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The Look of the Atomic Age


Art follows life: from the very beginning, New York's MoMA was concerned with improving everyday American life with good design. The museum created competitions for exceptional furniture design, stopping short of nothing and even collaborating with major department stores. In the end, "good design" made in the USA became a trademark of Modernism's experimental spirit; it can now be seen in Berlin's Kunstgewerbemuseum alongside the major masterpiece show in the New National Gallery. Bettina Allamoda offers an overview on the history of The Museum of Modern Art's design collection.



Florence Knoll, Showrooms in San Francisco, 1957, Photo: courtesey Knoll International

In 1929, Wall Street wasn't the only place where Black Friday hit hard. The stock market crash reverberated in the private lives of ordinary people, as well. In the ensuing depression, the vision of a home refurbished with modern furniture and household appliances, or even the purchase of common tools and clothing had become utopian for the majority of the American populace.

In a time when Grant Wood's farmers' portrait American Gothic from 1930 reflected everyday life, hundreds of thousands of people across the continent were still living without electricity well into the nineteen-fifties. America, lacking in orientation and experience in design matters, was to be taught good taste. But mass production had to be taken care of first, which was to be as stylish and elegant as possible. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first museum that established an independent department for architecture and industrial design.

Since its founding in 1929 under the director Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum's self-appointed task was to get the meaning of Modernism across to the wider public: "to encourage and develop the study of the modern arts and the application of such arts to manufacture and practical life", as its statute stated. In 1932, with the exhibition Modern Architecture - International Exhibition, the MoMA, an advocate of the " Modern Movement," invented the concept of the International Style. During this time, Bauhaus resisted the development of a new formal language of this nature, working instead on designing a way of life that corresponded to industrialized culture. Thus, for Bauhaus' founder Walter Gropius, the goal did not consist in developing a style or canon, a system or dogma, but in working against the classical ideas of the "school" as it prevailed at the old master art academies. In the New York exhibition, on the other hand, a reduction to formal elements such as the flat roof, the white cube, or the glass facade went hand in hand with the creation of an aesthetic and design that reflected the conditions of modern culture. As it turned out, the establishment of a new style proved to be inevitable: around the world, design emerging from America became a trademark originally composed of elements borrowed from the Bauhaus and the French " Esprit Nouveau."


Charles and Ray Eames, rocking chair, 1950, Manufacturer Herman Miller Inc., Zeeland, USA. Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin, Photo: Saturia Linke

Between the Streamlined Form and the Machine Aesthetic

Under the slogan Building the World of Tomorrow, the Modern Movement could be experienced visually at the 1939 World's Fair in New York; as a formal language, it was omnipresent. The setting resembled the cinematic science fiction of a Fritz Lang (Metropolis , 1926) or Flash Gordon (1936) far more than it conveyed Le Corbusier's or Gropius' austere principles. The streamlined form was the essential decorative element and was implemented everywhere.

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