Washington has never been fertile ground for contemporary design shows, so applause is due any local institution that plows that field.
This spring, Hillwood Museum & Gardens is offering "Eva Zeisel: The Playful Search for Beauty" as the third in a series of temporary exhibitions.
Eva Zeisel, "Town and Country," salt and pepper shakers, designed in 1945-46, manufactured in 1947-50, glazed earthenware.
Zeisel is one of the true legends of 20th-century design. Her modernist tableware and ceramics are familiar to millions of Americans who dined on them during the 1950s and 1960s. Their signature curves and high styling landed Zeisel a one-woman show in 1946 at the Museum of Modern Art.
At 98, she is still designing and writing her way into 21st-century history, as this exhibition will make clear.
Hillwood is known for 18th-century treasures, with a heavy emphasis on czarist Russia. Fast-forward to the Soviet era and the connection with Zeisel becomes clear. The ceramicist spent formative years as a designer in the rough-and-tumble Stalin era. She ran the creative side of government glass factories until she was imprisoned for her role in an assassination plot.
How the experience influenced her later work is a fascinating inquiry. No one has spent more time digging into the historic documents than Hillwood's Russian expert Karen Kettering, who curated this show.
One promised highlight should delight Hillwood regulars. Since 2000, Zeisel has been working on a new table service with the Lomonosov Porcelain factory in St. Petersburg, a porcelain supplier to the czars. Hillwood will be the first museum to show it off.
The show debuted last February at the Knoxville Museum of Art and continued on to the Milwaukee Art Museum. It opens at Hillwood April 19 and remains on view through Dec. 4.
Elsewhere in Washington, fans of fiber art and precious textiles will be rewarded with shows at the Renwick Gallery and the Textile Museum. But neither venue is planning to challenge visitors with breakthrough materials.
There are fibers that matter today, and the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York is promising an extensive and extended view with "Extreme Textiles," a show opening April 8.
Traditional techniques -- weaving, braiding, knitting and embroidery -- are still employed. But the high-tech textiles are imbued with the ability to transform military uniforms, enhance surgical thread and withstand extreme sports. Some fabrics are "smart." Or so the Cooper-Hewitt hints.
The Cooper-Hewitt started out as a staid but important repository for historical decorative arts. But that hasn't stopped the museum from trying to keep up with the times its visitors live in. Both the Renwick and the Textile Museum have new people in charge, so there's reason to hope those institutions may try a fresh take on their treasures.