The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York is celebrated by many as a temple of modern design. Housed in a restrained interior designed by architect Philip Johnson are the elegant furniture of his collaborator Mies van der Rohe, elemental tableware by architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable and her industrial designer husband Garth, artist Richard Lippold’s abstract ceiling sculpture, and the shimmering aluminum curtains of textile artist Marie Nichols.
But much less talked about is the landmark restaurant’s logo, a design of the late Emil Antonucci—a mid-century American illustrator who has been forgotten with time.
The high regard for modern architecture and design today is arguably the work of Pioneers of Modern Design. Originally published in 1936 as Pioneers of the Modern Movement, this book by the late art historian Nikolaus Pevsner laid the foundation for the recognition of “modern design” by lining up a progressive historical narrative to explain the state of design after World War I. The German scholar attributed the history of modern design to individual architects, designers and their works, starting from William Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement to the “machine aesthetic” of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus. Modern architecture and design, as Pevsner saw it, was the inevitable product of the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Noveau, and the emergence of steel as a building material.
As Pevsner noted in the foreword of the book’s inaugural edition, his book was the “first to be published” on the subject. Close to eight decades later, Pioneers of Modern Design has been reprinted countless times, and in 2005, Yale University Press even saw fit to revise and expand what it called “one of the most widely read books on modern design.”
Pevsner’s book would not have become so significant a book had a second edition not been published in 1949 thanks to the support of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It was here that the title of the book was changed to Pioneers of Modern Design. This framed Pevsner’s narrative of design history as “more ongoing, more fluid” and ultimately aided the museum’s own efforts to “cultivate an American breed of modernism” notes academic Irene Sunwoo in her paper Whose Design? MoMA and Pevsner’s Pioneers (2010). Retracing the history of the book’s second edition, Sunwoo explains that MoMA found Pevsner’s interdisciplinary approach to architecture and design aligned with what it was doing, and the museum’s then curators Philip Johnson and Edgar Kaufmann Jr. worked closely with Pevsner on revising and updating the text.
When this second edition of Pioneers sold more copies in its first six months than the first edition had over a five-year period, the idea of “modern architecture and design” was born in the public’s mind and they could visit its temple in MoMA. Design history’s preoccupation with emplacing and refusing modernism is all due to Pevsner’s book notes design critic Guy Julier. “The representation of design has been dominated by the achievements of individuals in the first place; second, by the aesthetics and ideology of modernism; and third, via specific objects of a certain type,” he wrote in The Culture of Design (2007).This sums up the narrative and structure of Pevsner’s book, which has become the archetype of libraries of monographs and historical tomes on the zeitgeist of “modern architecture and design” today.
———– Written for Karen Stein’s The Design Book class at D-Crit.
Watching the furniture restorer tear apart a Pierre Jeanneret chair to nothing more than its wooden skeletal frame, I was left with the question of what is an original design. That this eventually restored chair was auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars as a collector’s item only made it more perplexing.
This hyper-inflation of mid-century modernist furniture is the subject of Amie Siegel’s “Provenance” (2013), a haunting 40-minute film that traces backwards the origins of a series of furniture designed by Swiss architect Jeanneret in the 1950s. Beginning from wealthy, stylish homes in the West where many of these furniture pieces now reside, Siegel takes us through the auction houses, furniture restorers, a cargo ship, and finally ends up in Chandigarh, the Indian city in which Jeanneret first conceived these utilitarian furniture for use in the modernist government buildings by his cousin, Le Corbusier. Amidst the now decaying buildings, we see these much sought after furniture pieces still being used as office furniture or even strewn in corners forgotten as they have been replaced by the generic wares of modern cubicle life.
Siegel’s cinematic journey — lingering tracking shots and without any dialogue — reveals the construction of “value” in such furniture today. Taken out of their original context, restored, glamorously photographed, and finally paraded at auction houses, these pieces of design are bestowed an aura of legitimacy and originality by what has become an industrial performance. Though beautifully shot, the film unveils an ugly truth: what do people really value in these pieces? The distance it has traveled? The restoration efforts? The myth of its origins?
A separate journey to uncover the source of a design by Thomas Thwaites for The Toaster Project (2008), however, travels an entirely different route. The proposal is equally simple: to build a cheap chain-store toaster, costing just £3.49, from scratch — starting from acquiring the necessary raw materials. It turns out be both frustrating and hilarious, and the distance an individual in London has to travel to replicate what has essentially become a global industrial process today shows the hidden gap between a designed product and the world we live in. While Thwaites succeeds in building a barely functioning toaster eventually, it costs him £1187.54 and looks like a complete meltdown — all signs of the unseen external costs and environmental consequences created by the production of cheap consumer products.
Despite the huge disparity in value between Jeanneret’s restored furniture and the chain-store toaster, they are but two endpoints on a continuum of the capitalistic global economy. Both have been designed for profit, but how they attain it differs. While auction houses play on scarcity and the original myth, big-chain stores flood the market with anonymous and cheap products. By traveling to the sources of these products, we open up what is often presented as complete and closed so as to take a critical look at the larger forces that shape and give form to these things we so easily call ‘designed’.