Department curators Karen Kice and Alison Fisher have organized the exhibition in six categories—Structure, Geometry, Hybrid, Surface, Color, and Technology—displaying various pieces together under each heading. It’s a noble exercise, although many of the objects could easily have been grouped within two, three, or four of the classifications. But who’s quibbling? You don’t need an excuse to look at great works of art and design.
The work of Lauretta Vinciarelli offers an excellent example of how utilitarian constructs (here, architectural renderings) can morph into works of Conceptual Art—an important trend in the contemporary art world in the early 1980s around the time Vinciarelli made this piece. Her precise, axonometric drawings are purely visionary, not intended to represent actual structures, but rather to stand as artwork on their own, created specifically to be purchased by collectors. (Not coincidentally, the drawing exhibited is a recent gift of the art gallery that showed Vinciarelli’s work in Chicago.) Contrast it with Deborah Doyle’s contemporaneous piece: a 7×7 grid of presentation drawings delineating varying treatments for a modest suburban house addition. While created as a designer’s work product, it’s every bit as compelling artistically as the Vinciarelli, and maybe a little more intriguing because it makes you wonder which of the variations was ultimately executed.
Many of the items in the exhibition drive home the long-established significance of architect-designed objects, from a pair of 1943 end tables by Rudolph Schindler and a 1924 pressed glass tea set by HP Berlage, through Frank Gehry’s Experimental Edges corrugated furniture from 1982, Greg Lynn’s 2005 Ravioli chair, and Shiegeru Ban’s 2010 recycled paper and plastic seating system.
Curmudgeonly observers like to castigate local museums for losing some of the most important local art collections to New York institutions. The A&D department, however, seems to realize that the greatest strength of its collection remains its wealth of work by local talent, often obtained through carefully cultivated relationships with the designers themselves. Stuart Cohen’s Kindergarten Chat piece is a model of a thoroughly modernist glass and steel residential interior wrapped in a gabled-roof facade that, as Cohen observed, refers to the most traditional graphic image of a “house” you would see in a very basic child’s drawing. It represents both a seminal juncture in his career and his place in the “Chicago Seven”—an important group of younger architects who began to challenge the strict orthodoxy of Miesian modernism in the late 1970s and played an important role in the emerging Post-Modernist style of the era.
Cohen’s piece is part of a continuum of architectural production from the Department’s collection that in this show ranges historically from Daniel Burnham to Ludwig Hilbersheimer to Bertrand Goldberg and Harry Weese, to Helmut Jahn, Ralph Johnson, and Krueck & Sexton. Yet there is simultaneously a clear focus on more recent history, with acquisition of important items from the latest generation of influential Chicago architects like Jeanne Gang, John Ronan, Ross Wimer, and Urban Lab, and graphic designers like Bruce Mau.
It is useful to juxtapose these holdings with items that come from more international sources—totally unconnected with Chicago or, for that matter, architecture—yet really speak to the importance of design in all products of visual culture. Sam Buxton’s Inhale/Exhale is a fascinating metal representation of a building whose interior is composed of an incalculable number of interconnected stairways and landings. It’s at once a denial of logical form or construction, but it is a beautiful object that serves as a metaphor for everyday life, where there are only brief escapes from what are inevitable re-immersions into endless activity.
Shay Alkalay’s Stacked Drawers, probably the largest object in the show, is another illustration of the interplay between design and conceptualism, with a healthy dose of color-field theory as a bonus. It’s a version of a skillfully crafted piece of contemporary furniture, its utility subverted by its scale, which makes it almost unusable as a chest of drawers. Yet its dramatic form and vivid coloration make it a rather spectacular kinetic sculpture.
Irrespective of whether the pieces in the show coalesce to form some grand hypothesis, the simple assemblage of so much great design is an excellent indicator of how fine the pickings are when the Department searches its own coffers.