“Design Since 1945”

The pivotal year in the development of contemporary design is 1945. The beginning of the postwar period, it also marks the broad-scale confrontation by designers with the question of mass production. In its wake we’ve witnessed a steady, if variegated, flow of consumer objects, altered by different developments in technology, in life-style, and in human engineering. “Design Since 1945” is the first comprehensive American survey of this field; organized by Kathryn Hiesinger and installed by George Nelson, it encompasses some 425 objects by 280 designers in a chronicle of lighting, furniture, textile designs, tableware, and domestic appliances produced through 1982.

The survey affords a needed overview of the profusion of plastic modular arrangements and increasingly decorative surfaces spewed forth over a forty-year period; its selective compendium and clear installation permit one to make sense of the trajectory and trends of design. What it registers most strikingly is the decline of functionalism, which dominated the first half of the century, before new manufacturing techniques, and the erosion of universal standards of “good design” before augmented personal initiative. Indeed, what is most apparent is the role played by new processes and synthetic materials in undercutting the Bauhaus truth-to-materials esthetic, freeing the designer to phrase increasingly flexible and individual solutions to the relation between product and user. Thus the plywood and plastic shell furniture developed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen in the ’40s and ’50s promoted organic forms against the machine esthetic, responding, in the same motion, to wartime manufacturing techniques. Much as the growth of plastic and nylon materials enabled new shapes, negating industrial forms, so the more relaxed life-styles and increased leisure time of the ’50s impelled the natural materials and traditional craftsmanship of Scandinavian design. The space and energy dilemmas of the ’60s are sensible in plastic furniture and storage units and in stackable or throwaway Italian designs, much as their effect on contemporary American thought led to the proliferation of folding, packable, inflatable, or collapsible objects. And the liberties afforded the designer are evident in Italian experiments, ranging from stern rationalism to Pop vernacular to gaudy painterly expressionism. Indeed, in the late ’70s’ attention to ornament and historical reference and their general celebration of appearance, we witness a process that has gone full circle from functionalism’s purist approach.

Nelson’s brilliant installation, which arranges objects by genres, permits a grasp of the pace and role of technical development. Thus one can see the possibilities introduced by the invention of the transistor in 1948 by comparing Raymond Loewy’s radio of 1945 with miniature Japanese models from the ’70s. One can sense the importance of Scandinavian design to table decoration, or of the ergonomic studies of the ’50s on today’s body-geared office furniture. And one can discern the constellating role played by Alvar Aalto’s stools, Saarinen’s chairs, or Joe Colombo’s mini and modular units in the variations they’ve spun off since. The separate bays devoted to seminal contributors or technical designs permit a gauge of influence, as with the areas dedicated to ’60s stackable chairs or the range of inflatable seats. And the objects suspended from the ceiling (a COMSAT satellite, a fiberglass Corvette shell) point to the central effects of advanced technology as it informs our daily life.

“Design Since 1945” falls short on the last few years, whose profusion it figures with limited examples. But in the mélange of consumer items it collects it offers an important scan over forty years. And in the counterpoint it constructs between technique and lifestyle, or scientific and human environments, it offers an informative point of view.

Kate Linker