It is often noted that Josef and Anni Albers, modernism's romantic duo, never worked together. He was an artist while she designed pioneering textiles, and even in the egalitarian Bauhaus, the distinction mattered. But a rare joint exhibition of their works at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum makes clear that the two creative minds were never far apart.
Josef combined bits of glass into dynamic grids of color. Anni made grids, too, first with watercolor or gouache, then in silk and jute. A wall hanging from 1925, with bars of black streaking across a yellow plane, could easily be a study for Josef's "Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow," a minimalist work in sandblasted glass and black paint completed four years later. Of course, both were greatly influenced by the checkerboard patterns of another Bauhaus school companion, Paul Klee.
Squares eventually gave way to circles, and by 1960, Josef was letting them dance like notes across album covers. One has only to flip through the exhibition catalogue to see that Anni used circles with equal abandon, and far earlier. In 1940, she was stringing plain aluminum washers together like beads, with the help of Alex Reed, a Black Mountain College colleague.
Those outlandish necklaces, in turn, might have been inspired by a graphic of Josef's. For the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art's seminal 1934 exhibition "Machine Art," he put a steel ball bearing on the cover. Modernists everywhere adopted the utilitarian industrial object as the emblem of Good Design. But Anni wrote that the use of uncommon material -- including bobby pins and sink stoppers -- was a response to ancient ornament seen on a trip to Mexico.
It takes imagination to connect the edgy jewelry with the sweetly dour woman with piercing eyes and plain-Jane clothes who is pictured in vintage photos from Germany. Smoothly coiffed Josef, however, looks every bit the shooting star.
The couple met and married in the heady 1920s, while at the radical Bauhaus design school. Josef (1888-1976) was a teacher when 22-year-old Annelise Fleischmann (1899-1994) arrived as a student. Anni had studied painting in Berlin, but in Weimar, women had been restricted to crafts. She chose textiles over working with lumber or metal and won admiration for the way she sculpted in threads. Over the decades, she would produce what essayist Martin Filler calls "the single most impressive oeuvre of a 20th-century fabric artist."
While Josef is best known for his "Homage to the Square," a color series of more than 1,000 efforts executed between 1950 and 1976, Anni did not let color drive her work. As a designer, she saw her role as making fabrics for industrial production and domestic function. A tablecloth woven with too many brilliant colors would overwhelm the plates put upon it, in her view. So she learned to let the texture and character of the material -- smooth, rough or glossy; cellophane, silk or jute -- dominate the design. That decision set her work apart.
The Cooper-Hewitt exhibition looks at mostly domestic designs produced from the early 1920s through the 1950s. The combination of glass constructions, drawings for textiles, graphics, experimental furniture and more shows a shared aesthetic vision and a commitment to modern living by two giants of 20th-century art and design. Curated by Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and the museum's Matilda McQuaid, the exhibition offers close-ups of more than 50 of Anni's textile designs and dozens of Josef's works.
Like other modernist pioneers, the Alberses had to create their own furnishings, if they were to be in keeping with the aesthetic of the new movement. Material and structural integrity and absence of ornament were paramount. While colleagues such as Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were working in tubular steel -- the material was the structure -- Josef Albers favored wood. He experimented with bent wood in ways that suggest Alvar Aalto, but without the Finnish modernist's sinuous style. At the Cooper-Hewitt, the winning display is a set of elegant wooden nesting tables with colored glass tops. The design dates to 1926, but has been reissued by the Vitra company. Josef also designed distinctly Bauhausian fruit bowls and teacups, using spare silvered metal and glass with tiny ebonized balls for feet, or wood discs for handles.
As a designer, Josef aimed for "minimal means for maximum effect." Photos show that the Alberses lived minimally, even while designing creature comforts for friends. (An entire set of Josef's Bauhaus-era furniture for a German couple has been regrouped for the exhibition.) They lived first in a spare house designed by Walter Gropius and associated with other artist-teachers including Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.
In 1933, pressure from the Nazis forced the school to close, and the Alberses immigrated to the United States to teach at Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C. (a nurturing ground for John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller). They remained there until 1949, when Anni was honored with an exhibition of textiles at the Museum of Modern Art. The following year, the couple moved to Connecticut, where Josef became chairman of the design department at Yale University.
Pictures of their Connecticut house, until 1999 the foundation's home, reveal a spartan environment with a few of Josef's squares on the walls. By contemporary standards, Anni's rugs and wall hangings would have done wonders for the boxy white rooms.
Anni Albers gave up textiles for printmaking in 1970. But her views are preserved in a 1947 essay.
"The good designer is the anonymous designer, so I believe," she wrote. " . . . A useful object should perform its duty without much ado."
Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living continues through Feb. 27 at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, 212-849-8400 or www.cooperhewitt.org.