The Museum of Arts and Design functions with a dual personality — since it champions two adjacent, yet different disciplines, it is the Gemini of New York City-based institutions. The museum is often challenged by straddling these two categories, attempting to strike a balance when developing exhibitions from its incredible catalog. The museum’s current exhibition, Crafting Modernism, bridges this gap, exploring how craft and design informed and bolstered one another in an overlooked slice of the American psyche after World War II. The decadence of the post-war era often appears sleek and glossy in retrospect, and this veneer is only exaggerated by the impeccable fashions and interiors of shows like Mad Men. In reality, designers and artists of the time were experimenting with hands-on processes, relishing a return to the simplicity of exploring materials that seemed frivolous and unimportant during wartime.
As the war came to a close and soldiers returned eager to start families, a sense of normalcy settled across the country, comforting some while stifling many. “Some resisted the need to conform, whether in a material sense as homeowners in modern suburbia, or in the standardized behavior and dress expected of corporate employees,” says curator Jeannine Falino. For many soldiers, the GI Bill provided a ticket out of such repressive conformity — as a promise of a paid, college degree by the U.S. government, the GI Bill gave veterans the chance to study what they wanted, as opposed to following their parents’ wishes. “In most cases,” says Falino, “the career choices were less a romanticized rejection of industrial society than a determination to direct their own lives through such choices.” Crafting Modernism highlights the many artists and designers whose devotion to the basic fundamentals of their craft gave way to a successful career in mass production, without compromising their artistic expression.
Hans Christensen, a Danish-trained silversmith, taught within the School for American Craftsmen, where several of his prototypes continue to stun today’s practitioners. Christensen encouraged hand-production, so long as it resulted in asymmetry that made its handmade origins more obvious to the eye. His style, though often cited by architects and designers, is directly influenced by his Scandanvian mentors, who were painters, sculptors and artists. His design for Coffee Pot in 1958 shows a distinct commitment toward machine-like accuracy and rigor, while its elegant curves and non-traditional handle expose the handmade requirements of the object.
Another field pursued by artists during the post-war era was that of the emerging designer-craftsman — artists who worked with mass-production in mind. Dorothy Liebes (pictured in the header image above), one of the most influential textile designers of the time, went from small-scale explorations of her medium to leading the country into its newfound appreciation for man-made textiles. Ever dedicated to her loom, Liebes applied her practice to mass production by helping industrial companies develop fabrics that looked and felt handwoven. At one point, large-scale textile manufacturer Dobeckmun Co. asked Liebes to work with a new material called Lurex, an irresistible, shiny fiber, that became her signature.
Ceramist and sculptor Edith Heath felt that quality did not have to be sacrificed through the process of mass production. In the 1940s, after successfully petitioning the California School of Fine Arts to offer a year-long ceramic chemistry course, Heath became devoted student to her medium, eventually getting her wares on the shelves of Neiman Marcus and Marshall Field. In 1948, she opened Heath Ceramics, a small factory that produced dinnerware and architectural tiles. Her work was commissioned by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Girard, and the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Today, handmade and machine-made are often presented as polar opposites with little to no relation; Crafting Modernism highlights the gray area between these categories, exposing the dynamic conversation that bubbles from one to the other. An Eames chair, for example, might appear sleekly commercial, but it is to this day, proudly handcrafted — machines cut out the basic parts, but human hands are responsible for all of its leather work, impeccable seams, and careful assembly. From the post-war frenzy to today, the Museum of Arts and Design has offered us a realm of rosewood and humble pots within which we put to test our value of the human touch.