Denver Art Museum design curator Darrin Alfred relished the opportunity to reinstall the museum's architecture and design galleries: It represented a changing of the guard for him and a chance to cast a fresh spotlight on all the collection had to offer. The resulting spread, What Is Modern?, opens at the DAM's north building Saturday.
"I was interested in representing the collection more broadly to include not just chairs, but also things like household items, graphics, lighting, posters and recent acquisitions," Alfred says. "But my question was how do I frame all of this material? That's where the idea for What Is Modern? comes from: It's kind of a ubiquitous term that's thrown around a lot, and I wanted defy the term. Many people who come through might have no idea what it really refers to."
The show, then, spreads "modern" across a broad historic tableau, from the early 19th century to the present. "All of these things could fall under that concept or heading because of how it was made," Alfred explains, noting that the use of progressive technology for the time something was created is what pulls the concept together. For instance, Thomas Warren's Centripetal Chair of the 1800s utilized the same spring technology used in railway cars of the era to create a more comfortable office chair.
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"It's very interesting chair, very ornate and rococo," he says. "And yet it also looks like a modern office chair like the one I'm sitting in today." The main difference, he adds, is that today's office chair has been modified with different materials and more modern ergonomics.
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What Is Modern? does have a timeline that follows design through the rise of Bauhaus and tubular steel in the '20s, through the development of Modernism as we know it, exemplified by the Eames chair and the use of plywood, and the fluctuation in the '60s to plastics. And it takes us into the present with the lovely Roadrunner Chair from Denver's DoubleButter, which represents forward-thinking modern design softened by handcrafting techniques of old. Does Alfred play favorites? Along with the Centripetal Chair, he favors an exquisite 1808 Samuel Gragg "elastic" chair that he calls "one of the earliest examples of the bentwood chair" and the XO One Laptop Per Child that can operate on human and solar energy. Also included are six handsome hand-pulled screen-printed works by modern rock poster artist Jason Munn, which are indicative of Alfred's continuing interest in the genre (Alfred also curated the DAM's stunning The Psychedelic Experience rock poster show in 2009). Other posters spread throughout the show include Milton Glaser's iconic Bob Dylan image and Saul Bass's stylized urban advert for the film The Man with the Golden Arm. A companion show, Olivetti: Olivetti: Innovation and Identity, also opens Saturday, showcasing a functional chapter in Italian style, including innovative products from 1930s to 1980s, as well as the stylish advertising posters of designer Giovanni Pintori. "In this show, a lot of kids will see something they've never seen before: a typewriter," Alfred says. "It's a nice combination that shows both the product and the graphics and how the two could define the identity of a company. Maybe business leaders who see it will realize that design does pay off."
The Denver Art Museum is at 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway; call 720-865-5000 for information.