Mitchell (Micky) Wolfson Jr., founder of my favorite museum on the planet, published a small treasure trove of a book: Founder’s Choice: The Wolfsonian-FIU, a selection of his favorite acquisitions. His legendary acquiring began with a single hotel key and launched “what is now one of the largest university collections (Florida International University in Miami) in the United States, with more than 180,000 objects.”
The handlebar-mustachioed Wolfson, 80, is a gregarious popular art enthusiast who has built a sturdy foundation for study (atop the flood plains of Miami) that as far as I can tell is unrivaled. He ceded the operation, exhibition and scholarship of his collection to FIU and a staff of curators and scholars but continues to take pride in his role in cultural preservation. If Founder’s Choice is only the tip of his Miami holdings, a deep dive into the collection promises untold treasures.
Here are a few of my favorites from his choice choices.
Cover with detail of window grille from the Norris Theatre (1929), a 2,500-seat space in Norristown, PA. The grille graces the lobby of the Wolfsonian Museum. It was originally commissioned by the Sablosky brothers of the Norris Amusement Company.
Bust of H.M. Haile Selassie (c. 1937) created by Sava Botzaris (1894–1965). “For my postwar generation, Haile Selassie’s actions in the 1930s [against Italian Fascist aggression] made him an irrefutable symbol of heroic resistance in the face of vast odds, as well as a leader in ushering in a modern African identity,” writes Wolfson.
The headpiece of “The Littorina , a self-propelled motorized railcar for 56 passengers.” It was a “symbol of dynamic technical progress and aesthetic achievement in Fascist Italy—modernist transportation design with a political subtext.” The train was a collaboration between the dictator Benito Mussolini and FIAT. “Upon arrival [from the Piedmont region in Italy] it was promptly dropped by the stevedores. Damaged by not destroyed, it was carted off to the Gold Coast Rail Museum in Miami where, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew wrecked the train sheds and further damaged the rail car [which was repaired and survived].”
Wrestler (1929) by Dudley Vaill Talcott (1899–1986). “Talcott appropriated a recognizable semi-classical form and superimposed a machine-like veneer, with hands resembling tools, exaggerated and stylized musculature, and a featureless visage.” It stands in the Wolfsonian lobby like a god of the future-past.
International Exposition of Marine and Maritime Hygiene (1914) by G. Di Stefano. “Technological marvels such as funicular cable cars and the monorail depicted in this poster linked fair-goers to exhibition sites, testaments to Italy’s early association with progress and transformation.” The event took place in Genoa, Wolfson’s home for many years and site of the Wolfsonian’s sister institution.
Generator, Edison Bipolar Dynamo, Type S (c. 1887). The Wolfsonian covers the period of Industrial Revolution. “I insisted,” writes Wolfson, on machines—one for each floor. Dynamos were the first generators capable of producing power for industry. Thomas Edison built his Edison Machine Works in 1881 to produce these.
Sideboard (c. 1876) by Edwin William Godwin (1855–1880). No, it is not a Memphis design—and yes, it was produced in the late 19th century. Amazing. “An early testimony to globalization and cross-cultural pollination, this radically simplified sideboard in the Anglo-Japanese style reflects an aesthetic mirroring, a collective yearning for the other.”
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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.View all posts by Steven Heller →