Modernism Rediscovered

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This is about a rediscovered exhibition on now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: A Designed Life: Contemporary American Textiles, Wallpapers, and Containers & Packaging, 1951–1954 on view at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture through December 8, 2018. (It travels to the Center for Architecture in Sarasota, Florida in 2019.) See it if you can.

A Designed Life (ADL), which received funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Coby Foundation, re-imagines, re-creates and interprets three Cold War-era traveling displays of American designed and manufactured goods commissioned by the U.S. Department of State that were circulated within West Germany in the early 1950s. ADL considers how the Department of State used “Contemporary American Textiles,” designed by Florence Knoll; “Contemporary American Wallpapers,” designed by Tom Lee; and “Containers and Packaging,” designed by Will Burtin, as part of propaganda campaign to showcase the lifestyle choices, built environment, and affluence of the United States in order to promote the growth of democratic government in a divided Germany.

Each exhibit showcased the work of American designers and manufacturers. Many of these individuals, who are now associated with modernism, were immigrants or first-generation Americans and/or educated by other designers who migrated to the United States because of conflict. Representative designers include Noémi Raymond and D.D. and Leslie Tillett (textiles); Ilonka Karasz and Ray Komei (wallpapers), and Walter Landor and Morton Goldsholl (Containers and Packaging). ADL also includes a stunning selection of Marshall Plan lithograph posters from the George C. Marshall Museum. A forthcoming exhibition catalog includes essays by Re, Greg Castillo, Jan Logemann, Virginia Gardner Troy, and Stuart Leslie and Emily Margolis. (Exhibition photos by Marlayna Demond.)

I spoke to Margaret Re, curator of A Designed Life and Associate Professor, Design at UMBC about the discovery and relevance of this incredible exhibition.

How did this exhibition present itself to you?

The origins of A Designed Life, an exhibition about three exhibitions that date to the early 1950s and that were used by the Department of State as a form of soft power lie in the Knoll-designed textile exhibit.

I found the Knoll-designed textile exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art (AAA) while on sabbatical. Florence Knoll Bassett donated her papers to the Archives of American Art. That she had arranged these materials in portfolios and color-coded files and designed four containers for them intrigued me. Knoll Bassett had consciously archived her life for public presentation. What was her thinking process? What did she value? What did she want others to know about her life’s work?

While reviewing these files in the AAA reading room, I found a sketch of Textilien aus USA (referred to Contemporary American Textiles in public records found at the Smithsonian Institution Archives), that immediately followed photographs and drawings of the CBS building. The change in project scale from a 38-story skyscraper for which Knoll planned and designed the entire interior to an 8’-0” x 16’-0” x 24’-0” aluminum framed exhibit surprised me. I could see the similarities in form between the textile exhibit and Knoll’s showrooms but why was this small Miesian structure so important to Knoll that it merited inclusion in her archives and what was it?

Further research led me to discover that the textile exhibition was part of a larger set of thirteen Department of State-funded exhibitions organized in 1951 by the Traveling Exhibition Service (TES), a semi-autonomous agency that was also established in 1951 largely with Department of State funding. As a set, these thirteen exhibitions created a portrait of the American people through their history, geography, and the tools used in daily life. The three exhibitions that presented American design captured my interest:

  1. Textilien aus USA (Contemporary American Textiles) designed by Florence Knoll,

  2. Tapeten aus USA (Contemporary American Wallpapers) designed by Tom Lee (a fascinating designer who seems to have slipped from the public record), and

  3. Werbepackung in Amerika (Containers and Packages) designed by Wil(helm) Burtin.

The idea to reconstruct these exhibits came to me because Knoll, Lee,* and Burtin’s exhibits had never been seen in the United States. These exhibits that were organized, curated and designed by three major design figures and contained work created by many other designers who like Knoll, Lee, and Burtin were associated with American modernism seemed to have slipped from the American public memory.

I wanted to know how these slip happens. One reason may have been legal. I learned that the Smith-Mundt Act, also know as Public Law 402, the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act that legitimized American government public diplomacy activities on foreign soil (i.e., allowed the Department of State to create this exhibit program) prevented these exhibits from being shown within the United States. Unlike other forms of government (think Axis and Soviet powers) a democracy functions from the bottom up. Therefore, the U.S. government doesn’t propagandize its citizens.

George Nelson’s book Display included photographs of Knoll’s exhibition and the plans as did one other source. I found photos of Burtin’s exhibit taken by Ezra Stoller in Burtin’s archives at RIT and in Stoller’s archives. The exhibit catalogs were located through WorldCat and accessed through inter-library loan. How hard could this be?

(*There is one exception — Lee’s wallpaper exhibit was displayed in New York before being shipped overseas to Germany. However, once it arrived in Germany, the Department of State took it apart, edited the wallpaper selections, and reassembled it because a number of the papers were judged by the Herwin Schaefer, the German-born Department of State officer assigned to Germany as “not fit for German consumption.)

There were a few exhibitions, including MOMA’s “Good Design” exhibit that sold the virtues of postwar America. How did this appeal to American consumers when it was first mounted?

The State Department planned for these exhibitions to circulate through West German and Austrian schools, museums, trade fairs and the Amerika Haus program, a U.S. government-funded system of information centers centered around a library. These centers were charged with acting as agents and interpreters
of American culture through the facilitation of free discussion and the presentation of public programming (lectures, plays, musical performances, exhibits, etc.) intended to increase cultural and political prestige on the part of the United States. Therefore, the intended audience consisted of German and other European citizens. However, the development of these exhibits is very much influenced by MoMA’s Good Design program.

These exhibits were organized by the TES on behalf of the Department of State. TES director Annemarie Henle Pope, a German émigré art historian consulted with MoMA’s Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. regarding who should design these exhibitions. Kaufmann recommended Knoll, Lee, and Burtin. As you know Knoll’s work was included in the Good Design exhibits as were many of the designers whose work was included in the displays of textile, wallpaper, and containers. (For example, Morton Goldsholl, who designed the Good Design exhibition mark was included by Burtin in Containers & Packaging.) Pope wrote to her superiors that Kaufmann recommended “the best.”

The catalog format for Knoll, Lee, and Burtin’s exhibits were also very much influenced by the Good Design program. In the catalog “checklist” the name of each displayed article was given followed by designer and then manufacturer. Knoll, Lee, and Burtin provided copy for their respective catalogs that were designed and printed in Germany. Price was originally suppose to be included but was ultimately omitted.

I have no solid proof as to why price was dropped but I have some ideas.

  1. These products would have been imported. While individuals may have been eager to afford these objects, what did price mean when you couldn’t find it in your local store?

  2. Inflation meant that prices changed frequently.

  3. The presented objects were meant to be aspirational. Price was not included in their display.

Did the Germans like these exhibits? The reaction was decidedly mixed. Was the Department of State satisfied with these exhibits? Did they like them? Again, the reaction was decidedly mixed.

Textiles: While the TES loved this exhibit because it “…was as simple and as uncluttered as a painting by Mondrian,” the Department of State really disliked it and considered it impractical because it wasn’t flexible. It required a really big space — at least 6 ft on all four sides, in my opinion. The Department of State also felt that the exhibit was too avant-garde. Richard Brecker the Department of State office in charge of this program, is on record as reminding Pope that these exhibits were conceived as propaganda and that the intended audience consisted of “… the masses.”

A review of Contemporary American Textiles in a trade publication was pretty critical. The author thought that, outside of color selection described as “garish,” that the presented textiles could have been produced in Germany. The Americans weren’t doing anything that that the Germans couldn’t do as well or better. The review also criticized the exhibit because it didn’t show the textiles in context. There were no windows dressed with drapes. Textiles weren’t displayed in three dimensions, on chairs, etc.

Pope wrote that Brecker requested Contemporary American Textiles, which was featured in 1953 at the Munich Amerika Haus as well as in Essen, for the Berlin Festival even if it arrived late. Based on the date of Pope’s memo it can be surmised that the Berlin Festival referenced by Pope was the 1952 Berlin Cultural Festival.

Wallpapers: Herwin Schaefer, the German born State Department officer who had worked at MoMA from 1947-1949 and served as assistant curator of design at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, managed these exhibits within Germany. However, Schaefer was so concerned about the wallpapers that Lee selected for display that he edited the number of papers from 60 to 40 once the exhibit arrived in Germany. Schaefer also felt the need to open the exhibition himself when it premiered in Kassel.

Correspondence between the Department of State and TES document German press that in its reviews humorously and benevolently complimented the American wallpaper industry on “…its experimental courage.”

By 1954, the State Department’s Amerika Haus program had circulated Contemporary American Wallpapers through its centers in Munich, Berlin, Mannheim, and Essen, and presented the exhibit at the Darmstadt Wallpaper Fair, in the Ulm town hall and at Hagen’s Karl-Ernst Osthaus Museum. It was also showcased at a large Düsseldorf wallpaper store, where, it was estimated that 525,000 visitors viewed it. (This presentation coincided with the DRUPA printing fair.) Later records for this same year tell that the Hof Amerika Haus judged Contemporary American Wallpapers, which was poorly received at Hannover’s For Every Woman Fair and which the Bremen Amerika Haus rejected, as “too advanced for … visitors.” The Bonn Amerika Haus planned to offer this exhibit primarily to “…art schools and museums specializing in modern crafts and industrial design.”

Containers & Packages: While no documentation of a German response has been found to date, other than the repeated theft of packages that contained products that could be eaten or used, the Department of State felt that like the wallpaper exhibit, Containers & Packaging with its wide array of household goods “…will be of real use to German Museums” interested in American design and manufacturing. It may be that the State Department hoped that Containers & Packaging, while smaller in scale, would be received with an enthusiasm similar to that offered to MoMA’s Design for Use, USA, the Kaufmann-curated 1951 exhibition of American household goods presented at Stuttgart’s Landesgewerbemuseum that attracted 60,000 visitors over a 5 week period.

What was involved in obtaining the materials included in your exhibition?

Hah! Lots of grant writing followed by lots of permission requests that allowed us to reproduce original work and then the cost negotiations… The project secured funding from the Coby Foundation and the NEA as well as Knoll, Inc. who donated fabrics but there were other granting agencies and foundations that we approached without success.

Was there a key revelation introduced through these artifacts?The more I research these exhibits, the more I became aware that the Department of State prese
nted a very curated and skewed view of American life. The lifestyle that the Department of State portrayed was aspirational. It was only accessible to the more affluent and out of reach for many Europeans and Americans.

These exhibits and their contents reflected a strong transatlantic cultural exchange. A number of contributing designers were immigrants to the United States and/or were educated by design professionals who were immigrants. I was also surprised that so many of these contributing designers are now associated with American modernism.

While I knew about Knoll and Burtin and their backgrounds, I didn’t know who Tom Lee was and that he was such an amazing designer. I am in love with the displays that he did for the Lever House. You can see his Christmas carousel here.

What do you believe is the message or messages of the exhibit then and now?Then: This Cold War cultural diplomacy program was intended to provide a platform that would define and explain America’s democratic ideals and its economic system to the international community and encourage democratic government in a divided Germany and other parts of Europe. This effort was also intended to counter and dispel charges from the Soviet Union and others that “… Americans [were] a materialistic people, totally lacking in culture.”

Now: Without making an overtly political statement, I think that the United States is at a point in time when we need to think about who we are, how we want to be seen on the world stage, and the role that we want to play.

How has design and the promise of design changed in these years?Well, the computer has certainly changed design in terms of communication and production methods and the act of styling is often confused with that of designing, but the promise or intent of design — good design — has always been to help people live well. The museum and government officials, design professionals and manufacturers involved in these three exhibits wanted to improve life in a postwar world. They were what Dyson calls “intelligent problem solvers.”

Like many of today’s designers, these individuals, who embraced utility and efficiency, developed and explored new forms and technologies as they thought about the tools and materials needed to meet the demands of everyday life. This practical creativity sprang from the belief that a modern life was part of a democratic or self-determined life. Setting political systems aside, I think that this is what true design is still about.

Is there a lesson that you want the viewer to take away from this material?While the exhibitions designed by Knoll, Lee and Burtin serve to remind that the products we design and produce can be used to reflect, symbolize and interpret the values and perspectives that bind a community (or country) together, they also ask that we think critically about propaganda especially in seemingly innocuous products such as textiles, wallpapers and packaging and to be more aware of how organizations including governments use design to convey subtle and not so subtle .

(Ed note: Undergrad students from the Morgan State University’s School of Architecture + Urban Planning helped with the initial planning as did grad students from The John Hopkins University MA program in Museum Studies. The Hopkins students worked under the direction of Karen Wizevich and Deb Howes. The Morgan State students worked under the direction of Adam Bridge. UMBC grad and undergrad students participated as well.)

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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