Good design in everyday products is focus of MoMA exhibit

From early Tupperware containers to Chemex coffee makers to sleek midcentury modern furniture, a new show at the Museum of Modern Art explores the democratizing and uplifting potential of design in everyday life.

“The Value of Good Design” opened Feb. 10 and runs through June 15 at the museum, which is preparing to close its doors temporarily this summer before opening a newly expanded campus later in the year.

A selection of household furnishings on display at "The Value of Good Design." Image via MoMA.
A selection of household furnishings on display at “The Value of Good Design.” Image via MoMA.

The exhibit takes a fresh look at everything from domestic furnishings and appliances to ceramics, glass, electronics, transport design, sporting goods, toys and graphics. It focuses on household goods designed in the ’40s and ’50s as part of MoMA’s Good Design initiatives, which included competitions, exhibits, TV shows, educational programs and even three fully furnished houses built in the Museum Garden.

Selections of good design were toured by MoMA nationally — to schools, libraries, colleges — and internationally.

MoMA’s initiatives championed well-designed, affordable, contemporary products. They gave young designers a platform, and helped launch the careers of Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames and other famous designers.

Winning designs of the competitions, which also were held by other major art museums such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Detroit Institute of Arts, were then promoted in department stores, featured in magazines and strategically placed in television shows.

“To me good design is simply art applied to living,” the show quotes Dorothy Shaver, president of the Lord and Taylor department store, as saying at the 1950 launch of Good Design, a five-year collaboration between MoMA and the Chicago Merchandise Mart that entailed annual exhibits in New York and Chicago.

Designs for a huge range of home goods were evaluated on appearance, function, construction and price.

The show reveals the way household design was embraced not only by museums and stores, but also by governments during the Cold War as a tool of social and economic reconstruction and technological advancement. At one point, MoMA collaborated with the State Department to circulate American designs for everyday household products; there was a vibrant international exchange of ideas, with designs from other countries being shown in the U.S. while American designs were promoted overseas, according to the exhibit.

As you walk through the expansive gallery space, the neutrals and browns of the 1940s give way to the brightly colored chairs and textiles of the ’50s. Many of the objects were so well-designed that they continue to feel contemporary today, and can still be found in many homes.

The exhibit begins with a simple broomstick, for example, hung on the wall as a work of art. Nearby is a large glass case including, among other objects, an axe, with its carefully designed balance between the heavy blade and the gently curved wooden handle. Also featured are bath mitts and a whisk.

“People smile as they encounter things they’ve handled and used,” says Juliet Kinchin, curator in the museum’s department of architecture and design, who organized the exhibit with curatorial assistant Andrew Gardner.

“I love the axe. It was absolutely part of the agenda. It wasn’t about fads or fashion, it was about asking people to take a second look at things that are consistently pleasant to use and to look at,” she explains.

The show is divided into two parts: what was happening in design in the U.S. as it rose to become a superpower, and what was happening elsewhere in the world.

Included are promotional videos for some of the items featured, an ad for a tiny Fiat Cinquecento car that is on display, and a video of Eames products shown in a State Department-sponsored exhibit in Moscow in 1959.

“The idea of good design was an important form of soft power at the time, and continues to resonate today,” Kinchin says.

“Good design is much more than just appearance and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be expensive. And what was good design in the ’50s might not necessarily be good design today. Now, for example, sustainability really would have to be key. Any notion of good design should reflect the values of the age.”

In one section of the exhibit, visitors are invited to judge designs for themselves by trying out a few Good Design classics still in production, such as a Slinky toy and various styles of desk lamp. They also can evaluate whether new products, such as portable solar-powered lanterns, pass muster as good design.