"U.S. Design 1975-2000," Feb. 23-May 26, 2002, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Colo. 80204.
Denver, though the nation's 19th-largest city and set amidst the snow-capped Rockies, may seem an unlikely spot for a major museum show dedicated to cutting-edge architecture, design and graphics. On the other hand, the Denver Art Museum boasts the only public building by Italian architect Gio Ponti in the western hemisphere. Plus, the 103-year-old museum has a design department headed by Craig R. Miller, a Metropolitan Museum of Art veteran, who five years ago conceived the DAM's latest show, "US Design 1975-2000."
"It's fitting to examine how America returned as a leader in 20th-century design and the impact of the computer," says Miller, who believes design is the most democratic art because of its accessibility to the general public. To that end, he and his team examined close to 10,000 objects by three generations of designers. But rather than the typical chronological configuration, Miller explores with analytical precision the major stylistic movements in the last quarter of the 20th century. Some 250 objects by 140 designers, including superstars like Frank Gehry and Michael Graves, are assembled into four thoughtful but provocative groupings.
"The social changes and ferment of the 1960s and '70s, coupled with the energy crisis and an economic slump, played a part in fragmenting design arts in this country," says Miller. All too often, the decorative and industrial arts were in the shadow of architecture.
And the exhibition's first section, "Inventing Traditions," strongly illustrates the way that architects are approaching the design of furnishings while reacting against the minimal lines of Modernism. They mine the past for motifs, and who cannot but giggle at Robert Venturi's irreverent and cartoonlike Louis XIV table, its decoration a swirl of two-dimensional color? It's the design world's cheeky answer to Pop Art.
Even a model of the architect's 1985 Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London with its towering Corinthian columns makes an appearance, revealing an allegiance to the classical world. Then the furniture of Michael Graves, who today is a virtual household name with his designs for superstore Target, is the opposite of Venturi's. Graves mines the classical tradition but creates furniture of haute craftsmanship with fine veneers and inlay.
"Celebrating the Everyday" strikes all the strong notes for the vernacular from vases made from plumbing tubing to chairs of miniature white picket fencing. So found objects and motifs are the basis of hip product design.
It is the computer with an emphasis on ergonomics that drives the objects of the third movement, "Redefining Expressionism." Simply consider the Stephen Pearl's 1991 wet suit, its ribbing expressing the muscular movement of the body.
"Redefining Expressionism" also features works by the West coast architect of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Frank O. Gehry. Front and center is Gehry's corrugated cardboard chair, and that craggy undulating form is reflected in a score of architectural drawings and models.
In architecture, CAD (computer-aided design) made it possible for architects to design buildings literally outside the box. While West coast architect Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Bilbao museum elevated him to international renown, is represented by his Bubbles chaise lounge of corrugated cardboard, that craggy undulating form is reflected in a score of architectural drawings and models. Take Bart Prince's 1992 California house with its staccato ribbed roofline. In this section, designers are literally bridging architecture and sculpture and creating a heightened sense of expressionism. The computer's influence on graphic design is a major revolution and presented by examples of layered and fragmented typefaces.
With the final section, "Expanding Modernism," showcasing the most recent generation of designers, the viewer senses a more refined and poetic approach to design. Biomorphism is predominant with Karim Rashid's amoeba-like rug and Gisela Stromeyer's Lycra and fiberglass lighting. Once again, many are referencing the past. There are homages to Ray and Charles Eames as well as George Nelson.
Yes, these are complex movements but the presentation is never pedantic. In fact, it's arranged so even a ten year old can grasp the latest chapter in design history.
This exhibition also features a rare hands-on educational component. There are a slew of ergonomically designed Aeron chairs, which visitors can sit in while scanning the latest software on design. Then hip design magazines are available as well as design workshops.
While the presentation leaves out certain decidedly influential luminaries like Richard Meier and Charles Moore, one wishes for evidence of interior designers. Without question, who's in and who's out will be debated by the design community. But rather than the gaps, what counts here is the brilliant conception and presentation along with the elevation of so much American creativity.
This show is moving on to Florida's Bass Museum (Feb. 15-May 10, 2003), to the American Craft Museum in New York (June 19-Sept. 28, 2003) and Memphis, Tenn. (Nov. 30, 2003-Feb. 29, 2004). A European fine arts institution may also be added to the schedule.
The long term effects of this show? The objects on view are bound to be the next hot collectibles and the exhibition catalogue will become the standard reference book for that period.
Yet, with a new wing by Daniel Libeskind on the drawing board (opening is scheduled for 2005), which would make the museum's design holdings the largest in the country, the Denver Art Museum design department (with Miller at the helm) may rightfully reign as our design capital.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.