Long before it was considered cool to create home decor from cast-off industrial products, design alchemists Josef and Anni Albers elevated the simplest materials to high status.
Glass, steel, wood, silk, and wool in their hands became pared-down chairs or textured wall hangings. And this was in the early 20th century - decades before home-design stores like IKEA, Crate & Barrel, and Pottery Barn promised homeowners a completely designed environment.
The couple met in 1922 as students at Germany's now-famous Bauhaus school. Their teachers included artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Almost everything today's designers take for granted originated at the Bauhaus, including graphics used in advertising, stylish mass-produced furnishings, the International Style of architecture, even the modern kitchen layout. The Alberses, who imbibed the heady atmosphere of experimentation at the Bauhaus, are considered pioneers of modern design.
An exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum sets Josef's furnishings off against Anni's textiles, creating a conversation between them.
"Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living" is the first show to link the two artists at an especially formative period in their lives. "It takes Josef's glass constructions and Anni's wall hangings of the same years and juxtaposes them," says Nicholas Fox Weber, an exhibition curator and head of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. "This is the most significant link in their work, and no one has ever put these works side by side" in this format.
Many of the works on display date from the Alberses' Bauhaus years, spanning roughly the early 1920s to 1933, when they immigrated to the United States. Josef's brightly colored, glass-topped stacking tables would make a hip addition to a living room today, as would his fruit bowl of glass, metal, and ebony, both of which are being reproduced today.
It was said that Anni approached textiles almost like a sculptor.
She was of the opinion that "the thread should speak for itself, that somehow the hand of the artist, the hand of the craftsperson, the hand of the weaver wasn't going to interfere with how the thread wanted to be seen," says Matilda McQuaid, a Cooper-Hewitt curator. So significant were Anni's contributions that in 1949 she became the first woman textile artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Interestingly, Anni had not wanted to take up weaving. As progressive as the Bauhaus was, its directors still had limited ideas of what women could do. But once herded into the textile workshop, Anni eventually took the process to new heights. She was known for experimenting with the new materials - combining more traditional linen and cotton with metallic and plastic fibers.
"She is really the mother of contemporary fine art textiles," says Susan Sklarek at the Rhode Island School of Design. "Even though we're in the next century, [her work] is still very new, very contemporary, and inspiring. I show her fabrics to my students."
Both Anni and Josef strongly identified with the idea that you could make something out of nothing, and were occasionally forced to start from scratch themselves, including the time when they moved to the US after the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis (Josef was Christian; Anni was of Jewish descent).
While the exhibition focuses on Josef's designs for everyday objects, he is best known for his paintings - including the "Homage to the Square" series. Mr. Weber says Josef's attraction to color probably grew out of his childhood in a gray coal town. As a boy, he was inspired by light through stained glass windows in church. The artist went on to develop an approach - explaining how a color changes depending upon the colors that surround it - that still influences the teaching of color theory today. In 1971, Josef was the first living American painter ever to have a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum.
"These two people lived design," says Sigrid Weltge, an emeritus professor specializing in the history of art and design at Philadelphia University. "It was a very rich life that included everything."