Making everyday items objects of desire

After World War II, not only babies boomed. Demand for housing and furniture blasted off. Factories, already geared up for mass production and enhanced by new technology developed during the war, turned to peacetime products.

In "A Century of Design, Part III: 1950-1975," more than 50 of these objects are on display through May 27 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The show spotlights furniture, glassware, textiles, and ceramics designed to offer G.I. Joe and Rosie the Riveter a higher quality of life. They illustrate a statement by Harry Bertoia (designer of the 1952 steel-wire "Diamond Chair"): "The urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living. The assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things."

The exhibition is the third in the museum's series of small but choice shows documenting the evolution of 20th-century design. (The final segment, starting with the postmodern about-face of the late '70s, opens May 1.) The objects come from the museum's permanent collection, which, however copious, still doesn't offer a comprehensive survey. It does showcase some highlights and outline how design combines human need, technology, and art in response to cultural and economic currents.

The main idea informing postwar design was adapting the philosophy and shapes of prewar modernism - new forms for a new age - to assembly-line methods. The goal was good design for the masses. A sense of optimism and less conservative tastes, a reversal of the usual homage to historical models, offered a fertile field for innovation.

This organic modernism softened the right angles of prewar Bauhaus four-square minimalism. Russel Wright's porcelain coffee service of 1964 is sleek, white, and stark but hardly austere. A cream pitcher flares like a lily at its lip. Eero Saarinen's biomorphic "Tulip Chair" (1956), with its molded plastic seat and aluminum base, aesthetically exploits new materials in a high-quality but inexpensive design. "Ornament" was "crime" in the famous polemic of arch-modernist architect Adolph Loos. But these two stripped-down designs show how ornament can be built in through choice of color, materials, and detailing.

Ever since the 1930s, modern design had been synonymous with Scandinavian decor. (The Beatles knew it when they sang, "Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?") Northern European designers used natural materials and replaced the Bauhaus's plain-Jane geometry with flowing lines catering to the human physique. Arne Jacobsen's "Egg Armchair" (1957), a modern icon shaped like a baseball glove, cups the body in comfort.

With minimalism all the rage, it was no surprise that Asian aesthetics influenced Western designers. Hans Wegner's "Danish Chair" (1952) had a yokelike backrest of walnut that resembles a portal to a Shinto shrine. The artist-designer Isamu Noguchi produced hanging paper lamps like his "Akari 'E' Lamp" (1966), simple as a haiku compared with most chandeliers. Its soft misty illumination is like a jar of fireflies.

Reacting against modernism's machine aesthetic, the Studio Craft Movement arose in the 1960s. Artisans like Wharton Esherick produced hand-crafted, refined, functional objects that seized the standing of fine art. His cherry "Music Stand" (1962) has the grace and fluidity of a Mozart sonata. In ceramics, Toshiko Takaezu's glazed porcelain vessels are one-of-a-kind art works.

Not to be outdone, Italian designers loudly declared, "Avanti!" They self-consciously linked Italy's postwar economic recovery to dominance in design. In an outpouring of forward-looking efforts, they dumped historical styles for new technologies and materials. Gio Ponte's classic "Superleggera" (Super-light) side chair (1955) made of ash with a rush bottom has legs and struts as spindly as toothpicks. It's simple, no-nonsense, and it sold like crazy.

High-tech design crashed the party with a futuristic bang in the late '60s. Joe Colombo's "Tube" chair (1969) linked four hollow plastic cylinders to form a recliner. It looked like a lineup of giant hair rollers and showed how far design departed from historical precedent. Richard Sapper's "Tizio" table lamp, with its cantilevered arm, resembled a construction crane.

A playful strain entered the scene in the '60s, a time when plastic was king - along with Pop Art, dizzying Op Art, and psychedelic supergraphics. Verner Panton's "Stacking Side Chair" (designed 1960, manufactured by Herman Miller c. 1973) was made of injection-molded plastic. The chair, which sold for $75, consisted of a single material fashioned into a single form.

The "Djinn" Chaise Longue (designed in 1965 by Olivier Mourgue), with its wave-like, low-slung silhouette, showed the casual ethos of the period, when lounging about - Austin Powers style - was preferable to upright striving.

Postwar design made the case that good design was affordable and accessible. Through color, form, materials, and method of construction, it conveyed a populist message: Original ideas, and new applications of material and technology can improve the standard of living. This democratization of design was a progressive time when fear of the new took a back seat to the lure of the new.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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