MoMA and the objects of design

MoMA - the Museum of Modern Art New York
MoMA - the Museum of Modern Art New York
Classic Designs » Essays » MoMA and the objects of design

What is the purpose of MoMA?

In MoMA’s curators’ mind, the term modern does not refer to a historical phenomenon but, rather, a spirit attuned with its own time, and the Museum was established for the express purpose of

“… encouraging and developing the study of modern arts and the application of such arts to manufacture and practical life.” 

The idea of the Museum’s founders, and especially its first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., was a museum concerned with all the arts of its own time, and modern design was included from the outset. Initiated in 1934, the collection of design objects of The Museum of Modern Art represents to this day the canon against which any treatment of twentieth century design–whether in the form of a collection, a history, or an exhibition–cannot avoid 

to measure. While several other excellent collections exist in the United States and in other parts of the world, some larger and more encyclopedic, others diversely focused and smaller, the Museum’s pointed curatorial choices over some seventy-five years have done nothing less than establish modern industrial design among the arts. 

Today, the collection of design objects and textiles includes circa 3800 records, the oldest being a swatch of double-warp silk brocade from the seventeenth century, and the most recently designed being a felt by Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra, dated 2001. In range, the collection spans across types, materials, and dimensions, from a helicopter (the biggest item) to microchips, the smallest objects in the collection.

As expected in any assemblage of examples of design, almost 10% of the entries are chairs, but among the other categories figure, for instance, household appliances, cars, office and sports equipment, an entrance to the Paris métro, a ball bearing, a glider nose, and a drinking straw. 

A grease cup spring by American Steel & Wire is the very first design object that was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art in April of 1934, together with about a hundred other industrial objects that were shown in the Museum’s second design exhibition, Machine Art, of 1934.

The chairman of the new department was Philip Johnson, whose 1932 Modern Architecture -International Exhibition, in collaboration with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, had provided modern architecture with a definition that was to have a lasting influence throughout the twentieth century. 

With Machine Art, Johnson surprised the public with a three-story display of machine-made pieces, from propeller blades to coils and springs, manufactured laboratory appliances and working tools, household objects, and furniture. Set on white pedestals and platforms and against white walls, the decontextualized objects were installed with the same focus and drama that was reserved for sculpture. Machine Art provided a great leap forward. 

Although it was not the first time people could contemplate everyday objects in a museum setting, these were not the usual decorative arts or modern household items. The jolting elevation of a ball bearing to the stature of art and its acquisition into a collection of modern art had the strength and the authority of a manifesto. 

The origins of this broad-ranging and penetrating cultural perspective can be traced initially to Barr’s and Johnson’s visits to the Bauhaus in Dessau, where they were impressed by Gropius and his collaborators’ attempt to gather all the arts

as inseparable components of a new architecture…, the great structure in which there is no distinction between monumental and decorative art.

And indeed, Johnson saw modern design as deeply connected with architecture. The interdependence between design and architecture effectively freed the realm of objects from its single-minded ties to form and, by assigning to function an equal importance, positioned it in the light of a critical theory based on the balance between means and goals, with beauty among the highest of these. 

This concept is engrained in the very definition of MoMA’s architecture and design department and has been reinforced and adapted by the thoughts of several generations of curators. 

At the time of the founding of the Museum, the terms modern and contemporary coincided effortlessly within Barr’s vision of a museum of, in his words, the Art of Our Time.

Modern, now often an elusive and restless attribute, has gained added definitions with every work added to the collection. By trial and error, over seven decades, the Museum’s curators have sought to distil a timeless ideal of beauty and meaning from different circumstances, all the while revising and perfecting the initial paradigm.

They have searched broadly, among inexpensive everyday objects and prohibitive one-off pieces alike, in mailing and auction catalogues, in hardware stores and private collections. 

On the way, they have reassessed their ideas to cope with changing historical and technical conditions, and they have made discoveries and mistakes. After passing the baton on to the next generation, each curatorial team’s actions have been celebrated, amended, and revised.

The result of this collective, sometimes subjective, effort is not just an accumulation of objects but a collection of ideas supported by objects. 

Under this light, MoMA’s modern ideal as expressed in the design collection goes far beyond the stylistic traits of modernism and all stereotypes about right angles, black and white planes, and abstract shapes made of steel and glass. 

The modern ideal is distinct from modernism. The innovative and reductionist beauty of the objects from the Machine Art show, indeed, exemplified the perfection that the machine as a form-giving tool could afford; nonetheless, since the beginning, modern design under the aegis of the machine was seen as the carrier of the solid human values, of truth, objectivity, and honesty. In additions to a unity of the arts celebrated by Barr and Johnson, the machine also carried the promise of a deep social improvement. 

Deploring style for the sake of style—or for the sake of commerce—has become a trademark of the collection and explains several exclusions, the first of them being Art Deco and streamline, and one of the most recent being postmodernism in all the instances where it was applied as an easy stylistic trick.

The current curatorial choices, while not explicitly excluding whole groups of objects or designers, still privilege objects whose form is generated from within. The lack of prejudice against form helped the modern ideal withstand the crisis of modernism in the 1960s. 

Whether they were sofas in the shape of gigantic baseball gloves or shapeless armchairs made of liberally sprayed polyurethane, they were embraced by the curators as responses dictated by a sincere attempt to reposition the modern ideal in a dramatically different cultural landscape, in which the relationship between form and function was no longer univocal.

And when the computer made the experimentation and manufacturing of complex forms easier, further complicating the relationship between function and form, curators incorporated this change into their work and focused on yet another set of conditions. 

In modern design as well, the more things change, the more they remain the same, and curators can always detect the modern spirit in the way contemporary designers ponder their ideas in relation to the means at their disposal. Faith in empiricism, intuition, curiosity, and the ability to recognize mistakes have enabled the Museum’s curators to keep the modern ideal conversant with the design of their time.

Because ‘Modern’ is not a historical phenomenon, but rather a spirit in transformation with the times, were it not for the Museum’s self-imposed time boundaries, on a strictly philosophical basis the collection of design could easily embrace artifacts from ancient cultures. 

Several of the themes developed in the collection by the different curators are still a lively aspect of discussion within the department. Advanced by the curators at different times, often in the form of exhibitions, their theoretical strength has proven timeless, and to this day they prove an inspiration for new acquisitions.

Some of them are connected to a specific period, for instance, the turn of the century, the 1920s and 1930s, the aftermath of World War II, etc., and yet they are constantly rediscussed and extended. 

Others, such as the interest in the potential of advanced materials, machine components, and the interrelationships among products, corporations, and the modern ideal are in constant evolution. In the search for modern design, the curators have used various paths of exploration that have enabled them to approach the collection methodically. Some of these paths have crystallized in strong ideas within the collection. 

Honesty, truth, and beauty, the ever-present ingredients of the modern, have been disseminated by the Museum via all possible means, such as traveling shows, seminars, competitions, intellectual pressure on retailers and manufacturers, and publications.

The ideals of beauty have evolved in the nearly seventy- five years since the inception of the collection, and the machine has evolved to attain capabilities once unthinkable, but honesty and truth have remained constant.

Design of our time has to deal with its own set of priorities and responsibilities, such as a concern for the environment; a wider consideration of the effects on other, even distant, human beings; new technical advancements in manufacturing and distribution; a new sense of privacy and ownership of things and spaces; the immateriality of new forms of design; the interactivity that many objects allow; and the resurgence of local cultures in response to the global market, to name just a few. Yet, the process can always revert to the same old conceptual economy of goals and means. 

As new types of design and new issues present themselves, they are incorporated in the work of curators. Pedestals, platforms, walls, and wall texts are the elements that have changed the most, to match the public’s changed expectations. But curators’ expectations, as deftly expressed by architect and former curator Emilio Ambasz, have remained the same:

I am interested in the Museum dealing on a highly symbolic level, that is to say on the level of where things are not immediately understood, where the phenomenon occurs and the meaning is not yet accessible, but there exists this institution that number one, presents the phenomenon, two, invites interpretations of the cultural phenomena and sees what meanings it has for the culture. It cannot operate on a mass level; it has to operate on a very reduced level. An elite museum, dealing really with complex problems and assuming responsibility … I’m interested
in a monitoring institution, in an evaluatory institution, certainly not a prescriptive [institution]

Paola Antonelli 

Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.