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For many, a bookcase is a practical piece of furniture they might not notice when plucking a title off its shelves.
In Joris Laarman’s hands, though, a bookcase is a swirling sculpture so striking that it may not register as functional. For his 2014 Vortex console, the Dutch designer collaborated with Mark J. Stock, a Boston-based research scientist, artist, and programmer schooled in fluid dynamics, to create a digital simulation of two waves colliding. Laarman then recreated it using thin laser-cut sheets of aluminum assembled in the form of a bookcase.
Meticulously hand assembled, the bulk of the furnishing is dedicated to the drama and beauty of water in motion. But on its right side, stillness is reflected, leaving a horizontal surface perfect for displaying books. The functionality is so seamlessly integrated that it hides in plain sight.
A stunning result of imaginative thinking, cutting-edge technology, and craft, the Vortex console is one of the stars of Extraordinary Ordinary Things, a major reinstallation of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Ailsa Mellon Bruce Galleries, which are dedicated to the museum’s decorative arts and design collection. In the first significant update to the space in more than a decade, the galleries highlight 300 objects, half of which are on view for the first time, including Laarman’s showstopper.
This reimagining of the galleries spans some of the most significant design developments of the past three centuries, including modernism, hand-craft revival, and the emergence of digital designs. It connects objects across time, cultures, and materials, and tells the stories of a diverse group of pioneering makers, often with a peek inside their processes.
“A theme that runs through, and is relevant to Pittsburgh, is technology and innovation,” says Rachel Delphia, the museum’s Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and organizer of the reinstallation with curatorial assistant Alyssa Velazquez. “What were some of the driving questions that makers were asking?”
Among the key topics of conversation: experimentation and boundary pushing. For instance, not only does the Vortex bookcase exemplify an innovative use of digital fabrication, it’s also an example of a designer fine-tuning their “mistakes” before sending a piece out into the world. Delphia first saw a prototype of Laarman’s bookcase in 2014, the year it was made. She was drawn to it immediately, and it stuck with her years later. “Sometimes museum acquisitions are a long time in the works,” she explains. “If it continues to resonate for a few years, I have to go back to that.”
Delphia has made it a priority to expand the museum’s collection of modern and contemporary objects. She went back to take another look at the bookcase three years later—and learned that there were challenges with the design. The prototype, made with thin aluminum strips, wasn’t stable enough to support its own weight, so Laarman added a back panel to the prototype and developed a new model for his limited-edition line with thicker strips of aluminum.
Given the choice between the two, Delphia opted for the museum to acquire the prototype. “The prototype was not a failure but an important part of the design process,” she says. “There’s something about the lines of the prototype—it’s free and there’s so much motion. Also, prototypes are great for museums as examples of iterative creative processes.”
Seating not optional
At a time when many people are spending more time at home due to the pandemic, the reinstallation also prompts reflection about the items we choose to live with every day. Highlighted objects range from the elegant (a bench made from tiny pieces of wood dyed in a pressure cooker) to the exaggerated (a rubber-and-metal chair adorned with cowhide) and the familiar (a 3D View-Master).
Rather than simply celebrating great design and designers, or chronicling the history of taste, the reinstallation puts the interactions between people and objects at the center of the story, says Alex Taylor, who in his role as assistant professor of history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh brings his students to the museum to study and learn from the collection. “In focusing on the social histories of things, and the materials and labor involved in their making, the reinstallation invites visitors to reflect on their own everyday encounters with objects with new critical attention and curiosity.”
“These renewed galleries emphasize that objects are made by people—who have agendas, points of view, goals, constraints, etc. There isn’t one story arc, but many.”
– Rachel Delphia, Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design
Delphia chose to organize the objects in thematic categories, including handmade wares from various eras, with some made in the 1800s before the advent of mass production. Other groupings compare and contrast different takes on the same functional object, such as a chair, one of the strengths of the museum’s collection.
“What is a chair?” Delphia asks, as she stands in front of a wall of them. “It has four legs, a seat, and a back, but you’ll see all these counterexamples.”
She’s refreshed the museum’s popular installation of chairs with five groupings based on criteria such as material or the intended audience. A children’s section includes an ash and maple Windsor highchair, a late 18th-century treasure acquired recently. It may turn heads with its spindle back and a small dowel of wood as its only feature for keeping children safely contained.
Some chairs carry stories about their makers. Consider the hot pink, hand-felted folding chair designed by Tanya Aguiñiga. A weaver and designer raised in Tijuana, Mexico, Aguiñiga studied furniture design and textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design. While in school, she missed the warmth of both the weather and the people of Mexico and southern California, so she began to cover simple metal folding chairs in vivid colors, a process that took nearly 30 hours per chair. Aguiñiga “massaged the fibers into a seamless skin,” explains Delphia, noting that the wool renders the chair warmer, both in hue and texture, and conjures Latin American craft traditions while also feminizing an industrial object.
A more inclusive “everyday”
Introducing visitors to the perspectives of more women designers and designers of color is a priority for Delphia and the museum.
“The design and craft professions have no shortage of discrimination, in some ways even more than other arts,” Delphia says. “Design and architecture are quote-unquote professions,” while it was once more socially acceptable for a married woman to raise children and still paint or throw pottery on the side.
Not long ago, it wasn’t unusual for people of color to be shut out of design jobs, she says. Charles “Chuck” Harrison, one of the most prolific industrial designers of the 20th century who broke barriers as a Black design executive, often arrived at interviews in the ’50s only to be told the positions had been filled. He persisted until he was hired as the chief product designer for Sears, Roebuck & Co in 1961, becoming the company’s first Black executive. While with Sears, he designed the first plastic garbage can on wheels and hundreds of other everyday household products, such as the first plastic see-through measuring cup. His most famous design brought the world the popular View-Master, allowing people to look at 3D photos. Though other designers had created a bulky version as a specialty item for photographers, Harrison made it so easy to use that it became a beloved children’s toy.
Extraordinary Ordinary Things showcases many other familiar everyday objects, including radios, clocks, and cocktail shakers from the 20th and 21st centuries, a number of them selected from the collection of the late George R. Kravis II, a prominent American design collector. In 2018, the museum received the remarkable gift of 347 items from the Kravis collection, among them works by German designer Marianne Brandt, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, and American designers Charles and Ray Eames, Greta Magnusson Grossman, Eva Zeisel, and Russel Wright.
If the View-Master and a cocktail shaker show great simplicity in design, other objects are astonishingly complex. Consider the wooden bench by Israeli designers Shay Alkalay and Yael Mer. At first glance, the intricate pattern might be mistaken for stunning upholstery fabric. But the designers were experimenting with various types of wood—coniferous soft woods and deciduous hard woods—breaking them down into small chunks and then dying them various colors using a household pressure cooker.
“Can you imagine that?” Delphia says. “It doesn’t get any more hands-on than pressure cooking small batches of wood on your kitchen stove.” They eventually switched to a larger vat. Then they glued all the pieces together into a large block and used a computer-assisted tool to cut it into a bench, revealing the stunning colors and mosaic pattern of the wood.
“It’s a fantastic combination of high tech and low tech. We were lucky to get this bench,” says Delphia, noting that because the process was so time-consuming the pair stopped making them.
Then there’s the chandelier made with actual dandelion heads, a dazzling sculpture constructed with bronze electrical circuits and LED lights covered in dandelion seeds and florets, creating the impression that the flowers are floating through space. Fragile Future, as the light fixture designed by Studio DRIFT in the Netherlands is named, considers our tenuous relationship with nature.
“Studio DRIFT is interested in the relationship between humans and the environment, and technology,” Delphia says. “You see delicate little plugs of silver dandelions, and the metal chandelier looks like a computer circuit board. On the one hand, it’s very fragile. But a dandelion is actually quite hearty. If you basically destroyed everything on Earth, the dandelion would have a fairly good chance of surviving. It’s this homage to the fragile dandelion, which really isn’t that fragile.”
All in good taste
The reinstallation does explore the idea of good design—what constitutes it and who gets to decide. One section illustrates the emergence of professional design and design education in the middle of the 20th century, including the Bauhaus, a revolutionary school of art, architecture, and design in Germany, and Carnegie Institute of Technology, the forerunner to Carnegie Mellon University, which created the first degree-granting program in industrial design in the country.
Another local connection is Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., who managed the home furnishings section of his father’s flagship store in Pittsburgh and studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. Kaufmann became a leading historian of architecture and directed the industrial design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he led the initial “Good Design” program. He also published books such as What Is Modern Design?
Those tenets of good design also moved between museum and furniture showrooms with pieces from companies such as Herman Miller, maker of high-end furnishings including the iconic Eames lounge chair. Across the gallery are what Delphia calls the “disrupters,” the designers who are intentionally antagonistic toward those standards of good design. Like the Archizoom Associati Mies chair, a play on the metal chair from the Bauhaus school, but its seat is made of latex rubber and there’s cowhide fur as a pillow and footrest. “It is kind of ridiculous, but it’s the anti-functional, functional chair,” Delphia notes. Many of these objects are from the ’60s and ’70s, but this counter-good design movement continues to this day.
“The whole premise of the movement of good design is that such an ideal exists,” says Delphia. “The subtext of this is that we are seeking a universal solution. Is it even possible to design the perfect desk or the perfect chair? At the museum, we wanted to create a space where there is not one answer. People are free to critique and come up with their own solutions.”
Kristina Wilson, professor of art history at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a scholar of modern design, notes, “This reinstallation engages visitors with a series of profound and substantial questions: What do we value in our homes and why? Can the objects of our daily lives bring enlightenment, or be tools of activism?”
“Extraordinary Ordinary Things is meant to explore various motivations of makers and designers, including ‘anti-design,’” says Delphia. “These renewed galleries emphasize that objects are made by people—who have agendas, points of view, goals, constraints, etc. There isn’t one story arc, but many.”
Adds Taylor: “For anyone who crafts objects of their own, and indeed for anyone who cares about the things with which they live, this installation is overflowing with thought-provoking ideas about the future of design, and the power of objects to shape our society.”
Major support for Extraordinary Ordinary Things is provided by the Women’s Committee, Carnegie Museum of Art.
Generous support is provided by The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, The Bessie F. Anathan Charitable Trust of the Pittsburgh Foundation at the request of Ellen Lehman and Charles Kennel, and Margaret Ritchie R. Battle Family Charitable Fund. Additional support is provided by Richard L. Simmons, Ellen Still Brooks, Brian Wongchaowart, and The Fellows of Carnegie Museum of Art.
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