A charming international exhibition, "Designed for Delight," is enlightening viewers about decorative art at The J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.
The exhibition, which originated at the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts, refutes the modernist presumption that in the 20th century, "form follows function" and "ornament is a crime."
Looking at 20th-century design from an end-of-the-century perspective, the Montreal curators reveled in the contradictions among all those artists who designed furniture, jewelry, and other household artifacts to delightful effect.
The flagrant rejection by some bold designers of modernist ideas of strict simplicity led to surprising, amusing, and evocative works of usable art that demonstrate the impulse to make beautiful what is useful.
Plenty of visual "jokes" in the exhibition bring out the playfulness in both the artists and the curators.
A human-size green cactus is really a coat rack; a realistic looking rock is a stool (though a dreadfully uncomfortable looking one); and a Mummy Bag is a garment bag designed by pop artist Red Grooms. Some of the visual jokes seem pointedly sardonic - a table in the form of a large hand with human-looking feet complements a chair in the same form by Italian artist Pedro Friedeberg, both designed for a certain egregious devil named Baphomet.
There are many teapots and vases that could not perform their functions very well - such as the teapot shaped like a human heart with "steel" plates riveted into it, a visual pun about "steeling one's heart."
The display also includes objects whose relationship to function is perfunctory at best. Renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly's "Cadmium Yellow Seaform Set" is a glorious object that looks more like a mysterious sea creature than a bowl.
"I've always thought of glass as very fluid," says the Speed's assistant curator Kim Spence, "but when it is cooled it is very rigid. Yet the form [of Chihuly's object] retains the fluidity of hot glass.
"It has an almost container-like shape - and yet it isn't a container. It loses its function after all - its function is only to be beautiful."
In this show, the lines between high art and craft blur. "In the early 20th century, people were asking the question 'what is art?' " Ms. Spence says. "Artists like [Marcel] Duchamp [answered] that just by putting an object on display, or in a museum context, it becomes art." Picasso decorates and signs a vase and its purpose is transformed. "But the objects in this show also have the original thought and creativity behind them that make them art objects," she says.
Showcased are objects from around the world, from the early 1900s to the late 1980s. The display is organized on four main themes: "Body Language," "Inversion and Transformation," "Is Ornament a Crime?" and "Flights of Fantasy" - with individual styles ranging from Art Nouveau to Pop Art.
Perhaps the most exciting pieces are those that defy conventional expectations. There's a vase that looks like a spinning top, necklaces made of wire mesh, a chaise lougue made of cardboard, and a stool on a spring. "The artist [Shira Kuramata] envisioned the stools in a diner with the patrons bouncing up and down while they are eating," Spence says.
Part of the fun in this exhibition is knowing that these objects have influenced the design of many items available for sale at museum stores and department stores.
The exhibition makes the viewer more aware of art and design as part of one's daily environment.
All it takes is a little artful looking.
*The exhibition is at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., through May 23. It then travels to Chiostro del Bramante in Rome, Sept. 2 0 to Nov. 25; Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, December 1999 to March 2000; Fundacin Pedro Barri dela Maza A Corua, Spain, April to May 2000; and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, November 2000 to January 2001.