A Knockout at MAM
When does design become art?
That’s hard to say, but we do know where design becomes art: In the smashing new European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century, which opened Saturday (Oct. 9) at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The best artworks bear witness to their times. To understand the art and design of a period is to understand that period. Conversely, we cannot understand art or design without a broader sense of history. R. Craig Miller, curator of this exhibition and lead author of its beautiful catalog, is a true historian. He and his show tell a riveting story of the recent past through the designs he chose, the way he grouped them physically, and the way he structured the show conceptually.
Miller walked me through the exhibition during the press preview Wednesday. He stopped at the gallery entrance, where two chairs stand prominently at eye level and visible from the Quadracci Pavilion. A cutout in the wall behind them offers a long view into galleries filled with over 200 objects. On the left stands Jorge Pensi’s 1988 metal stacking chair — sleek, light, comfortable, functional, mass-produced, affordable, Modern with a capital M. This chair is familiar, useful, elegant, effortless. You could use it every day.
On the right stands Mathias Bengtsson’s Slice Lounge Chair, from 1999. This one-of-a-kind, undulating sculptural form comprises dozens, if not hundreds of stacked, laser-cut aluminum unique planes carefully connected to leave precise slivers of space between them. Surely, it weighs a ton, but the airspace between each metal sheet gives it a certain airiness. But you wouldn’t sit in it very long. And it would cost a fortune to leave the owner standing or uncomfortable. It is sculpture in the form of a chair.
These two metal chairs introduce us to both the exhibition and Miller’s central divide: Design as industry vs. design as art. Modernism — in which “form follows function” — vs. post-modernism, in which form follows caprice. Elegant functionality vs. design’s for art’s sake. Design for everyone — at least, an upper-middle class Everyone — vs. design for an art elite.
Both streams of design grew up in a post-World War II environment in which Western Europeans felt comfortable with socialist values. Designs there could be made with the ideal in mind. The Modernist strain played well in the United States, where an American Modernism took root and filled many a suburban home. The Modernist side of European Design since 1985 will feel familiar to Americans. The art aspect of design feels more exotic.
Miller ends his survey in 2005, when the European Union expanded into the East, to create a New Europe and close out the notion of Western Europe as a cohesive, clear idea.
Miller organized his show around a few conceptual kernels:
Post-modern Decorative Designs. We are all know mid-century Modernism, with its geometric forms, technological materials and extension of the Bauhaus aesthetic. Post-modernist designers reacted to Modernist clarity and functionality by reviving historical decorative flourishes that Modernism had purged. The post-modernists gleefully mined the Victorian, Biedermeier, Arts & Crafts, Beaux Arts and so on and recombined them as they would.
Borek Sipek’s chaise lounge, from 1987, for example, clearly references the classic Récamier couch immortalized in a J-L David painting in 1800. But Sipek’s piece is also an unmistakable product of the 1980s, and it is both humorous and serious. An elegantly curved black leather arm disappears into thin black leather legs. The center of this black French curve meets the long thin black leather seat, which abruptly ends in a curved, low arm tapering to thin legs handcrafted from rich, warm wood. A long jigsaw puzzle piece, in bright blue fabric, forms the back. Why all the different shapes and materials? Because “more is more,” as the postmodern architect Robert Venturi said, in a retort to the “less is more” dictum of Modernism. The quality of Sipek’s materials and artistic craftsmanship tie the disparate shapes together. This chaise was never mass-produced. Patrons collected such an expensive, decorative design for display, not for everyday seating.
Expressive Design. Miller’s next grouping shows sculpture and design coexisting, however uneasily. Ron Arad’s 1993 This Mortal Coil bookshelf could hold books. But in terms of efficient storage and easy access, the seven-foot metal spiral makes a nice sculpture.
Geometric Minimal Design. Classical Modernism reasserted itself in reaction to po-mo excess. If you read Dwell magazine, you know this style. Some pieces are high-end, while others are mass-produced, with prices that reflect the original egalitarian thrust of Bauhaus thinking. Elegance and functionality matter most.
Biomorphic Design. The impetus behind the kidney-shaped swimming pools of the 1950s, bulbous cars of the 1940s, not to mention Henry Moore sculptures, saw a revival in Europe in the 1980s and 90s. Curvilinear shapes and glossy, sumptuous, high-tech materials, as in the Bengsston Slice Lounge Chair at the start of the exhibit, stand at one end of this trend. At the low end are such objects as Monika Muldur’s Vållö Watering Can, which anyone can buy at Ikea (or, during the run of the show, at the MAM gift shop).
Miller’s Neo-Dada/Surreal Design posits design not as functional objects for use in the real world, but as bizarre takes on the familiar that deposit us in a dream world. We wake from that to find ourselves among the Neo-Decorative, a civilized revival of modest delight in everyday objects made extraordinary.
European Design Since 1985 runs through Jan. 9. Several ancillary talks and events are planned. Click here for the schedule.
Lee Ann Garrison is a Milwaukee painter and chair of the Department of Art and Design at UWM.