The University of Chicagos Smart Museum of Art
presents masterworks from its collection of modern design in the special exhibition Mid-Century: Good Design in Europe and America, 18501950. Offering a focused look at more than sixty remarkable objectsboth long-held treasures and newer acquisitions to the Smarts collectionthe exhibition gives insight into the interweaving history and iconic forms that defined the domestic world of modernism during the fertile period between 1850 and 1950. Featuring both one-of-a-kind commissions as well as mass-produced objects, Good Design is divided into four overlapping thematic sections highlighting extraordinary works by Edmond Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marianne Brandt, and Charles and Ray Eames, among many others. On view from July 8 through September 5, 2010, Good Design offers nuanced perspectives on key artistic innovations within a broader cultural context of social activism, nationalism, and international politics.
Good Design is curated by Richard A. Born, Smart Museum Senior Curator. The exhibition is accompanied by several talks and other programs that dig deeper into the intersections of modern design, politics, and society.
Good Design spans the period between 1850 and 1950, when progressive artists, designers, and architects decisively reshaped the everyday world of objects. Advocating for design reformand by extension, social reformthey promoted a host of competing ideologies that embraced aesthetic revolution and technical innovation. Though the history of modern design is often charted as a singular arcone beginning with the legacy of historicist designs and hand craftsmanship and ending with the widespread embrace of new abstract forms and machine productionin actuality the ideals underlying modernism resulted in a variety of solutions. As tastes changed, young designers, new movements, and a previous generations vanguard overlapped, and the newcomers did not always reject the immediate past while projecting in their own innovations a better material and spiritual future.
With a more focused arrangement than most traditional survey exhibitions, Good Design demonstrates the ways in which design ideologies and practices defy neat categorization. It is divided into four overlapping thematic sections: From Revivalism to Arts and Crafts in the British Isles, 18501910; Arts and Crafts and Prairie Style in America, 18801920; Functionalism between the World Wars, 19181939; and International Modernism around 1950. The show is highlighted by masterworks such as Edmund Johnsons rare facsimiles of medieval treasures made for the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wrights unique dining room furniture from the Robie House (which is celebrating its centennial this year and is located just blocks from the Smart Museum), Marianne Brandts rare handmade tea service from the Bauhaus, and Charles and Ray Eamess classic plywood and metal chairs. As these and the other works on view in the exhibition demonstrate, the best designs of the period are derived from a complex intermingling of utility, social value, and formal invention.