Hard Wares

Eight years ago Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp hired his old friend Craig Miller, with whom he had worked at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, to put together a design collection at the DAM. The museum had accumulated a hundred years' worth of chairs, vases and candlesticks, but it was a haphazard collection, mostly the result of bequests and not part of an established curatorial area at the museum. The Architecture, Design and Graphics department, created in 1990 with Miller at its helm, marked the museum's first effort to acquire examples of design and the decorative arts.

Miller has greatly expanded the DAM's holdings and given shape to the formerly amorphous collection. On the museum's sixth floor, in a large room with yellow, cloud-painted walls, Miller marches the viewer from the seventeenth century up to the nineteenth with a series of groupings, each comprising a cabinet, a chair and a table in the same style from the same period. On the second floor, Miller is able to go into greater detail in three marvelous shows that just opened last weekend.

Working with longtime DAM exhibition designer Lehlan Murray and graphic artist AlmaDis Kristensdotter, Miller created a single unifying decor with a gray-and-white color scheme carried out in paint and computer graphics. Kristendotter scanned a photo of a Viennese floral design, blew it up to billboard size and applied it to the walls in a variety of configurations, including checkerboards. This presentation is one of the best anywhere, all the more amazing given the AD&G department's budget constraints.

Viewers find themselves smack in the middle of 20th Century Design: Breaking All the Rules as soon as they get off the elevator to the second floor, which was originally conceived as a partial mezzanine with overlooks to the first floor. As a way of coping with the limited space, Miller has mounted showcases in the elevator lobby and on the parapets lining the overlooks. It's a little tight, but the visual tradeoff is worth it.

Made up of artifacts from the DAM's collection, the exhibit is actually two distinct shows. The first half explores design and decorative art in small, functional objects; the second is a survey of chairs. Miller clusters the smaller objects more or less thematically (teacups with teacups, for example) but does not attempt to trace historical paths in the development of specific forms. Some showcases span many years, while others take a detailed look at a brief period. With the chairs, however, Miller is more straightforward, sketching out the form's functionalist tradition from the turn of the century to the present.

There's a ready explanation for the differing approaches. The DAM has chairs to cover the whole century, noting a lacuna or two, but the museum simply doesn't own enough material to do a proper job with the smaller objects. "We're especially weak in pre-war," Miller says. And given the decorative arts' current market, where important early-twentieth-century designs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the situation has little prospect of changing. But instead of focusing on the collection's weaknesses, Miller presents its strengths--in particular, Italian articles from the last several decades.

The first component of the show begins in the freight-elevator room, of all places, where Miller has assembled a showcase each for ceramics, metalwork, product design, lighting, plastic and glass. The most impressive pieces are in the glass category. Even many of the best lamps, which technically fall in the lighting category, are made of glass. The touchstone showcase is the one fitted with a pair of sensuous Venetian vases by Italian artist Allesandro Mendini, made in 1989 by the world-renowned glassmaking firm of Venini. The lovely vases, from Mendini's Arsos series, have incised surfaces, resulting in a flat sheen on the combination of bright yellow and near-black glass.

There's more fine Venini in the small niche on the other side of the elevator lobby, including a stunningly beautiful and lyrical piece by the famous firm's founder, Paolo Venini. "A Canne" is a well-known flared vase from 1949, made of paper-thin canes of glass arranged in a rainbow of strong, clear colors. There's also "Doppia Incalmo," a dark, multi-colored bottle from 1970 by Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala. And "Pierre Cardin Bowl," a square clear glass bowl with a stripe of turquoise blue from 1969 by Ludovico de Santillana, carries the imprimatur of the French fashion designer.

Venini dominates the Venetian glass section, but crosstown rivals Barovier & Toso and Gino Cenedese e Figlio are also represented. There's a spectacular 1960 "Vase" from the Intarsio series by Ercole Barovier in which orange and blue cased glass create a kaleidoscopic effect. More restrained is the sleek violet "Vase" blown in 1965 by Antonio Da Ras for Cenedese.

Other notable objects in this section are the Olivetti typewriters, representing the best in product design. Typewriters are the buggy whips of our time, and surely Mario Bellini's sleek "Olivetti ETP55" from 1986 is one of the last of its kind. Also compelling are several metalwork vessels, in particular the "Como" coffee and teapots by Italian modernist Lino Sabattini, made in silver plate and wicker by France's Christofle--one of the world's greatest silversmiths.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia