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DESIGN | Review

For the Love of Modernity

LACMA celebrates the steamlined and sleek, from an era when human faith was squarely in the future.

July 28, 1996|Michael Webb | Michael Webb is the author of "Architects House Themselves: Breaking New Ground" and other books on architecture and design

For much of this century, people were excited by the ideal of modernity, eagerly applauding the triumphs of technology and fervently hoping it would improve their lives. Dictators and democratic leaders alike employed designers to glorify their regimes and sway the masses. "Designing Modernity: the Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), explores a turbulent love affair with the new through six decades of social and political upheaval.

Posters and postcards, furniture and fine art, appliances and automobiles have been selected to challenge assumptions and bring history to life. Too often, museums and books have presented a beauty parade of design classics, from Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Bauhaus to Le Corbusier and Raymond Loewy, ignoring whatever failed to fit the canon. In contrast, this show is full of surprises and grabs the imagination by telling unfamiliar stories. Most of the 285 objects were made, not just for use or delight, but to convey an idea, subtly or brutally. They are arranged by theme, in three chronological sections.

The first, "Confronting Modernity" covers the formative decades of Modernism, 1885-1920, during which the Arts and Crafts movement rebelled against the tyranny of industrialized production and reformers strove to reconcile machine and craft in order to create affordable, well-designed objects. It was an era of wrenching change, as people poured into factories and cities, and--as today--there were many who tried to close their eyes to reality. The writhing tendrils of Art Nouveau and the folk-inspired designs of romantic nationalists obscured the achievements of pioneers who were far ahead of their time.

One of the earliest and most arresting pieces in the show is a sideboard, created in 1876 by English designer Edward William Godwin. Floating planes of ebonized mahogany are trimmed in silver. The piece looks forward to the lightweight architecture of the 1920s, and back to the heritage of Japan--which had just opened up to the West--and demonstrates how beauty can be achieved through pure form, without surface ornament.

Two complementary sections cover the years 1914-45. "Celebrating Modernity" explores the revolution wrought by high-speed transportation and communications. "Radio broadcasting . . . has made the world a neighborhood," boasts a plaque from the Westinghouse pavilion at the 1933 Century of Progress Fair in Chicago. The plaque's circular maps of the world are flanked by a console radio of 1935, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague with a big disc of blue-tinted mirror glass concealing the mechanism. A circular glass table incorporates a magazine rack that suggests an airplane propeller or turbine blades. Although this section focuses on progressive design, the curators devote a room to traditionalists who refused to join the march to the future and instead continued to create unique pieces for affluent clients.

"Manipulating Modernity," shows how design was exploited to serve the state--notably in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and New Deal America. Similar images were employed in support of radically different goals. Three eagles fly together: one carrying a fasces, another a swastika, a third thunderbolts and a gear. The first two extol the brute power of fascism and remind us of the destruction it would soon unleash. The third is the familiar emblem of the National Recovery Administration, which Roosevelt established to fight the Depression. In propaganda too, modernity was challenged by the forces of reaction. Regimes of every political stripe evoked the past to achieve a sense of legitimacy in uncertain times. Renderings of the British viceroy's house in Delhi appear as much like a pompous stage set as the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich, though the goals of their occupants had nothing in common.

Nearly all the works here were selected from the 70,000 items amassed by Mitchell Wolfson Jr. As a boy, Wolfson began a collection of hotel keys while traveling the world with his parents. Back home in Miami, he absorbed the spirit of fantasy in the family's vintage movie theaters. He studied art and European history at Princeton before inheriting a fortune that allowed him to devote all his energies to collecting.

Skeptics wondered if Wolfson was simply a rich dilettante in the tradition of William Randolph Hearst--especially after he acquired the matchbox collection of King Farouk--but this exhibition confirms his originality and prescience. Now 58, he is still searching for offbeat treasures in his favorite fields of artist-designed furniture, transportation, world's fair memorabilia and the arts of persuasion. Hurricane Andrew knocked out his two private Pullman cars, which he liked to use to travel across North America, but he still maintains an exotic castle in the Italian city of Genoa and hopes to install part of his collection there.

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