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Mid-Century: “Good Design” in Europe and America, 1850–1950 Exhibition at the Smart Museum

The University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art presents masterworks from its collection of modern design in the special exhibition Mid-Century: “Good Design” in Europe and America, 1850–1950.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Dining Table and Six Chairs, 1908-10, Designed for the Frederick C. Robie Residence, Chicago, Table: oak, leaded glass, and ceramic, Chairs: oak and leather. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, University Transfer, 1967.73 through 1967.79

Offering a focused look at more than sixty remarkable objects—both long-held treasures and newer acquisitions to the Smart’s collection—the exhibition gives insight into the interweaving history and iconic forms that defined the domestic world of modernism during the fertile period between 1850 and 1950. Featuring both one-of-a-kind commissions as well as mass-produced objects, “Good Design” is divided into four overlapping thematic sections highlighting extraordinary works by Edmond Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marianne Brandt, and Charles and Ray Eames, among many others.

On view from July 8 through September 5, 2010, “Good Design” offers nuanced perspectives on key artistic innovations within a broader cultural context of social activism, nationalism, and international politics.

“Good Design” is curated by Richard A. Born, Smart Museum Senior Curator. The exhibition is accompanied by several talks and other programs that dig deeper into the intersections of modern design, politics, and society.

“Good Design” spans the period between 1850 and 1950, when progressive artists, designers, and architects decisively reshaped the everyday world of objects. Advocating for design reform—and by extension, social reform—they promoted a host of competing ideologies that embraced aesthetic revolution and technical innovation. Though the history of modern design is often charted as a singular arc—one beginning with the legacy of historicist designs and hand craftsmanship and ending with the widespread embrace of new abstract forms and machine production—in actuality the ideals underlying modernism resulted in a variety of solutions. As tastes changed, young designers, new movements, and a previous generation’s vanguard overlapped, and the newcomers did not always reject the immediate past while projecting in their own innovations a better material and spiritual future.

With a more focused arrangement than most traditional survey exhibitions, “Good Design” demonstrates the ways in which design ideologies and practices defy neat categorization. It is divided into four overlapping thematic sections: From Revivalism to Arts and Crafts in the British Isles, 1850–1910; Arts and Crafts and Prairie Style in America, 1880–1920; Functionalism between the World Wars, 1918–1939; and International Modernism around 1950. The show is highlighted by masterworks such as Edmund Johnson’s rare facsimiles of medieval treasures made for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright’s unique dining room furniture from the Robie House (which is celebrating its centennial this year and is located just blocks from the Smart Museum), Marianne Brandt’s rare handmade tea service from the Bauhaus, and Charles and Ray Eames’s classic plywood and metal chairs. As these and the other works on view in the exhibition demonstrate, the best designs of the period are derived from a complex intermingling of utility, social value, and formal invention.

Smart Museum of Art
University of Chicago
5550 S. Greenwood Ave.
Chicago IL 60637
(773) 702-0200

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