The Professor was there in 1983: the “DESIGN SINCE 1945” exhibition

["marella" sewing machine designed by marcello nizzoli, 1957, for necchi; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

[“mirella” sewing machine designed by marcello nizzoli, 1957, for necchi; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

The creative climate of today makes it so easy, so natural, to forget the past. The Professor sees it in the business world all of the time, and in the classroom, too. There’s no reward structure in either place for informed recollection. So much attention is focused upon what is “trending” right now, with little time for reflection on what it means or how it integrates with what is already known. Besides, there is so much to know these days, so much to keep up with, to navigate, to persevere through on a daily basis. Even the recent past is slippery, fluid, hard to hold on to or get a grip on.

Instead, all of our past histories blend together and blur in a way that makes accurate and timely recall a difficult proposal. It becomes part of an ever-growing info and image overload; there is no escape from it; it defines our lives today. That simple realization has complex ramifications. For one, it has changed the dynamics of our individual and collective memories. The Professor suspects that it is no longer possible in 2014 “to pull a Marcel Proust.” That is to say, it’s no longer possible to receive a sensory stimulus [eating a madeleine] and then expect a cognitive epiphany to unfold [the little cake precipitating a galloping association of childhood memories for Proust’s protagonist in Remembrance of Things Past].

But what are we to make of this ahistoric condition? What are we to make of it when it prevents designers today, right now, from knowing their own history? What are we to make of it when we lose the thread of our profession’s own genetic material, when we lose contact with the proverbial “shoulders of giants” that we all stand on?

[chair 577 designed by pierre paulin, 1967, part of DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

[chair 577 designed by pierre paulin, 1967; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

These were the kinds of questions on the mind of The Professor as he recently contemplated a history-defining exhibition that he attended in 1983—the epic “Design Since 1945” at Philadelphia Museum of Art [16 October 1983 – 8 January 1984]. As a young editor, The Professor was there for the exhibition as well as the symposium that went with it. It marked the first time that The Young Professor had heard such design legends as Dieter Rams and Ettore Sottsass, Jr., and Nicholas Negroponte [straight from the Media Lab at MIT] speak on stage and it had quite an effect on him.

Even though it has been 30 years since the exhibition closed, one thing still stands out clearly to The Professor: It was an illuminative and transformative show that included hundreds of designs that are now considered classics that every current student of design should know about. “Design Since 1945” moved mountains to illustrate the evolutionary progression of pure, unadulterated Modernism: it showed the way in which concepts such as abstraction, distillation, efficiency, functionalism, “good design” and “truth to materials” became concrete guidelines to follow for the designers in the show. Even if students today do or don’t follow these precepts.they should know these issues [and where they stand in relation to them].

When The Young Professor wrote about the exhibition [in the November 1983 issue of Architectural Record magazine], the very first line of his review read as follows:

“‘Design Since 1945’ is arguably the most important exhibition of contemporary consumer products ever assembled.”

The review continued:

“The show, a collaboration between architect and educator George Nelson and curator Kathryn Hiesinger, reveals the last four decades of mass-produced domestic design as a period of widespread innovation, and the 13,000-square foot exhibition space is filled to overflowing with objects that represent every recent international design trend.”

["casablanca" sideboard designed by ettore sottsass, jr. 1981 for memphis; part of the exhibition DESIGN SINCE 1945

[“casablanca” sideboard designed by ettore sottsass, jr. 1981 for memphis; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition

This was one of the last big projects that George Nelson [GN] did; he died a few years later [1986]. To The Young Professor, GN was a giant of design and the show bore that out. He was the creative force behind the Herman Miller furniture company from the mid-century mark on, he was the head of his own architectural and design office in New York, and he was a relentless writer and critic. “Design Since 1945” wouldn’t have been the same without his consultation and his design of the exhibition itself. Amidst the 418 objects [comprising ceramics, glass, metalwork, plastics, textiles, and wood], seven designers were given prominent “didactic stops” as GN called them. They were like mini-stage sets in the larger exhibition; four featured designers that are well-known today: Dieter Rams, Charles Eames, Ettore Sottsass, Jr. and Arne Jacobsen. And several of these major design figures are somehow further off of the radar of students and practitioners today: Marco Zanuso from Italy, Tappio Wirkkala from Finland, and,  unfortunately, GN himself.

[the marshmallow sofa designed by george nelson office, 19XX, for herman miller co.; part of DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

[the “marshmallow love seat #5670” designed by the george nelson & asoc. office, 1956, for herman miller co.; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

“Design Since 1945” presented a ground-breaking collection of post-WWII consumer goods as a chronological stream of progress. But it also presented those goods in another way. It identified key themes such as miniaturization, modularity, domesticity, and material experimentation and then brought together products to make the point. They might have been made of differing materials, or from differing countries,or made at a different time, but they were united in their support of a particular theme.

In closing the review, The Professor summed up the exhibition as follows:

“In the end ‘Design Since 1945’ is a utopia that designers dream about—a fairy-tale world of all the right things. And yet the objects, grouped by type, date, and material, tell us that design, far from being a surface embellishment, is in fact a basic human activity directly related to the real world and to such other important concerns as eating, sleeping and working. It is not, then, just 40 years of history that Nelson helps us to see in Philadelphia; it is also a clear, if highly selective, view of ourselves.”

In retrospect, the most intriguing aspect of the exhibition to The Professor was its elucidation on visual literacy; the layout of the exhibition was premised on “how to see” modern design, a long-standing passion of Nelson’s. “Design Since 1945” educated the eye about the design of products at the same time that western visual literacy was being rocked by the near-simultaneous flowering of MTV, ESPN, the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the Bronze Age of comics, the Memphis group’s furniture, and the birth of both the personal computer and American art furniture. This was the seminal moment when visual literacy started the ascent that continues unabated through the present day.

[black 201 television set designed by marco zanuso for brion-vega; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

[black 201 television set designed by marco zanuso for brion-vega; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

Historically, “Design Since 1945” will remain the first to mount a global survey of industrial design [done since World War II] for American audiences. By focusing on both the functional and the beautiful aspects of these objects, it made the case that MoMA[NY] had been promoting since their 1940s series of Good Design competitions: that there is such a thing as “good design” and it should be promoted. As might be imagined, The Professor views things more relativistically and with much more irony; for him, there are good designs but no such thing as “good design;” it is a persistent myth, a social construction rather than a Platonic ideal.

What remains true is that designers, operating between 1945 – 1983, took on a variety of roles that included artistic statesman, corporate janitor, craftsperson, materials engineer, business entrepreneur, process innovator, mechanism inventor, and more. That opening-up of professional opportunities laid the groundwork for the myriad of creative possibilities that have grown since then for recent graduates and practitioners alike. As “Design Since 1945″ reminds us, the design profession not only produced work worthy of our remembrance during the 38 years it covered, it made our present period possible, and that should not ever be forgotten—and that’s why they call him The Professor.”

[goblet designed by kaj franck, circa 1974; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

[blown glass goblet designed by kaj franck, circa 1974; part of the DESIGN SINCE 1945 exhibition]

n.b. The Professor herewith encloses the key passage with respect to the protagonist’s memory of eating the madeleine from Remembrance of Things Past: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.”

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