“Good Design”

PUBLISHING info: Excerpted from Objects of Design, Paola Antonelli, ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2003.

Is good design a matter of purely subjective taste at best or can one actually establish objective criteria to define it? The elaboration of these criteria, not as a scientific formula, but rather as an extrapolation from curatorial beliefs and practice, has been a strong guiding force within the Department of Architecture and Design of the Museum of Modern Art since its inception in 1932.

This chapter takes its name from a series of exhibitions that the Museum programmed from 1950 to 1955. Organized by Edgar J. Kaufmann, then Curator of the Department of Industrial Design, the series was intended to influence wholesale buyers who determined which furnishings appear in stores throughout the country, as well as convince manufacturers of the existence of a potentially large market for well-designed objects. The series was held bi-annually at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, America’s largest wholesale marketer, and annually at the Museum of Modern Art. Its aim was twofold: educational, insofar as the Museum strove to circulate exhibitions to schools, universities and department stores; and commercial, as it also aimed to expand the consumer market through a complex strategy of advertising, exhibitions, publications, symposia, advertising, and consumers’ opinion polls. The ultimate goal was, however, one: to influence and encourage tasteful consumption, through presenting a “balance of retrospect and forecast” in which the selection was based on “eye-appeal, function, construction and price, with emphasis on the first.”

As the son of an affluent Pittsburgh merchant who established a prosperous department store that bore his name, Kaufmann’s education in modern design was due in large part to the time his spent in the home-furnishings department of his father’s store. Like many proponents of design at the time, he had no formal training; rather his acumen and eye as a curator owed much to observation, and first-hand merchandising experience.

Prior to his 1946 appointment to the Museum, Kaufmann had dreamed of a broad collaboration between art and commerce. To be sure, there were precedents for this kind of exhibition: Alexander Girard, a friend of Kaufmann’s who later became a designer at Herman Miller under the leadership of George Nelson, staged “For Modern Living” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts in 1949. In the same year, Kaufmann noted: “twelve American museums of art have recently held exhibitions of applied art to guide the public toward good taste in objects available for purchase.” But the realization of an exhibition of such scale in the United States, intended to influence the buying habits of the average consumer, was unparalleled. The Good Design series was a response to the hopeful prosperity of a postwar period, when the industrial capital of commerce and innovative design found a unique and common ground. The series paralleled both the burgeoning middle class in the 1950s and the burgeoning market of mass-produced furniture for the home, spearheaded by companies such as Herman Miller and Knoll Associates. Herman Miller, founded in 1923 in Zeeland, Michigan as a small, residential furnishings company, had by the 1950s become a pioneer of contemporary design under the aegis of co-founder DJ De Pree. George Nelson, then the creative leader, brought in such great masters as Charles and Ray Eames, Gilbert Rohde, Alexander Girard and Isamu Noguchi. Likewise, Knoll Associates rose to prominence when Hans Knoll, a German émigré with a strong knowledge of manufacturing and marketing, married and partnered with Florence Schust, a young gifted designer from the Academy of Art at Cranbrook. Together, they championed the Bauhaus tenets of good design, technological innovation and mass production, and working with designers and artists of the caliber of Eero Saarineen, Franco Albini, and Harry Bertoia. Hans’ founding motto was: “that modern architects need modern furniture for their modern buildings.”

Kaufmann’s criteria, summed up in remarks such as “modern design means design intended for present day life in regard to usefulness, to production methods and materials, and to the progressive taste of the day,” cast a wide net. His emphasis on “eye-appeal” and the requirement that each object be new on the market since the previous exhibition apparently linked the new with the good and seemingly valued style over art. Such an intuitive and deductive approach derived from sentiments and variety of taste or fashion notably differed from the inductively principles of beauty and utility put forth by Alfred H. Barr, Philip Johnson and John McAndrew.

In their 1934 essays on Machine Art, Barr and Johnson clearly equate good design with modern design–in this case, “good machine art”—as an art, according to Barr, “independent of painting, sculpture and architecture,” but nevertheless one that resists “modernistic” compromises and “naïve and dreary functionalism.” Implied in Barr’s equation of what we now call design objects with art was an assumption that objects, like art, should resist falling prey to mere “style,” “to extract,” as Baudelaire wrote in The Painter of Modern Life (1859) “from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory.”

Johnson goes one step further: he explicitly derides the superficial “eye-appeal” characteristic of much of American design and touts instead a machine technic of speed, simplicity, precision, smoothness and reproducibility. “Besides the French Decorative movement in the ‘20’s,” writes Johnson, “there developed in America a desire for ’styling’ objects for advertising. Styling a commercial object gives it more “eye-appeal” and therefore helps sales. Principles such as “streamlining” often receive homage out of all proportion to their applicability.”

It was such “styling”—specifically streamlining–that McAndrew, curator of the Useful Objects series, saw as antithesis to good functional design. Albeit Johnson and Barr assembled Machine Art from the point of view that beauty was primary and utility secondary and McAndrew saw it the other way around, McAndrew’s tying the selection of objects to price linked good design to good value while simultaneously negating “the assumption that design, like styling, was a surplus value that raised an item’s price.” One case in point was a 1940 toaster, which in the 1942-43 Museum Bulletin, McAndrew notes has been updated from its 1934 model. Streamlined to such an extent “it looked as if it were intended to hurtle through the air at 200 miles per hour.” Needless to say, such a modification proposed, in McAndrew’s words, “an unhappy use for a breakfast table utensil.” To be sure, McAndrew upheld the distinction between fine and applied art that Barr and Johnson tried to elide. For him, the antipode to good functional design was not art but styling—or to use Baudelaire’s term, fashion.

Paradoxically while in his day, Kaufmann was criticized for falling prey to personal taste and a “non-ideological” approach by George Nelson and others, all told his exhibitions included and successfully identified almost every major designer of the time, from Alvar Aalto, to Arne Jacobsen, Kaj Franck, Finn Juhl, Eva Zeisel, to the wave of European emigres schooled at Cranbrook including Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, Jack Lenor Larsen, and Eero Saarineen, to name just a few.

Kaufmann’s ideas resonate today, at a time when the American market is largely driven by image and branding and all attempt to bring good designs to the household not by educating the consumer but by promoting image and prestige attached to a celebrity’s signature. Kaufmann, on the other hand, attempted to educate, inform, and guide the public towards good design through particular examples. In this way he way visionary: he sought to guide a process of intuition and deduction. Aided by practice, comparison, and sound understanding, he attempted to lead one’s eye toward authenticity so that some standard of discernment of taste could be established. His principles, as the objects will attest, still endure today: economy of form, a price tag suitable to most people’s means, process and material of production and an overall appreciation of aesthetics which makes objects that one uses within everyday life as pleasing as possible.


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Work: Writing