Rare & Beautiful

Good Design: The Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time

By Randall Ross May 31, 2012

Randall Ross

Guest blogger Randall Ross: Modernism 101 (Shreveport, LA)

Profile     9 Books from the Good Design Movement

Guest blogger Randall Ross, of Modernism 101, specializing in mid-century modern design antiquarian books, presents highlights from his 2012 catalogue, which focuses on books that helped to set the stage for and define America's "Good Design" movement of the postwar period. — SK

Cover of Modernism 101’s 2012 catalogue

The spirit of Walter Benjamin guided us during the preparation of our 2012 antiquarian catalogue, devoted to the history of the postwar Good Design movement in the United States—a movement that offered examples of modern, innovative design for the everyday lives of Americans. Benjamin, a great writer and bibliophile, expressed a wish to compose an original work entirely of quotations. He also considered the arrangement of the books in his library to be one of his most demanding literary creations. Benjamin asserted that the choice and arrangement of the books told a story and promoted a theory of knowledge. And while he never revealed his secrets, he assumed it was possible for some other critic to read the story, to decode the meaning, and to compose philosophical commentaries about it.

Antiquarian book catalogues, like the collections of their readers, usually strive for a tentative coherence: books by a single author, books by two authors, books by women, cookbooks, etc. There are as many categories as there are collectors, and nearly as many specialized catalogues intended to abet them.

Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Good Design (5th Anniversary), 1954

Frustrated by the fracturing of our narrative by the bibliographic necessity of alphabetization, we present here an alternative chronological history of the Good Design movement as revealed through quotes and citations in some of the books in our catalogue—all of which qualify as “notable and quotable.”

Paul T. Frankl, New Dimensions: The Decorative Arts of Today in Words and Pictures, 1928

In the beginning there was merchant R. H. Macy, who in 1927 collaborated with The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the “Exposition of Art in Trade,” bringing modernism, the newest trend from Europe, to Manhattan. Modernism was described by Austrian architect Paul T. Frankl, who emigrated to the United States in 1914 and helped establish the American Designers’ Gallery and the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen in 1928:

“To be modern is to be consistent; it is to bring out an artistic harmony in our lives and necessary environments, a harmony between our civilization and our individual art impulses. Our own art is a creation that expresses ourselves and our time. It is an expression that is alive and while it acknowledges its debt to the area of the past, it has no part in them.” —Paul T. Frankl, New Dimensions: The Decorative Arts of Today in Words and Pictures (New York: Brewer & Warren, 1928).

American historian and critic Lewis Mumford further commented on modern design in 1930:

“Modern industrial design is based on the principle of conspicuous economy. Unfortunately, the bourgeois culture which dominates the Western World is founded, as our American economist Thorstein Veblen described in his classic Theory of the Leisure Class, on the principle of conspicuous waste . . . in fact, a good part of what is considered beauty in this society consists of objects which show, at first glance, their costly and luxurious nature.” —Lewis Mumford, Annual of American Design 1931 (New York: Ives Washburn, 1930).

Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), founded in 1929, insisted on including architecture as a fully functioning department within MoMA in 1932—a radical curatorial departure at the time, yet one that seems quite obvious today. By 1935 this would become the Department of Architecture and Industrial Art. Terence Riley, who would serve as MoMA’s Chief Curator for Architecture and Design from 1991 to 2004, has noted that the early tastemakers at MoMA understood that their job was to separate “the wheat from the chaff.”

Barr wrote in 1932, the year of the groundbreaking MoMA exhibition “The International Style”: 

“Expositions and exhibitions have perhaps changed the character of American architecture of the last forty years more than any other factor.” —Alfred H. Barr Jr., Modern Architects (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1932).

In 1934, Barr included this comment in a foreword to the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition “Machine Art,” curated by Philip Johnson, who selected industrial objects ranging from typewriter carriage springs to ball bearings as examples of good design, based on geometric forms found in nature:

“It is in part through the aesthetic appreciation of natural forms that man has carried on his spiritual conquest of nature's hostile chaos.” —Alfred H. Barr Jr., Machine Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1934).

László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision: Fundamentals of Design, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 1938

In 1937, László Moholy-Nagy who advocated integrating technology into the design and the arts and taught at the Bauhaus school in Germany, was invited to found the New Bauhaus in Chicago by the city’s Association of Arts and Industries. He asserted:

“America is the bearer of a new civilization whose task is simultaneously to cultivate and to industrialize a continent. It is the ideal ground on which to work out an educational principle which strives for the closest connection between art, science, and technology.” —László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision: Fundamentals of Design, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1938).

John McAndrew, introduction (cover by Paul Rand), A Design Student’s Guide to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, 1939

The Laboratory School of Industrial Design was established in 1936 as the first school in the United States to devote its entire curriculum to training for the various fields of industrial design—namely, product, textile, interior, advertising, and display design. In 1939 the school issued a guide for design students to that year’s World’s Fair, a 36-page insert for PM magazine featuring a cover by Paul Rand that was to become an iconic image of modern graphic design.

“An honest modern design will be shaped by the exigencies of function and materials, and by the formal invention of the designer. It will be free of mannerisms.” —introduction by John McAndrew, A Design Student’s Guide to the 1939 New York World’s Fair (New York: Laboratory School of Industrial Design, with The Composing Room/PM Publishing Co., 1939).

In 1940, the prize-winners in The Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 competition “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” were the living room and chair designs by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. These were the precursors of furniture that would finally bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the middle class. Eliot Noyes—the first director of MoMA's Department of Industrial Design in the 1940s—wrote in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition:

Eliot Noyes, Organic Design in Home Furnishings, 1941.

“A design may be called organic when there is an harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose. Within this definition there can be no vain ornamentation or superfluity, but the part of beauty is nonetheless great—in ideal choice of material, in visual refinement, and in the rational elegance of things intended for use.” —Eliot Noyes, Organic Design in Home Furnishings (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1941).

By 1946, this attitude espoused by the museum would encompass architecture.

“Modern architecture isn’t just another imitative style. It is an attitude towards life, an approach which starts with living people and their needs, physical and emotional.” —Elizabeth Mock, If You Want to Build a House (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1946).

Paul Rand, Thoughts on Design, 1947

Any chronology of the modern design movement is incomplete without a contribution from Paul Rand, who wrote in 1947:

“Even if it is true that commonplace advertising and exhibitions of bad taste are indicative of the mental capacity of the man in the street, the opposing argument is equally valid. Bromidic advertising catering to that bad taste merely perpetuates that mediocrity and denies him one of the most easily accessible means of aesthetic development.” —Paul Rand, Thoughts on Design (New York: Wittenborn, 1947)

George Nelson, The Herman Miller Collection, 1948

The same can be said for George Nelson, who wrote in 1948:

“What you make is important. Design is an integral part of business. The product must be honest. You decide what you want to make. There is a market for good design.” —George Nelson, The Herman Miller Collection (Zeeland, MI: Herman Miller Furniture Co., 1948).

Alexander Girard, An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949

The Good Design story, is not, however, a tale of two cities—Chicago and New York. Designers and institutions in Detroit, Minneapolis, Akron, Providence, and other places all made valuable contributions, as can be seen in this comment from a 1949 Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition catalogue:

“. . . how much we know about design is a large measure of how much we get out of life.” — Alexander Girard, An Exhibition for Modern Living (Detroit: The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1949).

The first "Good Design" exhibition, organized by Edgar Kaufmann Jr.—who had joined The Museum of Modern Art in 1946 as director of the Industrial Design Department—was held at MoMA in 1950, and featured home furnishings shown at Chicago's Merchandise Mart earlier in the year.

“It is the first time an art museum and wholesale merchandising center have co-operated to present the best examples of modern design in home furnishings. Now, at the mid-point of the century, these two national institutions, whose very different careers began just 20 years ago, believe and hope that in combining their resources they will stimulate the appreciation and creation of the best design among manufacturers, designers and retailers for good living in the American home.” —Joint statement by René d’Harnoncourt, director of The Museum of Modern Art, and Wallace O. Ollman, manager of Chicago's Merchandise Mart, January 1950.

Under Kaufmann’s direction, the annual series of Good Design exhibitions would continue at MoMA  for five years.

Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Prize Designs for Modern Furniture, 1950.

The catalogue published (in 1950) to accompany the 1949 MoMA exhibition of "new designs for low-cost furniture" carried these words by Kaufmann:

“. . . this exhibition represents only the first stage on the road, an early moment in a chain reaction which will lead to the simpler constructions, the greater comforts and the more varied expressions of good living . . . .” —Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Prize Designs for Modern Furniture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1950).

The final word in this brief chronology goes to the husband-and-wife team of Mary and Russel Wright, whose multimedia platform of easier living started an industry that still thrives today. In 1951 they wrote:

“A new way of living, informal, relaxed, and actually more gracious than any strained imitation of another day could be, is in fact growing up, despite the etiquette despots and the die-hards. There is evidence all around that the hard shell of snobbish convention is cracking.” —Mary and Russel Wright, Guide to Easier Living (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1951).


Images courtesy of Modernism 101.

View Randall Ross’s Profile     View list of 9 Books from the Good Design Movement

View Modernism 101’s Bookseller Profile

Related post: “At the Armory: Designers & Books Visits the 51st New York Antiquarian Book Fair” (April 12, 2011)

comments powered by Disqus