Objects That Reflect an Era's Aesthetic

From video cameras to vintage automobiles, a Paris exhibition showcases mass-marketed products with elan

IT used to be that one entered grand museums by treading up worn marble steps and under towering stone or bronze statues of mythic heroes and heroines. But now at Paris's Grand Palais one enters the grandiose Belle Epoque exposition building off the Champs Elysees through two sleek silver airport gangways and under a row of late-model Renault minicars that cling to the side of a giant billboard like exotic bugs.

The idea is to get the visitor in the mood for "Design: Mirror of a Century," a huge multimedia exposition that treats the role and evolution of design in the emergence of a consumer society defined by mass-produced objects.

The exposition displays 1,600 objects - including an 1836 Colt revolver, an 1851 Singer sewing machine, a turn-of-the-century Gillette razor with interchangeable blades, the first bulky televisions, and today's miniature Walkmans and functional work stations. By following a particular object over the century - a phonograph, a chair, or a car, for example - the visitor sees the evolving synthesis of commercial production, efficiency, and aesthetics.

"Design implies that priority must be given to function," the visitor reads from a postwar Braun products catalog that could also serve as a subtitle to the Grand Palais exposition. "The beauty of a Braun product," the catalog continues, "must result from the perfect adaptation of form to the [object's] use."

The exposition gives a measure of contemporary interest to objects that have molded modern-day living. The masses who file along the chronologically grouped objects range from industrial-art students to old couples and families with kids in tow. They spend much of their time gawking at how funny, clumsy, or slow things used to be, or relating the objects on display to their own lives.

"Oh look at that. Remember when we foisted a chair just like that onto Antoine when he went to college?" says one woman to her husband as she points out a hideous, velour-and-plastic inflatable armchair. It's the kind of comment one also hears at yard sales and flea markets (which are design retrospectives in their own right, only here the objects have a card giving the date and place of origin instead of a price tag).

Yet the design show, produced jointly by the Ministry of Culture and the French Agency for the Promotion of Industrial Creation, is meant to be more than a mere display. It is also an incentive for visitors to place the objects of everyday living in their historical, social, and economic contexts, and to reflect on what tomorrow's objects may look like, and why.

To facilitate this process, the exposition is arranged into several timelines: One offers relevant historical facts (1850, first oil wells drilled in Pennsylvania; 1950, world population reaches 2.5 billion), while another marks significant inventions (1890, the zipper; 1959, the integrated circuit).

Then come three rows of objects divided into small wares, appliances and furniture, and vehicles. Along one side of these rows are large photographs that illustrate certain periods of history, including sweatshop labor, auto assembly lines, or rock-and-roll dancing.

Along the other side are individual audio-visual presentations documenting influences and principal players of a particular era. (France's renowned architect Le Corbusier appears between the two world wars, and Milan's Memphis design movement is highlighted in the early 1980s.)

One of the lessons of the show is that design has long been, and continues to be, an affair of competing nations, with the most emblematic objects of a period tending to come from the period's industrial leaders.

Thus Victorian England, referred to in the exposition as "the world's workshop," was a center of "futuristic" design in the 1890s, rivaled by Germany's determination to make inroads into Britain's export markets.

ENGLAND'S leadership role gradually shifted to the United States until after World War II, when American cars sprouted glorious but unexportable fins, and companies developed giant appliances and other symbols of ostentation that few other countries cared about.

At that point Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, largely spared the destruction of World War II, responded to the demands of blooming European consumerism by developing their own design niche. As the exposition points out, design itself became an "export staple" for these Scandinavian countries in the '50s and '60s. Italian design followed, rivaled more recently by the industrial prowess of the Japanese.

Walking chronologically along any of the timelines, one does get a sense of progress, but also a certain uneasiness upon arriving at the present. Compared to the adventurous objects of the Pop Art era, today's products, miniaturized and increasingly standardized, appear to be uniformly black or neutral in color.

One is tempted to wonder if the evolution of design hasn't come full circle from the days of the Model T, when Henry Ford promised every American consumer a car in the color of his choice - as long as that choice was black. It's no wonder one of the show's biggest draws is the 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz, a heliotrope honey whose attraction lies in the certainty that such a behemoth will never be produced again.

Despite the black video cameras, black televisions, and neutrally colored computers, the show manages to end on an encouraging note of color. It is sounded by a display of prize-winning projects by young designers, including a green - what else? - plastic compost silo. Then there's the vivid neon of a functioning 1950s McDonald's restaurant, the riot of colors from an exhaustive Swatch display, and that rainbow of Renaults attached to the Grand Palais' facade.

* The exhibition closes July 25.

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