Light and strong, aluminum historically has been considered one heavy metal. Abundant but lodged in the Earth's crust and virtually unreachable, the element had to be isolated before it could be removed. This occurred around 1845, and the metal finally showed its shiny, exotic face at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. Thirty-one years later, electrolytic extraction made for large-scale aluminum removal and subsequent use of the substance in a variety of portable, decorative, and military objects. By the Twenties industrial designers adopted the metal, and it invaded the home in the form of streamlined toasters, chairs, vacuum cleaners, and more. Between the world wars the corrosion-resistant metal became more widespread, utilized in trains, trailers, zeppelins, and airplanes.
While actual aircraft aren't on display at the Wolfsonian-FIU's current exhibition, "Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets," almost every other item -- 180 in all -- made from aluminum can be seen. Organized by Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art and curated by Sarah Nichols, the show highlights the varied history of aluminum through objects, many of them derived from the Wolfsonian's collection. Among the older pieces: American designer George Blickensderfer's Featherweight Blick typewriter from 1894; folding binoculars in their original case manufactured in 1900 by Aitchison & Co. in Britain; and the aeronautical-inspired Sears, Roebuck Imperial Kenmore vacuum cleaner from 1930.
The postwar push to adopt the futuristic metal gave rise to cockamamie contraptions such as Charles and Ray Eames's solar do-nothing machine, which twirled and whirled lazily like a mobile under the bright sunlight, but also led to important achievements, namely the making of prefabricated panels for economical housing and framework for tall buildings. By midcentury aluminum became good enough to eat and drink from, and brightly hued cups, pitchers, and plates dubbed Colorama emerged. The political awareness of the Swinging Sixties was tempered by the superficial fun of European fashion designers like Paco Rabanne, who created flashy dresses out of the gleaming material. Contemporary uses of the infinitely recyclable metal range from tennis rackets to fashion accessories to curvy chairs to a full-size frame for an Audi A8 4.2 Quattro automobile.
Perhaps the most striking example of aluminum's 150-year evolution from precious substance to common stuff can be seen not inside the museum but outside in the Bridge Tender's House, where artist Antoni Miralda created an installation he calls "Home Tender Home." Miralda used 7780 aluminum soda cans to fashion a room boasting a table, chairs, and, of course, a television in the hexagonal stainless-steel structure, which resembles a can itself. The result: an atmosphere as light as the metal that makes it.