In Uncommon Ground, I say:
This is the museum’s second foray into the world of social and sustainable design, after last winter’s successful “Rising Currents.” While it contains a number of worthy (if occasionally over-exposed) projects, the inability of “Small Scale” curator Andres Lepik to define his terms means the exhibition fails to move the conversation forward, offering no sense of where these 11 projects find common ground, and hence which small architectural interventions are likely to be effective elsewhere. It isn’t scalable, which means Lepik defaults to MoMA’s historical agenda, aesthetics. Not one of these projects, but for Rural Studio’s gable-roofed $20K House VIII, would be out of place in an exhibition on new schools, new urban infrastructures, new low-cost housing.
The “big” part of the title isn’t addressed either. In his remarks at the opening, curator Andres Lepik specifically thanked two MoMA funds for allowing him to travel to see which sites were successful. But neither his benchmarking nor his on-site observations are part of the show. What counts as a success, particularly given the diversity of program and scale contained in the gallery? What counts as failure? I would have been really interested to find out more about projects that almost made the cut, until Lepik saw the situation on the ground. Maybe that’s the critic’s role rather than the curator’s?
Read the rest here.
I should also say, for those of you who read the whole piece, I’ve taken issue with Iwan Baan’s photographs before, in this post.
Bad form to apologize for not posting. But it is the lightest news week of the year! All this coverage of Barack Obama’s office! The psychologists-cum-decorators in the NYT Home section “analysis” of the new rug are creeping me out. And Dominique Browning says what I would have said, had I been asked:
Former editor in chief, House & Garden.
All those earth tones. Brown upon rust upon ochre upon …drab. We’re dangerously close to Harvest Gold here, folks. This office does not inspire confidence. The presidential team is clearly trying to project a laidback, we-don’t-do-decorating image — and why? Design matters. We judge books — and presidents — by their covers, at least at first glance. Obama’s office looks small and subdued; it could be the TV room in anyone’s house. The Bush version could have used tweaking; it is a tad on the fussy, nouveau-suburban side, but at least it is light, airy and elegant, as befits the office. And those blue stripes on the side chairs have panache. The Bush carpet — and each President commissions his own — wins hands down; those radiating stripes are wonderfully bold.
So let me call your attention to something more interesting in the same section. I wrote about the evolution of kitchen design here (many revealing descriptions of kitchens past in the comments) and mentioned the upcoming MoMA exhibit Counter Space. Here’s an interview with the dynamic curator Juliet Kinchin, talking about the role of women in making the American kitchen, and how space stresses us out.
Since then, the kitchen seems to have gone from a modular, efficient place to one customized to various tastes, outfitted with computers, TVs and nonergonomic tools like Philippe Starck’s lemon juicer.
Reyner Banham, the critic, called things like that “symbols of affluent futility.” After World War II, it wasn’t just about the abundance of food, it was about the proliferation of these symbols. You’re selling appliances by dancing. Banham also called them “household godjets.” It’s the leisure kitchen.
Some people hate to cook.
It’s called mageirocophobia, the fear of cooking. That’s the downside of bringing the kitchen into the middle of the home — you’re being judged not just by your family, but by not feeding the family well enough.
In Issue 02 of The Architect’s Newspaper (available online tomorrow), my take on MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition. The architects involved presented their work to a surprisingly large crowd on January 9. Best quote:
Certain tropes of contemporary waterfront design immediately surfaced: walls are bad; wetlands are good. And each project seemed to have a farmer’s market, whether on a barge, repurposed railway terminus, or flupsy (a floating oyster incubator). Pavements, edges, parks, and vacant lots were all to be permeable. Food, bi-valve or vegetal, was to be grown at or on the water’s edge.
This project represents a real departure for MoMA: a formally amorphous, sustainability-oriented topic, younger architects, a non-competitive exhibition, an interactive component, and so on. The biggest news from the presentation was that the museum is thinking of a continuing series of urban, contemporary exhibitions—which can only be a good thing for NYC architecture culture.
My story on the Museum of Modern Art’s Bauhaus Lab and the 3D workshop led by Ati Gropius Johansen, daughter of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, student of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, wife of Harvard 5 architect John Johansen is up today on The Moment, the T Magazine blog.
This was a thrill to write: I couldn’t believe no one else had noticed that Johansen was coming to MoMA, and it seemed like a piece of history. The Bauhaus may have ended in 1933, but there are still students and teachers who learned from the founders, and who believe that design education starts with a blank sheet of paper. I can’t speak to that, but there was something completely Zen about watching Johansen limit a room of 20 adults to one piece of paper, one fold, one rip, one roll.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity closes next Monday. It is (as I wrote when it opened) not to be missed, something for everyone, no excessive hagiography. For a look at the building today see Adrian Shaughnessy’s recent account of sleeping at the Bauhaus.
Bridget Riley, Fission (1963) Gift of Philip Johnson to MoMA.
In my ongoing project to give my son as much of a 1970s childhood as possible (Osh Kosh engineers overalls; Fisher Price Little People airport, the one with the crank that moves helicopter and baggage carousel; Old School Sesame Street) we recently ran across all of the 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine, on YouTube. Now, my son knows who the Beatles are because his older cousins received Rock Band for Christmas, and he spent most of Christmas Day listening to them sing in the family room, so that’s totally 2009. But when “Hello Hello” turns up on the iPod and he stands up in his chair and requests “Lucy in the Sky” it does warm the retro cockles of my heart.
If you stand in a certain spot in the second room of the MoMA’s gorgeous and serious new exhibition Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity (opening November 8) you can see Marcel Breuer becoming modern. On axis with the entrance is his “Romantic” or “African” chair (1921) whose arcing back was woven with silk and hemp and wool by Gunta Stotzl (that’s one of her sketches above), eventual head of the weaving workshop. It seems to have more to do with folk art than modernity, but around the corner you see him transforming the crudeness of the first attempt into something more suave: the TI 1a armchair (1922), with a more refined woven wool seat, and slim legs and bent arms that slide past each other in unusual ways. Across the room, his children’s chairs and table (1923), the first with a flat board back similar to Gerrit Rietveld’s 1917 Red Blue chair, the second the original of the cubic Parsons tables made ordinary by repetition and knock-offs. All this is before 1926. His real breakthrough, the cantilever chair of bicycle tubing, is still hidden beyond another wall, sequestered with other well-known works of architecture and furniture by Breuer and Walter Gropius and Josef Albers.
That putting off of the stars, denying us the best-known objects and sticking to chronology, is a strength for this exhibit. Its underlying intent is to remind us that the Bauhaus was a school. Student work and masterpieces of modern textile art, painting, craft and industrial design are presented as part of the total package. Mies van der Rohe barely shows up until the last room, and we see his students imitating his style, but none of his own drawings. Curator Barry Bergdoll says this was an obvious choice: Mies kept his architectural commissions separate from his teaching, and the show is about the school. This has the lovely effect of reducing the well-known names to beloved profs, allowing us to better observe the hidden talents of the wider Bauhaus pool. One of my favorite cases is at the back of the last room, stocked with samples of Bauhaus upholstery fabrics by Anni Albers and Gunta Stotzl, Bauhaus wallpapers (abstract as can be) by Heinrich-Siegfried Bormann. Thewallpapers were apparently the most successful Bauhaus products. One of the cleverest textiles is practically digital, a 1932 fabric by Hajo Rose whose original sketch was typed on a typewriter, letterforms turning into repetitive and almost floral scallops.
You should go. And you should especially go on one of the days when MoMA is offering hands-on workshops. Pretend to be a first-year in Johannes Itten’s class. Learn color the Albers way. Something different is happening at MoMA when they embrace a little of the Etsy spirit.
Modernism and organization go together in more than just the corporate world (see Rearranging the Deck Chairs below, on Mad Men). As postwar architects and designers worked to elevate ordinary, well-designed products to the status of museum-quality objects, their best friend was the category. A whole wall of industrial components looks much better than a single example. A table full of simple, solid-color china is sculpture, not dinner. The Good Design shows at the Museum of Modern Art, currently remembered in an exhibit on the museum’s third floor, were exemplars of this approach, and the museum asked the best industrial designers in America to design the shows as well as show their designs.
On a recent trip to MoMA, it was two other exhibits that made me think harder about the power of categories, and to wonder where the museum is going now that capital-M Modern is old hat. The first was the wonderful Waste Not (2005) by Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong, an installation of the wooden frame and contents of his mother’s modest house, a 50-year accumulation of stuff by a woman accustomed to rationing. A pile of this stuff (much of it what we might consider recyclables, if not trash) would be horrifying, but the artist and his mother have sorted it by material, color, function, so that each section tells a story about color or design or accumulation over time. There are glossy paper shopping bags that take up half the floor of the small house, and an icy display of styrofoam packing pieces. There are bowls of all materials and colors, and an islet of shoes. It is art because it is organized, though few objects would individually make it into the design collection.
Meanwhile, up on the 6th floor, the work of British industrial designer Ron Arad has been given a completely disorganized showcase called No Discipline. One of the high-ceilinged special exhibition galleries is now a sort of mirrored discotheque for chairs. I wrote a story about Arad for the New York Times years ago, and found him articulate and thoughful, but I hated his work then and even more so now. His approach to material experimentation is well within the modern tradition, appropriating car seats, carving Corian in new ways, making the club chair tough enough, but he doesn’t care about beauty or simplicity. Part of the MoMA’s original concept of modernism was selection, paring away the awkward and the ungainly, seeing the purest iteration in whatever art form. Arad’s discipline seems to be the opposite of that, but he’s the one selling chairs at sculpture-level prices, while Song Dong’s art is all in the arrangement.