“Useful Objects”

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

“Useful Objects” takes its inspiration from a series of annual exhibitions held from 1938 to 1947 in which MoMA teamed up with retailers to exhibit recent designs, affordable to the average consumer. The 1938 exhibition debuted with objects ranging from kitchen utensils, traveling bathroom accessories to glassware, wall coverings and curtains, all for under $5.00. It was shown in seven other cities in addition to New York, at venues ranging from colleges and department stores to small specialty shops. The objects were selected, as the exhibition’s curator John McAndrew wrote, according to suitability of purpose, material, and process of manufacture, out of which the aesthetic quality of the object presumably grew. The exhibition was so successful and had such a positive response that an annual series followed and while the premise of “useful” remained consistently defined, prices increased to a maximum of $100 dollars in 1947, and selected objects reflected the times, as for example, those chosen for the 1942-43 Useful Objects in Wartime. Installed by Mies van der Rohe, Useful Objects in Wartime avoided objects made of materials integral to the war-effort, metals, plastics such as Lucite, plexiglass, nylon, bakelite, beetleware and crystallites (used in airplanes and other military equipment), and leather.

While the machine-aesthetic and unintentional beauty of Platonic forms heralded in Philip Johnson’s 1934 landmark exhibition Machine Art came to be that which defined the design collection early on, the term “useful objects” actually appeared a year prior, in his 1993 exhibition Objects 1900 and Today. Both a contemporary survey and a historical retrospective, Objects 1900 and Today contrasted the vast difference between design at the turn of the century and that witnessed by the 1930s, the handicraft of William Morris and the natural forms of Art Nouveau, for example. While in the wall labels “useful” polemically opposed “decorative” and Johnson’s final text was more demur (substituting “and” for “versus”) such a pairing contrasted two different attitudes toward design: one, as Johnson wrote, based “on the imitation of natural forms and lines which curve, diverge and converge,” and another based on utility—the modern mindset that has guided collecting at Museum to this day—“that industrial design is functionally motivated and follows the same principles as modern architecture: machine-like simplicity, smoothness of surface, avoidance of ornament.” Johnson saw a decisive shift in decorative arts in the 1920s, specifically in 1922, the same year that Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture was published.

Unlike the objects included in Machine Art, the “useful objects” presented here are not collected primarily for their purity of Platonic form – sphere, rectangle, cylinder – but rather the integration of a new and innovative functionality and often the use of new materials which re-interpret traditional objects and result in a machine-like aesthetic. In other words, in the case of “useful objects” form, and ultimately beauty, does follow function. It was such utility and convenience that was touted in the original exhibitions in hopes of altering one’s lifestyle, daily routine, and ultimately, quality of life, through good design. Emil Tupper perhaps best describes this aspiration when he recalls his impetus for inventing Tupperware which should “to make [one's] life easier . . . .” Functional modification and mass production may translate to beauty but ease of use freed from tradition which translates to ease of living is primary: objects such as the “folding” flashlight, the ergonomic designs for a fork-spoon, interlocking bottles, or the “collapsible” hexagonal salad basket modify pure forms and lines to improve storage, handling and transport.



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Work: Writing