"Ralph Rapson: 60 Years of Modern Design" at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Mar. 27-July 25, 1999, and at the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Mar. 27-May 22, 1999.
Now in his 80's,
Minnesota architect Ralph Rapson can look back on a long career,
ranging from his experimental Fabric House (1939) to perhaps his best-known project,
the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (1963). In the '40s,
along with Charles and Ray Eames,
Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen,
Rapson brought mass market furniture into the Art Moderne age. Last spring,
the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota presented a thorough retrospective of the career of this local giant.
Born in Alma, Michigan and educated at the University of Michigan and Cranbrook, Rapson practiced in Chicago (where he was head of the architecture wing of the New Bauhaus), Cambridge, Mass., Stockholm and Paris. Rapson arrived in Minneapolis in 1954 at age 40 to head the new University of Minnesota's school of architecture. He retired as dean in 1984, but still lives and works in Minneapolis.
The exhibition opened at the Institute with architectural plans and projects Rapson had done before coming to the Twin Cities, and closed felicitously with a chair design he had developed quite recently. In between were highlights of his precocious career as a design-oriented merchant.
Rapson and his wife Mary opened Rapson-Inc. in Boston, one of the first modern design shops in the U.S. It sold Arzberg porcelain from Germany, Marimekko fabrics from Finland, Noguchi lamps, George Nelson clocks, jewelry by Harry Bertoia and furniture by Bruno Mathsson, Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames and Rapson himself.
His later and more well-known architectural projects include the U.S. embassies in Stockholm and Copenhagen, both 1954, the Pillsubry house in Wayzata, Minn., 1963, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, also 1963, the Cedar-Riverside housing complex in Minneapolis, 1962-73, the first federally funded New-Town-in-Town in the U.S. and his own Glass Cube vacation house of 1974. In addition, there were many houses, churches, theaters, art centers, schools, shops, city halls and furniture designs.
Throughout his career -- and throughout the exhibition -- Rapson's work has been engagingly presented with his virtuoso renderings. One distinguishing characteristic of the drawings is that they have always been peopled -- not just with the anonymous figures many architects draw to indicate scale, but with saucy and lively characters at work or play.
These personalities can be read as visual evidence that Rapson's works were designed with their users and inhabitants in mind. Even at their most abstract, as in the façade treatment of the Guthrie Theater, Rapson's designs have never neglected the human vantage point and human senses, and they has seldom failed to please and intrigue.
Even his own Glass Cube is far removed from the cool purity of Philip Johnson's Glass House or Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House; Rapson's version is considerably more active and less idealized. It's not as revolutionary, but still fully engaging. Without being lazy or weak, it is modernism made comfortable.
The exhibition was accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue published by the Afton Historical Society Press of Afton, Minn. It includes a foreword by William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox, a former Rapson student, and essays by Jane King Hession, Bruce N. Wright and Rapson's son Rip, currently a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Design Center for American Urban Landscape. The book, like the exhibition, is titled Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design.
STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.