Design and the Modern World

By Rogers, James G., Jr. | Art Journal, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Design and the Modern World


Rogers, James G., Jr., Art Journal


Wendy Kaplan, ed. Designing Modernity: The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945, exh. cat. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995. 352 pp.; 412 color and b/w ills. $60.00; $28.00 paper Exhibition schedule: Wolfsonian Museum, Miami Beach, Florida, November 11, 1995-May 12, 1996; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, July 21-September 22, 1996; Seattle Art Museum, October 24, 1996-January 12, 1997; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, February 22-May 18, 1997; Indianapolis Museum of Art, November 15, 1997-February 1, 1998; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, March 14-May 31, 1998 Two blocks from South Beach-set amid the pastel facades of deco apartments, boutiques, diners, and cabarets erected in the building boom that followed the devastating 1927 hurricane-- is the pleasant, Spanish Mission-style mass of the seven-story Wolfsonian. This hurricane survivor, built in 1927-before the storm-as the Washington Storage Company, still dominates the 1000 block of Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. Once famous as the place where snow birds cached their furs, cars, and other valuables off-season, it is now the newest addition to Miami's cultural life.

Over the last several years, two stories of very attractive gallery space have been added and the building's lower floors have been completely refurbished into state-of-the-art curatorial, archival, and library facilities. The transformation, now nearly complete, has produced a remarkable research institution for the decorative arts. Here, in the beautifully redesigned warehouse and in a nearby annex, is a portion of the vast collection of decorative arts, architectural elements, furniture, and works on paper (including posters) that have been loaned to the Wolfsonian from its primary benefactor, Mitchell Wolfson, the legendary collector who is scion of a prominent South Florida family.1 The collection of more than 70,000 objects housed here and in Genoa,2 and still being catalogued, focuses on modern decorative arts from the period 1885 to 1945, especially those that are didactic in nature. Wolfson, who sometimes made his collecting expeditions traveling on board several flawlessly restored private train cars (until Hurricane Andrew destroyed them), is the founding father of the institution and has provided it with substantial funding as well as his unique energy and vision.

Though decorative arts have gained increasing respect during the last decade, the Wolfsonian's collection has been the subject of critical debate. Until recently, of course, design itself occupied a lowly place in the hierarchies of museum thinking. The ephemera and incunabula at the heart of the Wolfsonian collection have been considered peripheral at many other institutions. While this collection is a monument to one man's distinctly individual collecting passions and to his interest in materials from totalitarian regimes that have remained underexamined, largely because of their political associations, it is also a collection of strange and remarkable things that are touchstones of our collective past. As a child might assess a parent's childhood from the contents of a grandparent's attic, so the Wolfsonian serves as an ersatz attic of the modern movement, from which there is much to be discovered. Designing Modernity: The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945, the Wolfsonian's ambitious inaugural survey, marks the public unveiling of the collection, from which the material for the show is drawn. The exhibition of some 260 objects-including furniture, posters, appliances, medallions, drawings, lighting fixtures, ceramics, glass, toys, and flags-- seeks to "examine design at the height of the industrial age in the context of social, technological, and aesthetic issues."3

One theme explored by the curators and scholars who contributed essays to the catalogue and acted as consultants to the exhibition concerns the ways in which art, both fine and applied, has been used to rationalize the new, modern, urban, industrial world to the public.

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