Shop Etsy

The Museum of Arts and Design: Crafting Modernism

Dec 1, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

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.

Museum of Arts and Design/Yale University Art Gallery

Coffee Pot by Hans Christensen, c. 1960.

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.

Museum of Arts and Design/Ed Watkins

Textile Samples by Dorothy Liebes, 1948 - 1968.

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.

Left: jumpinacrater. Right: JunkHouse.

A pitcher and an ashtray from Heath Ceramics.

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.

Modern Vintage on Etsy

2 Featured Comments

  • strawberryluna

    strawberryluna said 7 years ago Featured

    Love! I am super fascinated by this time period and the evolution of craft & production. So many artists became true path-forgers in the transition from handmade to more mass-produced work, and I love the marriage of the two, e.g. Vera Neuman. Thanks for this one!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 7 years ago Featured

    Interesting, I think theres a delicate balance between what one person can achieve and what machines can assist people with. When does 'craft' stop being handmade?

34 comments

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    maggiesraggedyinn said 7 years ago

    What an interesting article... I really enjoyed learning about this!

  • scarletbegonia11

    scarletbegonia11 said 7 years ago

    very cool! <3

  • Cleverella

    Cleverella said 7 years ago

    Interesting piece!

  • peshka

    peshka said 7 years ago

    Interesting article !

  • klinker

    klinker said 7 years ago

    i love that place. i love how they have an area where you can see artists working on their projects. and i love to get a coffee and ice cream on the top floor!

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 7 years ago

    Inspiring!

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 7 years ago

    LOVE the fabric samples. What a great museum!

  • hypericumfragile

    hypericumfragile said 7 years ago

    Splendid article! This trend in art has always interested me. Just as Russian Constructivism. These are my two favorite trends and I am glad I could read about one of them a few words.Thank you!

  • theroyal

    theroyal said 7 years ago

    very nice

  • AlisaDesign

    AlisaDesign said 7 years ago

    Cool!

  • KettleConfections

    KettleConfections said 7 years ago

    This place is one of our favorite museums, just because you can see so much more of the history of material application and design than standard fine art collections - a place to check out if you're ever in nyc. And did we mention.. they have a cozy and chic piano bar/restaurant on the top floor with nice views of manhattan.

  • fibrevolution

    fibrevolution said 7 years ago

    Agreed, one of my favorite museums :) Thanks for sharing!!!

  • valeriephoto

    valeriephoto said 7 years ago

    Thanks for highlighting this exhibit! I'm definitely going to check it out!

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign said 7 years ago

    I very much enjoy my etsy history lessons. Thank you.....just love those fabrics :)

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 7 years ago

    Worth a trip to NYC. One of your best stories! They're all good, though. Many thanks!

  • skullyglam

    skullyglam said 7 years ago

    Really neat stuff! on my way to buy something! www.skullyglam.etsy.com

  • UmlautGraphics

    UmlautGraphics said 7 years ago

    Great to bring this information to light. Amazing the beautiful items out there. We studied a lot about this in my History of Graphic Design class in college.

  • HomeStudio

    HomeStudio said 7 years ago

    Very cool, Chappell!

  • AThymetoSew

    AThymetoSew said 7 years ago

    Thanks for another great article!

  • beardandbang

    beardandbang said 7 years ago

    Great article. I'm visiting NYC next week and will check this out, yippee!!

  • unabellavita

    unabellavita said 7 years ago

    I see myself in those ladies in the blue coats. Who were they? A wonderful article and informative. Thanks for posting it!

  • VsDesignStore

    VsDesignStore said 7 years ago

    Very Insightful article. Thank you!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 7 years ago

    Love the textile art.

  • strawberryluna

    strawberryluna said 7 years ago Featured

    Love! I am super fascinated by this time period and the evolution of craft & production. So many artists became true path-forgers in the transition from handmade to more mass-produced work, and I love the marriage of the two, e.g. Vera Neuman. Thanks for this one!

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 7 years ago

    I love the ash tray!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 7 years ago Featured

    Interesting, I think theres a delicate balance between what one person can achieve and what machines can assist people with. When does 'craft' stop being handmade?

  • DizzyFindsVintage

    DizzyFindsVintage said 7 years ago

    Very interesting article! Thank you!

  • moirakelley

    moirakelley said 7 years ago

    Nice ! Mid-century baby.

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 7 years ago

    What an interesting article! Thanks for sharing!

  • ThePolkadotMagpie

    ThePolkadotMagpie said 7 years ago

    Excellent blog....love this museum!

  • WintergreenDesign

    WintergreenDesign said 7 years ago

    Very interesting... thanks!

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns said 7 years ago

    Thanks for the good read.

  • HeatherLucille

    HeatherLucille said 7 years ago

    What an informative and stunning exhibit! Hopefully more "craft" museums will be featuring exhibits such as this. Thank you for writing about this so all of us non New Workers could learn and enjoy!

  • ZULYA

    ZULYA said 7 years ago

    Thank you!

Sign in to add your own