Tuesday, May 29, 2018

National Textiles Month

Ghana, Sisala Woman from Techiman, 1975. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-11085)

Although I’m an art historian, sometimes I feel that art should just be looked at rather than analyzed to death. When I read somewhere that May is National Textiles Month (May 3rd was National Textiles Day), I just felt like showing you some particularly interesting examples from the Davis digital collection. 

Chimú Culture, Peru, Tapestry panel, 1100–1470. Cotton and camelid fibers, 26" x 43" (66 x 109.2 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1288)

If I ever teach again (not likely), I would teach a course on the history of abstraction. Believe me, it doesn’t start in the 20th century!  One of the reasons I love ancient Andean textiles so much is the abstract quality of the decoration. Come on, this pre-dates Picasso’s (1881–1973) fractured figures! This panel represents an anthropomorphic mythological being or deity. 

The Chimú (ca. 900
–1470) were the successors of the Wari Culture (declined around 700 CE) and Tiwanaku Culture (declined around 1100 CE). The Chimú kingdom, centered in Chan Chan (near contemporary Trujillo, Peru), was a highly organized society where textile artists worked in royal compounds. Unlike other Andean cultures, the Chimú developed highly refined textile arts before ceramics. 

Textiles were the most highly prized objects in Andean cultures after gold. Chimú weavings were often used as money, so highly were they valued. Chimú textiles were predominantly produced by male artists, using combinations of cotton and alpaca (camelid) fibers. Cotton had been cultivated in Peru since the 3000s BCE. 

Navajo Culture, Transitional Blanket, 1885–1895. Wool, tapestry weave, 79 3/4" x 47 1/4" (202.5 x 120 cm). © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-576)

Navajo blankets were originally used mainly for clothing (“wearing blankets”). They were also used as covers over doors and room dividers. “Transitional” refers to blankets produced during the period 1880–1895, when the blankets became trade items with whites as rugs. Before the 1880s, red in Navajo weaving was sourced from bayeta, a type of imported red flannel that would be unraveled and respun for use in blankets. Aniline dyes, chemical dyes derived from coal tar, were introduced by the 1880s. 

The symmetry and geometric straightness of Navajo designs represents the limitations of the upright loom, which does not accommodate rounded patterns. The jagged edges on the bands came from a cloud pattern, an element of nature that symbolizes change. 

The Navajo, an Athabascan-speaking people who occupy New Mexico and Arizona, were once nomadic and are thought to have northwestern origins, migrating from the interior of Alaska between the 1200s and 1400s CE. In successive migrations they settled in the Southwest and adapted elements of Pueblo culture—including weaving—making them uniquely their own. 

While men are traditionally the textile artists in Pueblo cultures, it was the women who tended and sheared the sheep and became the weavers in Navajo culture. They learned weaving from Pueblo men who had been raising cotton and weaving blankets since about 700 CE. Pueblo weavers were introduced to sheep wool by the Spanish in the 1600s. The Navajo acquired the churro sheep from the Pueblo weavers and developed it into their own unique breed. 

Galya Rosenfeld (designer, born 1977, Israel) and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Industrial Design Department (manufacturer, found 1906, Jerusalem), Headscarf (hijab), 2003–2005. Staineless steel, 33 7/26" x 19 11/16" x 1 3/16" (85 x 50 x 3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © 2018 Galya Rosenfeld. (MOMA-D1234)

This last example is not, strictly speaking, a textile, but it is such an interesting piece that I had to include it! It is a headscarf that was featured in the 2005–2006 Safe: Design Takes on Risk exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit hightlighted more than 300 objects that were meant to protect people from a wide variety of contemporary anxieties and dangerous situations. I can only assume that this headscarf, similar to the hijab worn by Muslim women, is meant to protect women in the danger zones of the world.

This headscarf is made from the same metal from which the chains for soldiers’ dog tags are made. Many of Galya Rosenfeld’s (born 1977) objects—jewelry to wall installations—are made from repurposed military-related materials. She mixes traditional techniques such as weaving with industrial materials. Her work is a place where the whimsical meets with common sense protection.

Rosenfeld studied object design at the National Higher School of Decorative Arts, Paris (fashion) and Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, Israel, Department of Ceramic Design.

Monday, May 21, 2018

National Mobility Awareness Month


Kawasaki Kazuo (designer, born 1949, Japan) and SIG (Special Interest Group) Workshop Company, Ltd. (manufacturer, Ishikawa, Japan), Carna Folding Wheelchair, 1989. Titanium, rubber, and honeycomb aluminum, 33" x 22" x 35 ¼" (83.8 x 55.9 x 89.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Kazuo Kawasaki. (MOMA-D0865)

By the early 21st century, it is certainly no longer questioned that industrial design and art have learned how to go hand-in-hand. I think we also agree that most creative efforts—from chefs to designers of utilitarian objects—involve the work of artists, no matter what their background. I often hate disturbing a beautifully presented plate in a restaurant! Artists are involved in the design of cars, so it should be no surprise that they also design wheelchairs.

The fact that artists have been involved in beautifully designed everyday objects goes back farther back than I am old. The Jomon culture of Japan (flourished ca. 3000–200 BCE) is considered one of the first cultures to decorate ceramic vessels simply for the sake of decoration! The Arts and Crafts Movement of the mid to late 1800s only focused attention on a phenomenon—artists involved in the design of everyday objects—that had existed for millennia!

From depictions in works of art and from contemporary sources, wheelchairs have been around since as early as the 500s CE. This includes a tomb engraving in China that shows a person sitting in a three-wheeled sort of box. Basically, side chairs equipped with wheels evolved during the Baroque period (ca. 1600–1750) in the service of royalty, of course. These necessitated someone pushing them. The first self-propelled wheelchair (three-wheel with hand cranks) came out in the mid-1600s. However, most models into the 1800s were three-wheeled jobs that needed pushing. The first versions on which contemporary wheelchairs are based came out during the US Civil War (1860–1865), because of the overwhelming number of amputations from that war. They had wooden frames; adjustable wicker seats and arm rests; and large, spoked wheels.

Folding wheelchairs were pioneered in 1932 and 1937. Kazuo Kawasaki (born 1949) is a Japanese industrial designer who was born in Fukui Prefecture. He studied industrial design at Kanazawa College of Art, graduating in 1972. While he has worked on designs for portable computer systems for Apple, one of his abiding interests has been in medical technology. He has worked on a project for an artificial heart and the Carna form of collapsible wheelchair. The Carna wheelchair combined function with lightweight modern materials that make the chair perfect for athletes. 

Rainer Küschall (designer, born 1947, Sweden) and Everest and Jennings (manufacturer, firm 1933 to present, Los Angeles), Champion 3000 Adjustable Rigid-Frame Wheelchair, 1986. Aluminum, rubber, plastic and nylon, 31" x 24" x 34" (78.8 x 61 x 86.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Rainer Küschall. (MOMA-D0359)

Rainer Küschall (born 1947) is a Swiss engineer who suffered a serious spine injury when he was sixteen. After recovering, he discovered the limited feasibility of wheelchairs and formed Küschall AG in 1976 to produce wheelchairs that could serve a variety of needs. The 1986 model Competition (called Champion 3000 in the US) was unique in its use of tubular steel, fourteen instead of twenty-five kilograms (thirty pounds instead of fifty-five pounds), which made it lightweight, versatile, and available in both rigid frame and collapsible models. It was also particularly designed for the use of athletes.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; The Visual Experience: 3E 12.4

Monday, May 14, 2018

Furniture or Sculpture?


I took furniture history classes in grad school and even was a TA for the professor, so I learned to absolutely love studying the history of furniture. It seems to me, though, as our digital image collection of contemporary furniture design grows, the question marks pile up in my head. Has furniture design gone so far that it has transcended the traditional criteria that it be designed to conform to the human body?

I know that furniture design fell under the spell of combining “fine arts aesthetics” with industrial design starting with the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 1800s, and then the Bauhaus in the early 1900s. At first glance, it would seem that many designers have gone way beyond this battle cry in designing furniture that seems more like an aesthetic emphasis (i.e. sculpture) than something convenient on which to sit. And yet, there are stories behind a lot of these designs. You decide. 

Claudio Slocchi (designer, 1934–2012, Italy) and Sangiacomo (manufacturer, 1968 to present, Milan), Appoggio Chair, 1971. Fiberglass and steel, 46 ½" x 22" x 20" (118.1 x 55.9 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Claudio Slocchi. (MOMA-D1059)

Claudio Slocchi (1934–2012) was an architect and an industrial and interior designer. He studied at Milan Polytechnic and taught interior and furniture design at the University of Rome. He was also involved with the State Institute of Furnishings in Lissone. Apparently one of Slocchi’s aesthetics was minimalism, because this sit/stand stool sums that up.

The Appoggio Chair was designed by Slocchi to conform to tight spaces where regular sitting was not possible. I guess this would work in offices nowadays where we are encouraged to stand at our desks most of the day as “healthier.” Slocchi based his design to cradle the pelvis, basing the seat design on a bicycle seat. The chair is also adjustable vertically. That means that it adjusts for differences in human height, thus accommodating the human body. I wouldn’t be surprised if these chairs make a comeback!


Louise Campbell (designer, born 1970, Denmark) and Zanotta S.p.A. (manufacturer, 1954 to present, Milan, Italy), Veryround Chair, 2006. Laser-cut sheet steel, 27 3/16" x 41 ½" x 32 11/16" (69 x 105.5 x 83 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Louise Campbell. (MOMA-S1335)

Denmark has been a leader in contemporary furniture design since the middle of the 1900s. Louise Campbell (born 1970) graduated from the London College of Furniture in 1992 and studied further at the Industrial Design Department of the Danish Design School (1993–1995) in Copenhagen. Her emphasis is on furniture, lighting, and interior design.

This chair is a puzzle to me, because I can’t imagine it is either easy to sit down in or easy to get out of. Campbell’s designs are experimental, and she has stated that she is happy her chairs don’t look like chairs. Her designs are based on the aesthetic of repeating circles (240 in this chair) and an interest in positive and negative space. Interesting about this design is that it is precision cut from sheet steel. Theoretically, the layers blend together to be solid, at the same time giving it the appearance of paper. 

Mathias Bengtsson (born 1971, Denmark), Spun Chais Lounge, 2003. Carbon fiber, 34 ¼" x 33 7/16" x 82 11/16" (87 x 85 x 210 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Mathias Bengtsson. (MOMA-D0905)

Everything I’ve read about this piece indicates that the artist, Mathias Bengtsson (born 1971), wants it considered not only furniture, but also fine art. His website indicates that the artist feels issues of comfort and convenience in furniture design were established long ago, including the study of ergonomics in the 1960s. He wants his furniture to “challenge the senses.” He also challenges himself with the materials he chooses—such as spun carbon fiber—to accomplish in his designs. He prefers to think of his furniture designs as domestic objects made artistically, rather than a work of art made comfortable. The chair is machine-woven from a computer program using lightweight but strong carbon fiber, a clothing material.

Bengtsson, born in Copenhagen, studied furniture design at the Danish College of Design, the Art Center College in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Royal College of Art in London. The Spun Chaise Lounge is just one of his innovative uses of materials. He also makes chairs out of stacks of used paper glued together. 

Thomas Heatherwick (designer, born 1970, Britain) and Magis S.p.A. (manufacturer, 1976 to Presenty, Treviso, Italy) Spun Seat, 2009. Polyethylene, 26" x 36" (66 x 91.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Thomas Heatherwick (MOMA-S1378)

The Hive commercial website of home design products advertises the Spun Chair as something good for people who don’t like sitting still all day, but rather spin and roll. It came out of research into the redefinition of the common elements of chair design (such as front and back) and its simplification into basic geometric shapes. And forget about such standard terms as “leg,” “arm,” or “stretcher.” These are not needed! The designer, Thomas Heatherwick (born 1970), is also interested in the use of nontraditional materials in his designs.

Heatherwick, born in London, was educated in three-dimensional design at Manchester Polytechnic (1988–1991) and the Royal College of Art (1992–1994). He established his own firm, Heatherwick Studio, in 1994, but has designed furniture for many firms, including Herman Miller in the US. His firm is primarily focused on architecture and public art that not only emphasizes unusual use of conventional materials, but the exploration of green technology and design. Some of his architectural plans, such as the Pier 55 on the Hudson River, New York (ongoing), are amazing in the way they incorporate green into the urban environment.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 1: 6.7; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 2: 6.9; Discovering Art History 4E: 2.2

Monday, May 7, 2018

Never “Pin” an Artist to One Art Form!


The word “pin” was entirely accidental in the title of this posting, but I’m sticking with it. In the 1980s, I received a broken-down version of Harry Bertoia’s (1915–1978) Diamond armchair as a gift from dear friends, and subsequently gifted it to an artist friend of mine who fixed it up and sold it. I never really liked sitting in it, and my mother couldn’t get out of it once she did. However, it is a beautiful design, so elegant and (almost) aerodynamic. My point is that when most people hear the name Bertoia, they think of his revolutionary furniture designs. But, like Alexander Calder (1898–1976), he was also a brilliant designer of jewelry. Did you know that?

Harry Bertoia (1915–1978, US, born Italy), Brooch, ca. 1947. Silver-electroplated gold, 3 ½" x 4" (8.9 x 10.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-8425btaars)

Bertoia’s most avant-garde chair designs were made during his period with Knoll, Inc. from about 1950 to 1953. Between 1953 and 1978, he produced more than fifty public sculptures, many of them commissioned to adorn architecture. However, his interest in metal sculpture and metalworking began during the 1930s, long before he ever participated in designing furniture or sculpture.

Born in San Lorenzo, Friuli, Italy, he was recognized as an accomplished artist while he was a young man. Some of his early work was designing wedding linen embroidery patterns for brides in his hometown. At fifteen, he moved to Detroit to live with his brother and further study art. A one-year scholarship to the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts was followed by the pivotal event for his artistic development: a scholarship to the Bauhaus-of-the-Midwest, the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills.

Although he studied painting and drawing, at Cranbrook he was asked by the director, architect Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950), to reopen the metalworking shop in 1939. Because of the scarcity of metal during World War II (1939–1945), Bertoia was forced to concentrate on jewelry. In 1943, he moved to California to work with furniture designers Charles (1907–1978) and Ray (1912–1988) Eames to solve the mass-production problems of Eames’ avant-garde molded plywood chairs. During the same period, doing war work designing airplane parts, he took a welding class.

Between 1945 and 1950, jewelry making was one of his main sources of income, while he continued his monoprinting, painting, and sculpture on the side. In the late 1940s, his jewelry had become part of the “art to wear” movement, which included such noted artists as Margaret de Patta (1903–1964) and Fanny Hillsmith (1911–2007). Along with these two artists, his work was featured in the second major “art to wear” exhibition (titled Modern Jewelry Under Fifty Dollars!) at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1948. The elegant, organic lines of his jewelry made it very popular, and Bertoia actually designed wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames in 1941. 

Harry Bertoia, Brooch, ca. 1947. Silver-electroplated gold, 3" x 3 1/2" (7.6 x 8.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-8426btaars)

These post-war pieces of jewelry clearly owe a debt to his learning how to weld, but they also prefigure his welded sculptures starting in the 1950s. His first chair collection was introduced by Knoll in 1952, and his first architectural metal sculpture commission came a year later.

Here’s a reminder of the chair that made Bertoia a household name in the early 1950s. He designed many variations on the basic diamond (I used to call it “butterfly”), including open, non-upholstered versions that consisted of welded grids of steel wire. 

Harry Bertoia, “Diamond” Armchair, 1952. Chromed steel wire and upholstery, 30" x 33 1/2" x 28" (76 x 85 x 71 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0084btaars)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 2E, Grade 2: 2.7; Explorations in Art 2E, Grade 6: 5.7; A Personal Journey: 7.connections; The Visual Experience: 10.7