Thoroughly Modern Micky

Further on, "Design for Industry" documents the mass production of avant-garde creations by Bauhaus affiliates and others, while "Traditions Transformed" shows how less radical creations for the home helped to acclimate the public to the age of modernism.

While "Celebrating Modernity" is certainly the sexiest part of this exhibition, "Manipulating Modernity: Political Persuasion" has a darker fascination, detailing forms of political propaganda from the Thirties through the end of World War II. In the first gallery, "Evoking the Past" includes objects that extol traditional nationalist aesthetics: a Home of Hitler Youth plaque in the shape of an eagle; a painting of two nudes, representing the German ideal of beauty; a National Rifle Association poster ("NRA Member. U.S. We Do Our Part").

Along with Nazi memorabilia and Fascist art, posters and prints make up much of this last part of the exhibition and attest to the outstanding international graphic design of this period. For example, there's the cover of an exhibition catalogue celebrating the anniversary of the Fascists' rise to power in Italy, plus posters promoting WPA programs in the U.S. and the Russian lottery. Additionally, you can see Ben Shahn's unnerving 1942 poster -- in bold letters it proclaims "This is Nazi brutality," while showing a man in shackles with a hood placed over his head.

A gallery representing "Social Commentary" includes a Norman Rockwell print of a sleeping child (it bears the legend, "OURS . . . to Fight For, FREEDOM FROM FEAR"), Hitler and Mussolini puppets, and a chilling book of prints that depict the story of Alabama's Scottsboro Boys, black youths unfairly executed for a rape they did not commit.

Some members of the general public might be more taken with the historical aspects of "Designing Modernity" than with its decorative arts elements. Acknowledging this, the Wolfsonian has set up a self-tour system, with a device called an Acoustiguide, which looks something like a portable phone. The visitor punches in the numbers found next to a selected piece and hears details about its provenance, as well as additional data about relevant design movements and their social and political context, all of it explained by anonymous male and female voices.

While the Acoustiguide is informative, it somehow seems inadequate. This exhibition is about the stories that objects tell, and academic descriptions fail to bring those stories to life. This relentlessly personal collection begs for viewers to be able to hear the anecdotes behind the acquisition of its individual pieces, to be able to tap into the Acoustiguide and listen to Micky Wolfson delightedly describe his forays into dusty Italian bookstores, German antique shops, and Dutch homes to capture his prey. To be privy to the the hunt would add to the vicarious thrills offered by "Designing Modernity," a fascinating tale of modern times.

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