Toys in the attic

A colleague and I were sitting in a Fort Worth diner just after walking through a certain exhibit at the Kimbell Museum. We were pondering the question If you could steal any object from that show, what would you nab? An enameled caviar server. A curvaceous, trippy mantel clock. A drawing of a three-wheeled car by Buckminster Fuller.

Oh, yeah--that rocket-shaped martini shaker, the nickel-plated one with the rounded lid. Shove that shiny thing down your pants and see if the security guard doesn't notice (clinking of metal, squeaking of hinges) as you waddle toward the exit. "You have a nice day, sir." ("Quick! Pull the car around!")

All right, all right. Nobody needs to be planning a theft of Fort Worth's most venerable institution, but the 200-plus objects in Modernism: Modernist Design 1880-1940 beg to be used, caressed, admired in a living room, perched on a coffee table. Objets d'art, or just art-flavored objects? They're extraordinary yet familiar, breathtaking yet friendly. Toss that Louis Comfort Tiffany lamp on your bedside table, the iridescent blue one, and it's "that ol' lamp needs a new light bulb." Seal it in a glass case in a museum, and it becomes a masterpiece.

The truth is, it's both, and that's what makes this show so fascinating--it will have you looking at everyday objects--your car, your shoes, your own nose--differently. (Damn this ugly keyboard! Couldn't the folks at IBM come up with a more elegant line?) Obviously, everything manufactured is designed by someone, however thoughtfully or poorly; the artisans who headed up the foremost international design period, a 60-year watershed of sorts, raised the aesthetic bar on just about everything we use--staple guns, office buildings, storage containers, irons. De Stijl, Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis H. Sullivan--these art collectives and individuals gazed at the world around them and saw their god in the details, and decided to give that god a snappier home.

As we know it today, Modernism sums up the overlapping western movements that took one hard, last glance at static tradition, yawned, and moved on. The early modernists were appalled at the dehumanizing force of industrialization--the whole visual environment was threatening to collapse under the growing tumor of mass production, which was shamelessly mixing it up with unyielding historicism. Kicking off around 1875 with the British Arts and Crafts Movement, these artisans brazenly stepped away from the assembly line and up to the private work bench; they used only fine, natural materials and took pleasure in making beautiful, innovative things with their own hands: clocks, furniture, candelabra. The cultural elite took notice and loved it; the time and care involved in creating such pieces put the artisans on par with celebrated artists. America followed suit in its Mission and Prairie School concern with structure, integrity, and usefulness. European-rooted Art Nouveau got in line in the 1880s, with a growing fixation on oriental and organic motifs; a surefire way to beautify an everyday object was to make it swirly and roiling--bronze tendrils curling over here, enamel leaves bursting out over there. Then the international workshops--Wiener Werkstatte in Vienna, De Stijl in Holland, and the Bauhaus School in Germany entered the game with their individual notions of good design--reductionism, universality, form following function, and out of it all, the fin de siecle of Modernism--Art Deco. From 1920 to 1940, Deco showed us all just how cool a streamlined contour in brushed chromium steel could be. Ah, if only World War II hadn't dropped the bomb on such promising momentum. As artistic interruptions go, it was the Big One. "Design as art" was pushed to the back burner for a while. (Some would argue that the ebony-handled pot hasn't boiled since.)

The Kimbell exhibit has choice examples from the leaders of every phase, and it's enough to make you go home and grind up all your spoons in the disposal before heading to the antique store: a tubular chrome armchair by Mies Van Der Rohe, stacking coffee servers by Gio Ponti, wallpaper graphics by William Morris, molded and geo-blocky chairs by Gerrit Reitveld. French advertisement posters, countless delicately breathing vases, a fire-engine red "laser gun" that crushes ice cubes (!), a giant, shiny blue floor-model radio--the Nocturne--that stands as high as a man and reflects your whole body as you approach it to gaze more closely at its perfectly aligned, silvery dials (a noted masterwork by Walter Dorwin Teague).

Some of the pieces by unknown or lesser-known artists are scene-stealers: a solid mahogany desk designed by Hungarian-American Ilonka Karasz is perhaps the greatest testament to that magical juncture where efficiency meets beauty. The warm, lacquered surfaces and mirror-welcoming effect of its "would you like to sit on the front or back side?" pay homage to Frank Lloyd Wright's practical sensibilities, while injecting it with extra smooth-lined elegance.

Consultant-historian Alastair Duncan of Christie's fame is the writer of the catalogue; David Ryan, director of the collection, is the indirect curator of the show, which is culled from the Minneapolis-based Norwest Collection, a corporate program dedicated to gathering prime examples from the various Modernist genres. The collection is usually split into rotating thematic shows at the Norwest Center; this cross-section traveling exhibit is exclusive to the Kimbell. It fills several large, open rooms upstairs--the layout is as airy and fluid as the works themselves.

Appealing as it all is, it's strange there hasn't been more attention paid to this sort of thing; Impressionism, Cubism, and Dada hogged the big, bright spotlight as the bulk of Modernism unfolded slowly, quietly, right under the world's nose. Without sirens or parades, everyone's environment grew more efficient and graceful--its lasting impact becoming clear only in the aftermath. You can still stumble upon the likes of this stuff at flea markets and antique malls; just one episode of Antiques Roadshow proves how much of it has been pushed into the dark corners of Grandma's attic before finding daylight again at the hands of her naive daughter-in-law. Only when the expert appraiser holds that mint-condition Gaillard vase in his hands and starts quivering with nervous excitement do we realize that we may need to do a cursory search of our own basements.

But appreciation for design savvy is growing again. The British glossy magazine Wallpaper, devoted to showcasing the design of "the stuff that surrounds us," is a favorite of the culture crowd; Tiffany has expanded its popular retro "Atlas" collection to include more varied gizmos; the Pottery Barn sells sleek, frosted glass vases by the yuppie truckload. And we've all done a double take on the new VW Beetle, a contemporary nod to Modernist style-meets-substance notions--so rounded and fluid and efficient.

Not a bad trend. It means we're paying attention to those details. The Kimbell show was packed last Thursday morning with people who strained to keep their hands off the goods. Conversely, I believe Bucky Fuller, whose line-drawing design of a curvy econo-car (circa 1934) graces one wall of the show, would have to give that new Bug a test drive if he were still around. The brushed-chrome colored one, of course.

Modernism: Modernist Design 1880-1940, Masterworks form the Norwest Collection, is at the Kimbell Museum through Sept. 13. For info, call 817-332-8451.


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