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by Stanley Abercrombie
|From this summer through the first week of 2001, the Metropolitan Museum is reliving the optimism, energy and sheer silliness that ruled design in the years just before World War II came along and sobered everyone up. Despite the Depression and Prohibition, it was an era that epitomized jazz and streamlining, the biggest artifacts of all being the Chrysler Building and the Empire State.
The 175-piece exhibition is called "American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age," and after its tenure at the Met it travels to several venues under the banner of the American Federation of Arts, which helped plan the show. It is composed of holdings from the Met's own holdings combined with pieces from the John C. Waddell Collection, a recently promised gift to the museum. The curator is J. Stewart Johnson, consultant for design and architecture in the Met's modern department.
Here is Walter Dorwin Teague's Bluebird radio of 1934, a brazenly unfunctional 15-inch circle of bright blue mirror glass, and Paul Frankl's Skyscaper desk and bookcase of about 1927, rising in stepped-back levels of drawers and shelves. The skyscraper form appears again in a 1928 silvered brass table lamp by Walter von Nessen. Here, too, are Henry Dreyfuss's 1938 china and stationery for the 20th Century Limited and Donald Deskey's 1932 Singing Women carpet design for the Radio City Music Hall. There are salt and pepper shakers by Charles Sheeler, Russel Wright and William Lescaze. And Gilbert Rohde clocks, Edwin Fuerst crystal, George Sakier glass vases, textiles by Edward Steichen, and John Held, Jr. and an Electrolux vacuum cleaner by Lurelle Guild.
It is all brash, inventive and (one hopes) designed in a spirit of fun. What's almost completely missing -- only hinted at in a Rohde desk lamp and some strictly geometric nickel silver bowls by Ilonka Karasz -- is the parallel universe dominated by the Bauhaus in those same years. For this we have only to step into the next gallery where "A Century of Design, Part II: 1925-1950" is on view until Oct. 29.
Also curated by Johnson, the show presents the European counterpart to the American scene. European design is not limited to Bauhaus rigor, of course, but includes its own share of Art Deco, represented by Ruhlmann, Dunand, Lalique and others. But the stars of this smaller 50-piece exhibition are those we now accept as the giant figures of the time -- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto.
If their work is less titillating than the Bluebird radio, one reason may be that they were not trying so hard to entertain. Another reason certainly is that the work by which they are represented here -- Mies's MR chair, Breuer's Wassily chair and Aalto's 39 chaise -- are all familiar icons. No surprises there. But it helps balance our judgment to be reminded of these accomplishments, and it may give us comfort to have long-accepted evaluations confirmed.
"American Modern" is the wild blast; "A Century of Design" is the rational corrective. Like a big night on the town and a cure for the next morning's hangover, they go well together.
STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.