Exhibit 'aluminates' exotic uses of a ubiquitous 20th-century material

It's the stuff of beverage cans and lawn chairs, kitschy flea-market finds and tear-off kitchen wrap. Not to mention planes, trains, and automobiles.

Though most of us use it every day, we never think twice about aluminum's role in revolutionizing 20th-century transportation, construction, packaging, and even furnishings and clothing. We're even less likely to regard it as a means of artistic expression.

But a new exhibition organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, "Aluminum By Design: Jewelry to Jets," examines how this metal has transformed our lives since its introduction 150 years ago.

"There are basically two new materials in the 20th century - although both had origins in the 19th: plastic and aluminum. And no one had really looked at aluminum," says Sarah Nichols, the museum's chief curator and curator of decorative arts.

It's fitting that the first comprehensive survey of aluminum's impact debuts in Pittsburgh, which played a major role in developing uses for it. The nation's first aluminum company, the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., formed here in 1888; it later became the Aluminum Company of America, and finally Alcoa - which, not coincidentally, is the exhibit's major sponsor.

"Aluminum by Design" surveys the material from its earliest incarnation as a precious metal used in jewelry and "fantasy objects" (at $272 per pound, it once was more prized than gold), to its Industrial Age identification with sleek, modern, servant-free and upwardly mobile lifestyles and aerodynamic, high-speed travel (from Airstream auto trailers to Boeing jets). Finally it became a product so ubiquitous that it seemingly had no novelty value left (an erroneous assumption, as this display shows).

"For the last 150 years, aluminum has ... [embodied] the cultural and design aspirations of the moment," the exhibition text explains. Those aspirations are elegantly conveyed in four sections: "Inventing Aluminum," "The Modernist Ideal," "Conflict and Competition," and "Crossing Boundaries."

Aluminum exists in nature as alumina, the major component in clay. To be useable, it must be extracted, and was first done so - in impure, rudimentary form - around 1825 in France. In 1853, a French chemist devised a way to extract mostly pure aluminum. But it didn't become a commercially viable substance until 1886, when Ohioan Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Heroult simultaneously discovered how to extract pure aluminum using newly available electricity.

Initially, it was made into objects such as an 1856 royal baby rattle and an ornate fan with hand-painted silk and paper panels. Napoleon applied it to military hardware.

Unfortunately, some dreamers got ahead of technology and were unable to achieve their goals. But as research and development "caught up to their flights of fancy," Nichols says, designers got creative. An accompanying book explains that aluminum's unique properties demanded the invention of new uses.

Its light weight, malleability, declining cost (current price: about 77 cents per pound), corrosion resistance, recyclability, and heat- and electricity-conducting capabilities, inspired uses as varied as vacuum cleaners and building facades.

One of the exhibit's most arresting displays is the reproduction of Otto Wagner's 1902 facade for Austria's Die Zeit newspaper building. His art-deco styling is described as "a bold departure from traditional Viennese architecture."

The show's truly stunning piece is a chaise made from beverage cans. Clare Graham's "Carpet of Printed Can Labels and Serpentine Chaise Longue," created entirely with reused cans, conveys a quilter's attention to pattern and detail.

Chairs, ice buckets, bikinis, cars … all are dramatically represented, which leaves viewers contemplating not only the marvels of human ingenuity, but the enormous difference one new kind of metal can make.

'Aluminum by Design' runs through Feb. 11 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and then travels to New York, Miami, and London. For more information, log on to www.cmoa.org.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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