Friday, September 11, 2009

Designer of the Month: Philip Johnson

Week 2: Philip Johnson and the Museum of Modern Art

Philip Johnson (1906-2005) was one of those designers whose success and influence was remarkably wide ranging, not only in his career as architect and designer of some of America's greatest landmarks, but also as a tastemaker, artistic patron, curator, and foundering Director of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.[1]

Pictured from left to right: The Museum of Modern Art moves to townhouse at 11 West 53 Street (townhouse parcel is part of present site) in 1932; International Style building designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone opens at 11 West 53 Street location in 1939, photo by Eliot Elisofon; New west wing and renovated and improved facilities, designed by Cesar Pelli, open in 1984, photo by Adam Bartoss. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The MoMA was founded in 1929, in response to a perceived cultural need: to to establish an institution devoted exclusively to modern art and dedicated to helping people understand and enjoy "the visual arts of our time."[2] For the first time, there was to be a museum with departments devoted to Architecture, Design, Film and Video, and Photography, in addition to Painting and Sculpture, Drawings, and Prints and Illustrated Books.[3] What's important to keep in mind here is that, as the head of a brand new department in a museum devoted entirely to the modern art of the time, Philip Johnson was able to help influence taste in a way that previously would have been impossible. And of everything that he accomplished in his position of Director of the Department of Architecture and Design, his most influential and well-known exhibition was 1934's Machine Art.[4]

Street sign for the exhibition Machine Art. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. March 5, 1934 through April 29, 1934. Photograph copyright The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Picture walking into one of the architecture galleries at the MoMA. The year is 1934, and the exhibit you've come to see is called Machine Art. You enter the gallery and right there, laid out behind glass cases and on plinths, is an assortment of...familiar, everyday household objects. There are typewriters, pots and pans, propellers, self-aligning ball bearings, springs, and other objects that Johnson chose as "typifying the beautiful in industrial objects."[5] Can you imagine going to see an art exhibit like this in 1934? Today, we're used to entering the Architecture and Design department at the MoMA and seeing examples of industrial design, but back in 1934, these were not the types of things that one expected to see at a museum. Johnson showcased objects that were useful in ordinary life, with no purely ornamental objects included in the display, and with all of the objects chosen for their aesthetic quality.[6]

Self-Aligning Ball Bearing, Sven Wingquist, 1907. Chrome-plated steel, 1 3/4 x 8 1/2" (4.4 x 21.6cm). Manufactured by S.K.F. Industries, Inc., Hartford, CT. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The purpose of Machine Art was to foster what Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the MoMA's Director from it's opening in 1929 to his retirement in 1967, called an "appreciation of their beauty in the platonic sense."[7] In the Machine Art catalog, Johnson and Barr identified abstract and geometric beauty, kinetic rhythms, beauty of material and surface, and visual complexity and function as being central to this aesthetic.[8] The idea behind this exhibition stemmed from the Bauhaus approach of dealing with various media on an equal aesthetic scale, leading to Johnson's conviction that industrial objects of good design merited aesthetic praise and validation.[9] While Johnson resigned from his Director post in 1934 (although he would return to the museum again from 1946-54), it is a result of his conviction and the overwhelming popularity of the Machine Art exhibition that the scope of the department was expanded in 1935 to include not only architecture, but industrial art as well.[10]

Next week, some of Philip Johnson's architectural work!

[1] The Glass House website, "Philip Johnson: Biography," (accessed September 7, 2009).

[2] The Museum of Modern Art website, "Museum History," (accessed September 7, 2009).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Philip Johnson, "Machine Art," in The Industrial Design Reader, ed. Carma Gorman (New York: Allworth Press, 2003), 134.

[7] Ibid., 132.

[8] The Museum of Modern Art website, "Archive Highlights: Philip Johnson discussing the 1934 exhibition Machine Art," (accessed September 7, 2009).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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