented in the show. The Danish pieces, including Arne Jacobsen chairs, are a cross between folksy and space age, while the Italian ones, such as the Gio Ponti coffee table, are sleek and elegant, like other kinds of designs associated with that country.
The final part of the show includes pieces done by Colorado designers as well as furniture made by Colorado artists. The standout here is a conference table done by Michael McCoy, who is widely known for his Knoll International furniture.
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There's another design show in the area that's either an antidote to Time Travel or maybe vice versa. Called Design for the Other 90%, it's a traveling show from the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, which is the national design museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Here in Denver, it's being presented at RedLine, which is kind of strange, since the show is more about technology than art (it's also way too small for the space it's been allotted). The underlying concept of the exhibit is that nearly all design is made for the developed world, which is a distinct minority of the human population.
Though many of the artists featured in Time Travel were interested in democracy through design, their target audiences were in Europe, the U.S. and Japan, and so were relatively rich. In Design for the Other 90%, the relevant people live in the underdeveloped world in Africa, Asia, Latin America and even poor parts of rich countries, like post-Katrina New Orleans.
Cooper-Hewitt curator Cynthia Smith and a board of advisors selected the pieces in the show and clearly had their hearts in the right place, but their eyes were apparently shut. Very few pieces include any consideration other than function, and little effort was made by the designers to make their work beautiful, which strikes me as the key demand of good design. A few objects here achieve this goal, but most do not.