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Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets

By EllenS. Wilson

October 28, 2000 - February 11, 2001

Carnegie Museum of Art

The summer I was 19, I lived in an aluminum Airstream trailer and waited tables at a resort in the Smoky Mountains.I did not know that I was living in a classic of American design.I only knew that ants dropped out of the North Carolina pine trees, made their way through the vintage roof, and down onto my head as I slept. 

Aluminum is a material that just about everyone has a connection to, whether it is through your grandmother’s egg poacher, the space frame for your new Audi, or the Eames chair you sat in when your last flight was delayed.First discovered about 150 years ago, it has gone from scientific marvel, to rare and precious “silver from clay,” to aninexpensive and lightweight material ubiquitous in modern living.An innovative, even inspired, choice for designers, it connotes lightness, purity, and speed.Today, as much as it ever was, it is the metal of the future.Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets is the first major international loan exhibition to explore how aluminum has inspired creativity since its discovery. 

“Aluminum had a rhetoric attached to it from its very beginning,” explains exhibition organizer Sarah Nichols, the museum’s chief curator and curator of decorative arts.“God had provided all the tools for human existence, it was believed, but some were more awkward to get at than others.” 

German chemist Friedrich Wöhler first produced shiny, pinhead-sized aluminum blobs in 1845 that were nevertheless large enough to reveal some of the new metal’s physical properties.Wöhler’s results were intriguing, but it took almost ten years of further work before aluminum was a useable substance.This time, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, of the Ecole Normale in Paris, improved on Wöhler’s results, and found that aluminum was malleable, impervious to some acids, and incredibly light. Heartened by his success, Deville intended to produce aluminum commercially. 
This was not so easily done.Aluminum as a novelty was warmly welcomed by a 19th century that was learning to have faith in technology, but it was an expensive little marvel that no one saw the need for initially. 

The next major turning point for aluminum was in 1886, when the young Charles Martin Hall of Ohio, working in the family woodshed, ran an electric current through a solution of alumina and cryolite and produced globules of pure metal.(Oddly, Paul T. L. Héroult of Paris, working independently but simultaneously, made the exact same discovery.Clearly, aluminum’s time had come.) This success, and the recent advent of reliable and inexpensive electricity, led Hall and his backers to found the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, which eventually became Alcoa. 

Once a smelter is set up, it must run continuously, and so aluminum went from being scarce to plentiful in a very short time.“There was a feeling that aluminum could improve life, but no one knew how at first,” explains Nichols.Initially, the manufacturers tried everything in their search for uses for the new material.“This was not necessarily the way to go,” Nichols comments, pointing to the aluminum violin as a shining example.Designers had to choose what was appropriate to the material, what objects would best take advantage of its light weight and good looks. 

It was in the domestic sphere that aluminum’s usefulness was immediately recognized.The home, in the early days of the 20th century, was a radically different place from what it had been just a few decades earlier.The rise of the middle class changed the role of the homemaker from that of general manager with servants to someone who actually did the cooking and cleaning herself.The media corroborated in putting forth images of the ideal home – bright, light and easy, just like aluminum itself.Aluminum cookware was sanitary, easy to cook in without scorching, easy to clean up.One advertisement showed a bride in her wedding gown gazing lovingly at her new pots and pans.

It wasn’t long, however, before aluminum came out of the kitchen and into the front hall, the dining room, and other public spaces.Initially, aluminum furniture was easier to accept when it resembled old familiar substances, and early furniture by Alcoa relied on traditionally styled legs that resemble turned wood, or aluminum painted with a wood grain. “Imitation and substitution tend to be the first stage in the history of any new material,” Nichols points out in her essay in the exhibition catalogue.Eventually, consumers grew more comfortable with the modernist look, and with the changing role of technology that came with it.The furniture from this periodno longer harks back to the Arts and Crafts tradition, but is clearly machine made, with decoration subordinate to form. 

“The 1930s were a real heyday for aluminum,” says Nichols.“The metallic look was popular then, and aluminum could be formed in a way that suited the prevailing aesthetic.” 

If aluminum seemed made for one purpose, it was transportation.The Airstream trailer seemed to embody the new values of the 1930s – mobility, importance of family, leisure time, and disposable income.Higher on the socio-economic ladder is the aluminum-bodied Rolls Royce, establishing once and for all that this metal, for all its practicality, could still be elegant.By the mid 1930s, aluminum was used extensively in trains and buses. Its very lightness meant that aluminum vehicles were built for speed, that cars made of aluminum would get there first, and look good in transit.

The transportation industry in turn influenced other aspects of design.“Streamline became in the 1930s and 1940s the American national style for everyday objects,” Paola Antonelli writes in the exhibition catalogue. Everything, from cocktail shakers to pencil sharpeners to vacuum cleaners, looked as if it were about to take off.The look was optimistic, futuristic, and totally new. 

World War II was the next great turning point in the history of aluminum.Its use in consumer goods was prohibited but production rose as all manufacturing efforts were devoted to the war.When it was over, the dramatic increase in production had to be sustained with new markets for aluminum.In the meantime, however, the aesthetic had changed.The atomic age had arrived, and if glasses were raised to the new world order, they were likely to emit the anodized and otherworldly glow of Colorama.There was to be no more hiding under a fake wood finish. 

If aluminum has from its beginning been the metal of the future, that future was predicted early on.Jules Verne, in From the Earth to the Moon, wrote that it “seems to have been created with the express purpose of furnishing us with the material for our projectile.” Viscount de Ponton d’Amécourt, founder of the Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Navigation by Heavier-than-Air Machines, created a small model of a steam helicopter in 1863, but for various reasons did not pursue his project.As Nichols writes in the catalogue, such “flights of fancy are what fuel invention.”It seems fair to say that the air and space industry were in some ways waiting for the development of aluminum before they themselves could take off.Aluminum makes up nearly 80% of the typical aircraft, and is used in large quantities in the space shuttle as well. 

Although aluminum reigns supreme in such practical uses as beverage cans and lawn furniture, the 70s and early 80s were given over to plastic. It wasn’t until the late 80s and the 90s that aluminum became stylish again.Recently heralded as “the alluring surface du jour” in a special New York Times Sunday magazine devoted to the near future (June 11, 2000), it is no surprise to find innovative uses for the metal again coming out of the studios of contemporary designers.Paco Rabanne designed dresses of aluminum both in 1969 and in 1999.

As Nichols says, people are prepared to pay for design now.She picks up a small aluminum mug from the trendy Japanese store Muji.It is a beautiful thing, light and clean looking, its well-proportioned handle riveted neatly to the body.Nichols keeps her pencils in the mug; it is, obviously, useless for hot tea.“It’s a style, an aesthetic,” she says.“There is more consciousness about materials today than ever before.Michael Graves is designing aluminum housewares for Target.Design is a hot topic.” 

Aluminum has the gift of looking, to modern eyes, both retro and futuristic.As the world becomes more crowded, and resources scarcer, aluminum’s lightness and its ability to be endlessly recycled appeal to us on both practical and emotional levels.Those early marketers were right, aluminum is more than a material, it is a way of life – fast, easy, and clean, morally sound yet fun.If aluminum is really the metal of the future, then the future looks better than ever. 

Aluminum by Design:Jewelry to Jets is made possible by the generous sponsorship of Alcoa Foundation. 

Significant support has also been provided by Audi of America, Inc.

Additional major support has been provided by The Roy A. Hunt Foundation, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Funding has also been provided by the Anne and George Clapp Charitable Trust, The Grable Foundation, and Perfido Weiskopf Architects. 



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