The Value of Good Design

New York

17 June 2019

“Good Design is not a label or a price tag. Good Design is international both in origin and appeal.
Good Design is a statement and not a gadget.
Good Design need not be costly.
Good Design is neither a book of etiquette nor a social register.
Good Design is one that achieves integrity.
Good Design depends on the harmony established between the form of an object and its use.”

The above manifesto probably strikes a familiar tone: the notion of “good design” it describes is thoroughly ingrained in our collective memory and experience, even if many might struggle to trace the origins or rationale behind its tenets. The manifesto features in a new exhibition at MoMA in New York, The Value of Good Design, which attempts to trace this development: it considers good design as it was conceived in the inter- and postwar periods in various global centres, but largely bases its narrative around the museum’s own efforts to codify and disseminate this vision.

Exhibition curators Juliet Kinchin and Andrew Gardner have drawn heavily on the museum’s vast collection, and filled the gallery with a panoply of domestic furnishings and appliances, textile and graphic designs, transport designs, sporting goods, ceramics, glass, toys and electronics, spanning the mundane and familiar to the singular and eye-catching. Not many exhibitions succeed in juxtaposing objects as varied as an ordinary broomstick – a model manufactured by Stanley Home Products in 1955 – and the Cinquecento, or “500F city car”, designed by Dante Giacosa in 1957, but by placing focus on the “democratizing potential of design”, as an introductory wall text explains, Kinchin and Gardner have strived to assess these objects’ value in social and economic frameworks. Aided by archival documentation, photographs and videos, visitors are meant to question their definition of good design and scrutinise their own functional and aesthetic relationships to it.

Since the inception of MoMA’s industrial design department in 1934, the museum has tested the line between art and commerce in formulating its definition of good design. Essentially, good design is functional, cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing. This dual consideration of form and function exposes, among other things, the Bauhaus connection of Eliot Noyes, an industrial designer who served as the first director of the department having previously worked under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. In 1946, Noyes left the museum and was replaced by Edgar Kaufmann Jr, whose background was as an architect and department-store merchandiser. Quickly, the department merged exhibiting and collecting with activities providing a platform for contemporary design, manufacture and retailing. Competition-based shows, such as Organic Design in Home Furnishings (1940-41), brought together designers and manufacturers, while exhibitions such as Useful Household Objects (1938-48), the museum’s annual pre-Christmas show, partnered with retailers and doubled as a shopping guide for consumers. The museum’s Good Design series (1950-55), meanwhile, was co-organised with the Chicago-based wholesaler Merchandise Mart.

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and Second World War, consumerism under MoMA’s watch increasingly assumed a moral and patriotic dimension, as the public was encouraged to purchase domestic objects based on values like practicality, honesty and simplicity. These ideas shifted in the context of the Cold War, as design became fraught with other symbols of American identity, from the domestic comforts of suburbia and the centrality of the nuclear family, to democracy and capitalism. On the international stage, good design became a tool of cultural diplomacy, showcased in international exhibitions and Marshall Plan initiatives, and was used to spread US values to counter Soviet ideals. These programmes fuelled US international relations, from the 1945 creation of the government Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs to MoMA’s 1955 Europe-destined exhibition, 50 Years of American Art, which featured mass-produced industrial design items alongside painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, typography, and film. Of the latter, art historian Gay McDonald has written that the US government and MoMA “came to view such wares as a vital means of quelling French fears of American cultural homogenization and of building support for the American way of life”. These narratives have since been internalised, spread in part by MoMA’s exhibitions, as well as its Design Store, which continues to sell historical items.

Dante Giacosa's 1957 500f Fiat city car. IMAGE courtesy of MoMA.

The new exhibition introduces visitors to MoMA’s above-mentioned historical initiatives, casting the museum as a central player in the story of good design. It begins with sections devoted to exhibitions and competitions, notably the Useful Household Objects and Good Design series. A quote by Kaufmann Jr, included in the wall text, explains his belief that museums had “the responsibility of guiding the consumer toward those qualities which make an object beloved for generations”. Such transparency in relation to the museum’s messaging connects this show directly to Kinchin’s 2009 exhibition What was Good Design? MoMA’s Message, 1944-56, although the latter portion of the current exhibition, ‘International Good Design’, widens the geographic scope by highlighting “good design” from other countries, displayed by means of the following pairings: Italy and the UK, Scandinavia and Japan, France and Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe. Oddly, no clear rationale for these couplings is offered.

As in the first section, objects here are largely presented as part of an institutional and creative hierarchy – products by designers and manufacturers executed through programmes backed by governments, museums and international design councils, and involving expositions such as Britain Can Make It (1946), Formes Utiles (1949-50), Design in Scandinavia (1954-57), Die Gute Form (1949) and the Milan Triennale. The idea that design was “a vital tool of economic reconstruction, technological advancement and political persuasion” is expressed directly in the wall text. It is also taken up in Glimpses of the USA, a 1959 colour 16mm film about “a day in the life of the United States” that was created by Charles and Ray Eames and comprises seven screens showing scenes from agriculture and industry, through to cities and crowds of people. An expression of movement and modernity, the film is an example of how US socio- political values were propagated through design. Commissioned by the United States Information Agency to be displayed at the entrance of the American National Exhibition held in Moscow in 1959 (the scene of Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon’s famous “kitchen debate”), the film was originally projected across seven 6x9m screens inside a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. This imposing display of audio-visual technology would have served as a powerful propaganda tool.

Kinchin and Gardner set the aesthetic tone in the exhibition’s first section, introducing viewers to accepted forms and materials by way of an example of “bad” design: an image of an “Overstuffed ‘Gorilla’ Armchair”. Taken by Noyes, this photograph was initially displayed in the 1940-41 exhibition Organic Design in Home Furnishings. According to Noyes, who curated it, the chair does not demonstrate the “harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to the structure, material, and purpose [and instead embraces] vain ornamentation or superfluity”. The furniture and other domestic objects displayed in the current show serve as a visual counterpoint to the bulging, messy and old-fashioned Gorilla armchair, and connect the streamlined minimalism of good design to notions of futurity and technological progress that underpinned 20th-century modernism. The exhibition’s most obvious comparison is Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen’s High-Back armchair, whose plywood frame with foam rubber and woven upholstery by Marli Ehrman contrasts against the heavy construction of the Gorilla armchair, and ties unadorned visual simplicity to bodily comfort and support.

The importance of materials as they relate to responsible, low-cost consumption is underlined in examples from MoMA’s exhibition Useful Objects of American Design under $10 (1939-40) and Useful Items in Wartime (1942), in which plywood furniture designs by Eames and Saarinen took centre stage. The creation of “progressive” materials was partly down to economic restrictions placed on consumers during the Great Depression, which later informed wartime production. The exhibition highlights the example of Magnalite, a patented aluminium alloy that was used for a tea kettle by John G. Rideout from 1936. Conversely, the exhibition showcases examples of cheaper, locally produced materials, such as the furniture designs of Xavier Guerrero and Clara Porset in pine with ixtle webbing, a material produced from a Mexican plant fibre. All of these connect in various ways to contemporary issues – whether fair-trade manufacturing processes or problems of pollution – although none of these resonances are offered as points of reflection for visitors to the exhibition.

Indeed, deeper questioning of the wider significances of form and material choice is largely left to the viewing public. What does the look and notion of stackable design, seen for instance in Sori Yanagi’s 1954 Elephant Stool (manufactured by the Kotobuki Seating Company), say about users’ experience of space? And what of the connection between “good design” and non-representational motifs and abstraction, illustrated by the textile designs of Lucienne Day, Eszter Haraszty, Astrid Sampe and Ettore Sottsass, and the range of graphic design examples on display? How can one material be invested with multiple symbolisms? Taking plastic as an example, how does the technological progress behind William H. Miller Jr’s futuristic Inflatable chair (c. 1944) – in Vinylite with a plywood frame, aluminium legs and string netting – relate to Earl S. Tupper’s polyethylene Tupperware (1946-54), perhaps the ultimate symbol of mid-century suburban domestic life? The tension between design and morality could also be unpacked, from the promotion of “honest” designs that don’t mask their function, including Raymond Loewy’s Communications Receiver (1947), to the extreme reduction of form, such as that shown in the “optimal objects” of Kaj Franck, exemplified in the exhibition by his glazed earthenware Kilta tableware (1948), produced in monochromatic colours with no handles or other “unnecessary” elements.

Saara Hopea's 1951 stacking glasses from the Nuutajärvi glassworks. IMAGE courtesy of MoMA.

In recent years, however, scholarship in design history and material culture studies has flourished around social history and personal narratives, fields that bring consumer reception and experience (as well as entirely new actors) into accounts that have been typically design- and designer-led. Such shifts, exhibited in the work of Judy Attfield and Sophie Woodward for instance, are allowing hierarchies of cultural production to be rethought. While visitors to The Value of Good Design are expected to forge personal connections to the objects on display, this might have been better mediated by framing the displayed designs not solely as products of creation, but also as products of use. Instead, the exhibition falls back on a traditional gallery format, grouping objects mutely on platforms. While the curators are to be commended for finding space for work by unknown makers – such as a collapsible salad basket (French, c. 1953) in tinned steel and a set of 1930s bath mitts in hemp twine that were sold at Liggett drug stores – what is missing are meanings drawn from lived experience. The Werra1 35mm film camera (c. 1955-60) is a prime example. Manufactured by Zeiss-Werk for the mass market, its ergonomic, compact, easy-to-use form changed image-making processes. Space might have been devoted to a consideration of the social and physical person who once used, saved, or passed down this object. Positioning the user as a creative agent and actor in the narrative of “good design” would perhaps help exhibition visitors build connections to their historical forebears and bring this layer of reflection to the present.

The exhibition’s final section, the ‘Good Design Lab’, was conceived to amend this limitation. Here, visitors are invited to touch and try out objects that were designed to be used, all of which are also on display in the gallery. According to the wall text, this part encourages viewers to question what “Good Design might mean today, and whether values from mid-century can be translated and redefined for a 21st-century audience[...] by trying out a few ‘good design’ classics still in production”. They can play with a Slinky, designed by Richard and Betty James in 1945, or simulate pouring hot liquid from the glass, wood and leather Chemex coffee maker (1941) by Peter Schlumbohm. In this final section, MoMA’s role as a contemporary design incubator is acknowledged, reinforcing the museum’s historical role as a tastemaker and value creator as expressed throughout the exhibition. Thanks to MoMA, the legacy of “good design” is far reaching today – whether in designers’ minimalist proclivities, the antiques market for mid-century modernism, or collective mentalities that privilege simplified spaces and lifestyles. But the basis for such outcomes is worth considering further. The manifesto that opened this review is affixed to a wall with no provenance information that tells viewers who is doing the talking, or when – and therein lies the problem.