The Living Room
Curator Namita Gupta Wiggers examines the cultural trends that informed The Living Room.
The Living Room
Namita Gupta Wiggers
How can a collection be used to examine a current cultural trend?
Using the Museum’s collection of historic craft, The Living Room is an examination of the renewed interest in mid-century modernism through an abstracted contemporary domestic setting.
At first glance, The Living Room is a tableau, a cutaway “model” of an imagined twenty-first century home. With mid-century modern craft objects incorporated into the setting, however, the installation moves away from a commentary on current decorating styles to raise questions, instead, about the place of craft and today’s mid-century modern revival. Drawing upon two primary approaches to museum display: the imagined “period” room and the Wunderkammer-style glass cabinets, The Living Room is a critique of the way craft is presented within a museum context.
Why is the exhibition called “The Living Room”?
The living room is one of the primary architectural spaces through which early modernists actualized the Bauhaus ideals of “form follows function.” Turning the often empty parlor into the primary dwelling space, the modern living room, particularly in the United States, became the center of the average person’s household. During the early decades of the twentieth century, a new visual culture for dwelling in an industrialized and modern moment emerged. Painting moved from representation to abstraction; design engaged industrial materials, processes and clean lines; and architecture embraced glass, steel and open floor plans.
What is happening in homes today?
Open nearly any magazine or catalog focused on domestic living today – or of the past ten years – and the prevailing fascination with mid-century modernism is readily apparent. For younger generations “discovering” modernism for the first time, this frequently takes the form of a domestic mélange of “early attic/late garage” finds, Ikea basics, Danish modern furniture, and, as discretionary income increases, a select few classic modern pieces purchased via E-bay or Craigslist, or from specialty stores making licensed reproductions readily available to a growing market. Although continuing the modernist aesthetic of simplicity and spatial openness, the mixture of objects includes not only a range of sources, but a mixture of historical periods; a texture, pattern and color-driven aesthetic; and a great sense of pride in the DIY spirit of making, modifying or even tracking down the perfect accoutrement or furnishing for the space.
How is craft a part of this mid-century modern revival?
During the mid-century, craft changed dramatically in the United States. Following World War II, many returning veterans, men and women, attended college on the GI Bill, pursued degrees in art, and began teaching in academic institutions. For many in this group, it was the first opportunity for an advanced degree within their families. And for academic institutions, it introduced new ideas, ways of working, and challenges to traditions and expected norms. It also linked vernacular and everyday experiences into the academy, breaking down and redefining questions of class, materiality, process and aesthetics. Many of the changes included challenges to expected uses of materials, deconstruction of traditional functional forms, such as the vessel, and a shift of scale and focus that moved craft-based media out of a strictly functional and domestic realm, linking craft to industrial design and art arenas, and establishing what is known today as the American Craft Movement.
Today, large numbers of art school graduates find themselves seeking a place in a vastly more diversified art arena than that faced by the artists redefining craft in the fifties and sixties. Coming from all geographic regions across the US – urban, suburban, rural, and from a broad range of socio-economic arenas – they are looking for ways to make a living by their hands. As media specificity and the boundaries between art, craft and design continue to erode, this younger generation is playful, ironic, and fascinated with kitsch, art history and mid-century craft as a source for experimentation – and business. For example, Jonathan Adler currently produces vases based on the textures and forms of mid-century Scandinavian ceramics and “people” vases bearing strong resemblance to Marguerite Wildenhain’s mid-century vessels. With an art history degree from Brown and art experience from RISD, Adler is an example of how artists today engage craft history in their own domestic work.
What does it mean for craft to be included in the “project of modernity”?
Craft was present, too, particularly in the mid-century modern living room. But our understanding of the place of craft in modernity is murky at best, particularly in comparison to the repeatedly and well-documented modern histories of the other visual arenas of art, architecture and design. Peter Greenhalgh, who has written extensively on craft and modernism, notes that:
Most definitions and historical musings on modernity either leave out the concept of craft altogether, or, if they include it, it is in the form of something outside of, even the negation of, modernity. It is something the modern leaves behind, or something that was set up to resist the modern. This vision of craft is about the most damning thing that could happen to any practice in the visual arts. To be ignored in the project of modernity is to be denied space within the cultural hierarchy.1
Why were these objects selected from the Museum’s collection?
For this exhibition, mid-century is defined as the mid-forties through the sixties, engaging the collection’s strengths as a means of investigating the mid-century modern cultural trend. During the fifties, this institution hosted a series of Northwest Ceramic Annual Exhibitions, modeled after the prestigious Ceramic National Exhibitions hosted by the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY. Several prize-winning works from the annual exhibitions are part of the collection, providing a physical and visual document of how craft changed in the post-WWII years. In order to use the collection to question contemporary domestic practice, the exhibition combines modern craft with furniture borrowed from a range of sources to reflect on domestic spaces today.
How does the exhibition examine museum practices and approaches to the presentation of craft?
Period rooms, such as those found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art include painting, sculpture, furniture, silver, china, textiles, etc. within the context of a single domestic setting, providing visitors with a cross-section of visual production in, say, France of the 17th century. Here, craft is in the service of history, often lost in the visual noise of an imagined setting. Several art museums, such as The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, are taking a different approach with their contemporary collections, exhibiting works typically categorized as decorative arts, fine art and design within thematic exhibitions. While this provides a relatively neutral arena to engage the visual arts, few museums have the scope to effectively execute exhibitions of this kind.
In Mining the Museum: An Installation, Fred Wilson paired unlikely objects from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore (1992–3), such as slave shackles with fine silver, revealing how a collection can simultaneously critique museum practice and reveal socio-cultural meanings associated with and through objects.
In craft institutions today, collections are most often presented in ways that mirror art museums and gallery settings. Objects are organized chronologically, thematically, by region or by media, and displayed on large pedestals or in built-in casework. The experience of craft in this format works well for objects created for the “white cube” in more recent decades, but falls short in its presentation of historic craft that is non-functional, but more visibly linked to a history of utility and scaled for a domestic setting.
The Living Room is an experimental installation that takes Wilson’s contemporary practice of engaging individual objects as carriers of meanings that shift and change in relationship to one another, and as objects within a culturally-charged space as its exploratory strategy. Presenting selected objects from the Museum collection in two formats: imagined contemporary domestic settings and the built-in casework of the art arena, The Living Room asks viewers to consider how museums display craft. Competing with better-known modern design in one setting, and isolated from its domestic focus in another, are these types of installations providing a visitor experience that addresses craft as a subject of its own? Or do they place craft in situations where important differentiating elements are lost?
How will the exhibition change during the next six months?
Because craft is the lens through which the exhibition examines current interests in mid-century modernism, the checklist will remain constant, but the objects will be re-installed three times during the six-month duration to highlight different relationships and concepts. The furniture and tableware – borrowed from Canoe, Corporate Environments of Oregon, a Knoll Dealer; Era Mid-Century Furnishings and Art; Workplace Resource of Oregon, a Herman Miller Dealer; and Hive Modern, and the purchases from ikea and West Elm – function as “exhibition furniture,” much like pedestals in a more typical display, and will remain constant throughout the exhibition.
Mid-Century Modern – On view October and November 2007
The first installation examines mid-century modernism. Juxtaposing three casserole dishes, for example, by Edith Heath, who taught Frances Senska, who in turn taught Peter Voulkos prompts considerations of how each of these lidded vessels differently occupies space. Jack Lenor Larsen’s Remoulade combines a range of types of yarns, each with different thicknesses and elasticity, into a handwoven textile. An innovator, Larsen is known for finding industry approaches that retained the handcrafted texture of a textile while enabling him to produce quantities for clients like Frank Lloyd Wright. Here, the design pieces provide a contextual foundation to understand how craft inhabited both homes in the fifties and might inhabit those of today.
Ornamental Modern – On view December 2007 and January 2008
The second installation examines a contemporary interest in ornamental forms, layered patterns, and kitsch within the resurgence of mid-century modern design. This incorporation of curvilinear forms and ornamental silhouettes directly challenges what has come to define Bauhaus aesthetics, instead redefining the mid-century revival in distinctively feminine forms, such as Eva Zeisel’s coffee table now available through Design Within Reach. The works of Robert Arneson, Patti Warashina and Fred Bauer are presented as precursors to today’s interest in irony, such as the popular stark white ceramics by Suck UK. Right now, color and pattern and an interest in process prevails, revealed in the layered fabric from Reprodepot showcased on Sam Maloof’s settee, and the laset-cut tyvek of Tord Boontje’s Until Dawn curtain.
Eco-Modern – On view February and March 2008
The final installation examines eco-modernism, linking eco-consciousness, a philosophy of re-use, a natural and organic palette, and the impact of Orientalist philosophy on mid-century modernism. When Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada conducted their national lecture tour in 1952, their Orientalist philosophical approach rooted in Zen Buddhism dramatically changed ceramics and counter culture in the 1950s. Using simple methods and materials available to village potters worldwide, the focus of the movement was not to emulate folk artisans, but to imbue modern work with a comparable functional simplicity. Works by Hamada, Ray Grimm and Peter Voulkos provide an understanding of how craft engaged – and then transformed – Mingei ideas.
1. Greenhalgh, Peter, “Worrying About the Modern World,” American Craft, Vol. 67, No.5, pp. 121–128.
Greenhalgh, Peter, “Worrying About the Modern World,” American Craft, Vol. 67, No.5, pp. 121–128.
Marincola, Paula, ed. Glenn Adamson, “Handy-Crafts: A Doctrine.” What Makes a Great Exhibition? Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006.
Oldham, Todd and Julia Szabo. Handmade Modern: Mid-Century Inspired Projects for Your Home. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Yelavich, Susan. Contemporary World Interiors. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007.
October 11, 2007 – March 23, 2008
Curated by: Namita Gupta Wiggers
Challenging notions of how a museum typically displays its collection, The Living Room re-contextualizes objects from the Museum’s collection within a contemporary domestic setting. The exhibition examines a cultural trend in which vintage garage sale finds, mid-century modern classics and craft mingle within the twenty-first century home, resulting in an eclectic mix of historical periods and “high” and “low” art. Periodic changes during the exhibition will highlight different object relationships, as well as the resurgent interest in mid-century modern design, ornamentation and eco-consciousness.
This exhibition supported by: American Express
Media Sponsor: Oregon Home
Special thanks to: Canoe, Corporate Environments of Oregon, a Knoll Dealer, Era Mid-Century Furnishings and Art, Workplace Resource of Oregon, a Herman Miller Dealer, and Hive Modern. Also: Amy Baker; Dwell, Modernism, Atomic Ranch, Readymade Magazines; Fabrics purchased from Mill End, reprodepot and Contemporary Cloth; flooring and sideboard from ikea. Other items purchased from: ikea, West Elm, Sur la Table.