With Designing Modernity, the Wolfsonian museum's much-anticipated inaugural exhibition, Mitchell (Micky) Wolfson, Jr., finally reveals his infamous private obsession to the public. Wolfson's massive assemblage of furniture, household appliances, books, architectural maquettes, prints, paintings, objets d'art, and ephemera tells the story of modernism through "The Arts of Reform and Persuasion" (the show's subtitle), illustrating how diplomacy is advanced through the genius of design.
Private collections bear the mark of their creators, and Wolfson has compiled his with an educated taste and a wily eye. Unapologetically idiosyncratic -- perhaps even fetishistic -- aesthetically exemplary, and historically intriguing, his choice of acquisitions goes beyond mere status buying and museological standards.
There are fantastically mundane discoveries on display: a "Slidem-Solitaire Puzzle" with a wartime motif; a futuristic 1939 World's Fair postcard; a Hitler pincushion, which its U.S. manufacturer dubbed the "Hotzi Notzi"; and Dutch postage stamps. Also included are pieces by many important designers and artists in the history of the decorative arts, some of whose names will be recognizable to the general public -- William Morris, El Lissitzky, Paul Frankl, Isamu Noguchi, Marcel Duchamp, and various members of the Bauhaus school, to name only a few, with a particular concentration on Italians. In most cases, Wolfson has acquired uncharacteristic or rare examples of their work, including a lightweight leg splint designed by Charles Eames, Jr., for the U.S. Navy, Noguchi's Bakelite shortwave radio transmitter in the shape of a nurse's head (for use as an intercom in a child's room), and Duchamp's spinning spiral lithographs, which the artist called Rotoreliefs (optical discs).
Headed by Wendy Kaplan, the Wolfsonian's curatorial staff has rummaged through the museum's 70,000 holdings -- as well as borrowed some items from other private and public collections -- to present an uncluttered but far-reaching visual and social history of Western industrial design that effectively demonstrates how political and societal change is promoted and perceived through everyday objects, patriotic posters and memorabilia, typography and book design, and, to a lesser extent here, fine art.
Through these objects, the exhibition follows the evolution of style, politics, and public opinion from the dawn of the modern machine age and mass production at the turn of the century to the end of World War II. It stops squarely on the threshold of the electronic age, when the media presented new forms of mass communication that advanced consumer culture and the cult of personality beyond what could previously have been imagined.
At the show's press preview, Micky Wolfson provocatively announced that perhaps he should have extended the scope of his collection beyond 1945 to encompass the Cold War period, ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The mind reels at the possibility. As it is, "Designing Modernity" -- which represents just a small fraction of the museum's existing collection -- is divided into three main sections: "Confronting Modernity," "Celebrating Modernity," and "Manipulating Modernity: Political Persuasion," each of which has been subdivided into several groupings, and all of which have been displayed in separate galleries on the Wolfsonian's fifth floor.
Visitors exit an elevator and enter a display of furniture, decorative household objects, and textiles in a carpeted room, a touch that enhances those items' intimate nature. Dating from Britain's late-nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement, this first part of the exhibition demonstrates how artisans resisted the onset of industrialized production by continuing to produce organic, handmade items: an ornamental box made to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, artfully adorned with symbols of the Crown; the book The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse, with watercolor illustrations by Violet Oakley, created to accompany a mural commissioned for the Alumnae House at Vassar College in 1924; an oak and copper Stickley clock; a Dutch chair with an exotic arrangement of five legs.
This section continues with a gallery devoted to romantic nationalism, which incorporated folk traditions into new, mass-produced designs: a sideboard with a centerpiece shaped like a plow; an intricate tapestry -- The Daughters of the Northern Lights -- designed by the well-known Norwegian painter Gerhard Munthe, replete with national symbols; a Sicilian tea cart modeled on the region's colorful wooden pony carts; a portfolio by Frank Lloyd Wright. The latter part of "Confronting Modernity" exhibits examples of a forward-thinking aesthetic, including a futurist book bound together with bolts; Marinetti's onomatopoeic war epic Zang Tumb Tuuum; and Swiss designer Camillo Cerri's chunky wooden desk, which, with its irregular angles and one high side, resembles a mountain range.
From there the show moves on to "Celebrating Modernity" and the streamlined designs of the 1930s, which embodied the new age of transatlantic travel. (Accordingly, the museum's carpet has been removed here, exposing shiny gray terrazzo-style floors, which connote a slicker ambiance.) An exceptional piece here is futurist sculptor Renato Bertelli's Profilo Continuo del Duce, (Continuous Profile of Mussolini, a 360-degree abstract representation of the Italian leader's profile, an all-seeing Mussolini with a bionic presence.
Other items celebrate speed: the painting 6th Ave. El, by the American artist Peter Berent; a chrome-plate steel pitcher shaped like the bow of a ship; and a children's toy model of the dirigible Graf Zeppelin, which hangs from the ceiling. Elsewhere the thrusting modern shape of the skyscraper is depicted in posters, paintings, and photographs, while Paul Frankl has adapted it for a bookcase, and it has also been used for an adults' game and a stainless-steel scale. Here, too, is a stainless-steel model for a futuristic theme center at the 1939 New York World's Fair, as well as a freestanding, spherical, midnight-blue glass radio, The Nocturne, which conjures the swing sound of the jazz age.
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.
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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.