In the middle of the 20th century, modernism, mass-production and a growing middle class converged to produce a boom in affordable, high-quality domestic design. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City cannily positioned itself at the forefront of this revolution. Early initiatives included an annual exhibition, first held in the run-up to Christmas in 1938, of “Useful Household Objects Under $5” (by 1948, this threshold had increased to $100). As part of its “Good Design” programme, which ran between 1950 and 1955, the museum partnered with supermarkets in an effort to bring affordable, well-designed products to the American public. Edgar Kaufmann Jr, the director of “Good Design”, believed that museums had a role in “guiding the consumer toward those qualities which make an object beloved for generations.”
In its new exhibition “The Value of Good Design”, MoMA revisits some of the mid-century products it championed from the start, along with others from the same period. As you meander through the exhibition space – past a Fiat 500, mass-produced tableware, curvy chairs, bright wall hangings and a child’s “Slinky” toy – you’re struck by what the objects have in common. They are easy to use and store. They were innovative, either in their materials, the way they were built, or their appearance. Most importantly, they were intended to be affordable and accessible to as many people as possible.
Most designers working today abide by these principles, but the question of who sets the standards for “good design” is contentious. Some visitors may leave the exhibition feeling slightly cynical about what could be seen as an institutional pat on the back (what good taste we had!) ahead of the museum’s $450m renovation this summer, during which it will be closed to the public. But seen together, the array of objects that MoMA helped create or promote – a number of which are still popular today – is indisputably impressive. Many visitors will agree with with what Dorothy Shaver, the boss of one of the department stores that collaborated with MoMA, said at the “Good Design” launch party in 1950: “To me, good design is simply art applied to living”.
Shrimp cleaner by Irwin Gershen (1954)
This may look like an unusually beautiful pair of pliers, but the name emblazoned on its side – SHRIMPMASTER – proudly proclaims its true purpose: to peel and de-vein prawns. In a humorous combination of form and function, the “waves” on its handle make it ergonomic to use, and evoke the ocean. Its eye-popping colour puts you in mind of shrimps – and makes it easy to find in a kitchen drawer.
Prototype for chaise longue (La Chaise) by Charles and Ray Eames (1948)
In a bid to encourage the mass-production of inexpensive, elegant furniture for American families after the second world war, MoMA organised the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design, which was held annually between 1946 and 1951. The competition inspired designers from around the world to synthesise their modernist design principles with new technologies and materials – resulting in sophisticated household objects ranging from textiles to lighting fixtures.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which the work of Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most influential furniture designers of the 20th century, is considered “low-cost”. But this chaise longue, inspired by Gaston Lachaise’s sculpture “Reclining Nude”, was entered into the competition in 1948. It was not awarded a prize – the judges said it was too “specialized in use” to appeal to the masses – but it was praised for being “striking, good-looking, and inventive”.
“La Chaise” was too expensive to be mass-produced at the time, so was impossible to get hold of until the 1990s, when Vitra, a furniture company that owns the rights to several Eames designs, began manufacturing it. Now “La Chaise” is one of the Eames’s best-known works. It retails for a hefty £6,290 ($11,525 for American consumers).
Kitchen clock by Max Bill (1956-57)
Max Bill, who had studied at the Bauhaus, co-founded the Ulm School of Design in Germany in 1953. Bill’s creative training is evident in this clock, which features both a conventional timepiece and a timer. With its attractive colour, clean lines and clearly labelled numbers, this clock is emblematic of Bill’s design ethos. As he put it: “Functional design considers the visual aspect, that is, the beauty, of an object as a component of its function, but not one that overwhelms its other primary functions.”
Bamboo low chair by Charlotte Perriand (designed 1940, manufactured 1946)
Today’s consumers have a deep appreciation for Japanese design: consider the functional, affordable style of Muji homeware or Uniqlo clothing. Charlotte Perriand, a French furniture designer, helped promote Japanese design to the West after the war. In 1940 Perriand, who had worked for Le Corbusier, moved from Nazi-occupied Paris to Tokyo, where she got a job advising the Japanese Ministry of Commerce about industrial design. The Japanese government was keen to improve the standards of design and export more products to the West. With Junzo Sakakura and Sori Yanagi – who were also alumni of Le Corbusier’s studio – Perriand curated an exhibition hosted by the government at a department store in Tokyo in 1941. It featured household objects, ranging from mass-produced kitchen accessories to traditional ceramics, that Perriand either designed herself or thought would appeal to customers outside Japan.
A design for this flexible low chair was included in the exhibition, although it was not manufactured until 1946, when Perriand returned to France. It is constructed from bamboo, a light, strong, washable and affordable material that was popular during the second world war, when more expensive materials were scarce. Perriand also designed removable cushions made from kimono silk, demonstrating her affinity for customary Japanese crafts and creative techniques.
Chemex coffee maker by Peter Schlumbohm (1941)
Peter Schlumbohm was a chemist who moonlighted as an inventor. During his lifetime, he patented over 300 household designs, from cocktail shakers to cars. Schlumbohm’s scientific background underlies every aspect of the coffee maker. Its clear glass, beaker-like mouth and hourglass shape are all reminiscent of laboratory equipment – and like lab glassware, the Chemex was designed so none of its own flavours or smells leaked into the substance it held. To make a pour-over cup of coffee, all the Chemex requires are paper filters, folded into the glass opening and filled with coffee grounds (Schlumbohm designed his own double-bonded brand of filters, which reportedly ensure the best flavour extraction) and boiling water. Even today, amid hundreds of competitors, the simplicity of the Chemex continues to attract new devotees.
The Value of Good Design MoMA until June 15th