washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Design

Made-Over MoMA Rearranges The Furniture, And the Attitude

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK -- For its 75th birthday next month, the Museum of Modern Art is giving itself a serene new home and an explosive new design mission: to move beyond the Bauhaus.

The 630,000-square-foot complex at 11 W. 53rd St. opens to the public Nov. 20. Tokyo architect Yoshio Taniguchi has delivered a cool bento box of black marble, green slate, aluminum and glass. But there is nothing sedate about the way curators have suspended an icon of American design -- a 1945 Bell 47D-1 helicopter -- over the grand staircase.




"This is our Winged Victory," said Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design, recalling the Greek marble that dominates a staircase at the Louvre.

An even bolder statement about the direction of the world's most influential design collection awaits on the third floor. Giving a private tour last week, Riley dodged construction workers and plastic sheeting to show off the freshly installed Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries. There was not a Barcelona chair in sight. Indeed, MoMA, bastion of early-20th-century modernism, is offering Apple's iPod and Aibo's robot dog as pillars in the new temple of good design.

"We're combating the idea that the Bauhaus was the only thing happening," Riley said of the famed German school of applied arts, where Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe gave birth to the modern movement. "There are no sacred cows. The fact is, it hasn't been that way for a long time. But the old galleries just didn't have space for a broader display."

The third floor houses four spaces for design -- one for architectural drawings, two for a chronology of modern furnishings and one for transportation (Pinin Farina's 1946 Cistalia 202 GT sports car was installed Wednesday). Galleries are linked by a pedestrian bridge, which offers a striking view into the 110-foot atrium where MoMA will host a bash on its official birthday, Nov. 8. The helicopter hovers there at eye level, its rotor pointing the way to the design collection.

MoMA has always presented the history of innovation through furniture. The first gallery puts contemporary icons front and center: Philippe Starck's WW Stool, a swirl of pale green steel ($2,970 this week on eBay); Marc Newson's yellow fiberglass Orgone Lounge, inspired by a surfboard; Marcel Wanders's crochet-and-graphite Knotted Chair; Matali Crasset's wastebasket of acid green and yellow acrylic branches; Rodi Graumans's hanging lamp of 85 bare bulbs; and the late Shiro Kuramata's Miss Blanche chair of clear acrylic resin embedded with rosebuds.

None is more spectacular than a chandelier of broken porcelain and cutlery caught in mid-explosion. The piece, "Porca Miseria!," was created by German lighting designer Ingo Maurer in 1994 as a humorous expression of anger. (The name means "Damn It!") It remains a superb example of how poetry can creep into the industrial process, even if plates and teacups are broken by hand with a jeweler's hammer. But viewed through the prism of Sept. 11, 2001, Maurer conveys something frighteningly modern: the fragility of normal life.

It's a powerful addition to the permanent collection started by Philip Johnson, the visionary behind MoMA's "machine art" aesthetic. From its start in 1929, the museum has put design and architecture on a par with art (a central tenet of Bauhaus philosophy). Today, three curators -- Riley, Paola Antonelli and Peter Reed -- preside over an estimated 3,600 objects, from housewares to the helicopter; 4,300 graphic designs; 1,900 architectural models, drawings and fragments; and 18,000 drawings by Mies.

The collection has been absent from view for five years. The new design galleries offer nearly twice as much as before -- 475 objects, up from 275, and 70 architectural drawings instead of 35. A quarter of the display is new to the museum. Since 2000, curators have acquired more than 100 pieces to fill gaps, refine periods and acknowledge the new millennium.

Choice additions include a Brancusi-esque fan blade from a GE jet engine and a 2003 Napali kayak made of carbon Kevlar and urethane, which sadly will not be on display.

The early modern period is enhanced by an elegant 1893 iron elevator grille by Louis Sullivan from the Chicago Stock Exchange. It stands like sculpture in the middle of an island devoted to late-19th- and early-20th-century art nouveau and Vienna Secession movements. A 1903 high-back Josef Hoffmann chair replaces a 1970s reproduction of a Charles Rennie Mackintosh design. A portable silver cutlery kit from 1821 pushes back by decades the accepted beginning of modernism. Riley is convinced that designing for travel makes the object modern.

"It's one of the first times a designer would have to deal with minimalism," he said.

The Bauhaus masters do get a platform. An array of furniture from the 1920s and '30s celebrates industrial materials such as steel, glass, nickel and rubber. Le Corbusier and Mies are shown indulging in curves. Jean Prouve is included for the first time. A newly acquired Gilbert Rohde chair, with a molded Plexiglas seat on stainless steel legs, looks astonishingly adventurous for 1938.

Americans ruled the 1940s and '50s. Works by George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and other innovators make a strong display. But the turbulent 1960s and '70s belonged to European radicals, who adopted plastics, played with form, tweaked the old masters and produced a timeless beanbag chair.

The challenge of pushing forward falls primarily to Antonelli, who oversees the collection from the 1960s to the present and last year produced a comprehensive book, "Objects of Design From the Museum of Modern Art."

"The center of gravity of the collection is still what was contemporary at the beginning," she explained by phone this week. "The modern ideal, the Bauhaus, remains our paragon. But it also remains what we have been trying to evolve from."

Founding Director Alfred H. Barr Jr. described the museum's collection as a "torpedo moving through time." The question today, Antonelli said, is, "Where do you go with the torpedo?"

Two designs in the contemporary gallery offer a tentative answer. A rugged black titanium and tire rubber wheelchair was designed by Kazuo Kawasaki, a paraplegic who, Antonelli said, was "tired of going to cocktail parties in a shabby chair." The other is a gossamer white paper armchair by Tokujin Yoshioka. Each biodegradable chair is cut from a roll and unfolded like an accordion. The act of sitting personalizes the seat with the imprint of one's body, the way a child makes angels in the snow.

"Modern is not about certain shapes," Antonelli said. "It's a certain attitude. Nothing is wasted intellectually."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company