Designing Democracy: The Nut Dish and Other Populist Gems at MoMA

Before MoMA shuts down next week to reboot for its expansion, you can still catch “The Value of Good Design.” I joined a crowd the other day, toting up an imaginary shopping list. Covetousness is partly the show’s point.

Not that most of us can swing the needed cash for, say, Eero Saarinen’s vintage womb chair or the cream-colored, delicately sculptured Fiat 500, designed in the 1950s by Dante Giacosa and now parked near the entrance to the exhibition. But once upon a time these objects were more affordably priced.

That’s why they’re here.

“Value” recollects three series of exhibitions that the still-young Museum of Modern Art organized across nearly two decades, starting in the late 1930s.

The earliest series, “Useful Objects Under $5” (then under $10 and eventually $100), culled items already on the American marketplace. Afterward came a number of international design competitions the Modern sponsored. And finally, “Good Design,” an annual collaboration with the Chicago Merchandise Mart, trumpeted new home furnishings.

These events were among the most influential the museum organized — populist counterpoints to surveys of Picasso, Matisse and Surrealism. In their way, they were more pioneering.

That’s because of how they spread the gospel of modernism. They celebrated everyday items. “Useful Objects” included hairbrushes and highball glasses, brooms and breadbaskets, side tables, sofas, ashtrays and lamps. Some of the objects were beta tests for new materials and industrial techniques.

Many came straight from the shelves of five-and-dimes and department stores. The cheapest cost pennies.

More than a few of the things that made it into these various events have since become modernist icons — testifying to the early Modern’s curatorial judgment but also to its outsize influence in those days — among them the German chemist Peter Schlumbohm’s X-shaped Chemex Coffee Maker, Lina Bo Bardi’s Bowl Chair, Noguchi’s Arplike coffee table and the Eames’s biomorphic La Chaise, introduced at the “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture,” which MoMA presented in 1950.

Organized by the museum’s director of industrial design, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. (Mies van der Rohe was one of the judges), the low-cost competition inspired an astonishing number of interesting ideas, among them Donald Knorr’s sheet metal side chair and Alexey Brodovich’s rocking “Floor” chair, made of simple, almost cartoonish plywood cutouts, an object so practical and clever it ought to be available today. These are in “Value” as well.

Its curators, Juliet Kinchin and Andrew Gardner, have leavened the standouts with endearing oddballs like a shag-carpeted inner-tube chair by Davis J. Pratt. They unearthed wonderful, dusky, timeless-looking textiles from the early ’40s by Virginia Nepodal, Noémi Raymond, Eszter Haraszty and Vera Neumann.

When, during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, MoMA curators of painting, sculpture, prints and drawings were focused almost exclusively on Great White Men, the design department welcomed through these shows and competitions works by gifted women — others included Ray Eames and Eva Zeisel — and designers of color like Joel Robinson, the first African-American to enter the Modern’s design collection, whose linen print of abstractly patterned ovals, from the “Good Design” show in 1951, is another eye-catcher.

The idea back then was that good, inexpensive objects of modern design were social levelers, extending art and beauty into countless working-class and middle-class homes, improving people’s daily lives, encouraging commerce and innovation.

Spreading the word was central to the advancement of democracy and to the Modern’s core mission. Toward that end, “Useful Objects” did whistle-stop tours of the country; and repackaged, retitled versions of “Good Design,” among other MoMA design shows, traveled abroad during the Cold War under the aegis of the State Department, advertising the fruits of Western freedom and ingenuity.

The museum even developed its own version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: a bold, circular “Good Design” tag — the Chicago husband-and-wife graphics firm of Morton and Millie Goldsholl and Associates, designed it — which helped manufacturers move stock off the shelves. The effort was in keeping with MoMA’s earlier wartime edition of “Useful Objects” which had guided Americans toward well-designed household products that would conserve supplies of nickel, tin, copper and steel, critical to the war effort.

If all this now seems a curious role for an art institution to play, it was in fact extending a tradition the Modern inherited from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and movements like the Bauhaus. The Modern wasn’t alone. At one time, the Brooklyn Museum teamed up with Abraham & Straus, the department store, to organize far-flung anthropological expeditions and the production of new fabric designs. The early Metropolitan Museum offered plumbing classes and trained designers to make jewelry, lighting fixtures and soap wrappers.

The idea was that art museums born during and after the Industrial Revolution, unlike old royal collections, couldn’t and shouldn’t only collect masterpieces. They existed to marry commerce with spectacle for the explicit purpose of societal engineering, framing consumption in terms of public service, extending culture through the promotion of modern product designs. If most Americans had little patience for Picasso, everybody needed a decent can opener.

Like a Trojan horse, that can opener could sneak modernist ideas through the front door.

Under the museum’s founding director, Alfred Barr, and later, René d’Harnoncourt, who became director in 1949, the Modern hyped its design initiatives on radio shows and via the emerging medium of television, with curators appearing on morning programs to demonstrate the benefits of modern lounge chairs and folding lamps. There are scratchy, sweetly awkward, black-and-white video clips of these early forays in the show.

In recent years, MoMA has archived online all the catalogs, publicity materials and installation photographs from these shows, a gold mine for design buffs and historians. I looked up the catalog for “Useful Objects Under $5,” from 1938, which included five cent bowls from Woolworth’s, a nineteen cent sherry glass from Macy’s and a nifty little $4.50 orange juice squeezer from Hammacher Schlemmer.

By 1947, when Mies oversaw the show’s installation and the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant, Le Corbusier’s collaborator, designed the cover illustration for the accompanying pamphlet, “Useful Objects” included handmade ceramics from California. There was a $25.75 kitchen cabinet by Raymond Loewy; a nut dish made of porcelain by Zeisel ($1.50) and an Eames dining table that sold for $75.

That Eames table retails now for $1,200. Vitra is selling the Eames chaise for $11,525. The message behind the shows was that cost isn’t value. This idea was gradually lost at the increasingly hierarchical museum. Classic furnishings from the Modern’s egalitarian exhibitions have inevitably become status symbols for the one percent.

That said, the message endures, as “Value” reminds us.

Maybe it’s time for a new round of “Good Design” exhibitions.

The Value of Good Design

Through June 15 (June 16 for members) at the 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.