Buhmann on Art: ‘Partners in Design’ at Grey Art Gallery

Installation shot, “Partners in Design.” Photo by Nicholas Papananias.

BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN | Showcasing the beauty of common objects, textiles, housewares and furniture, NYU’s Grey Art Gallery explores the hugely influential collaboration between Alfred H. Barr Jr., MoMA’s first director, and Philip Johnson, its first curator of architecture.

By orchestrating a series of pioneering exhibitions at the museum in the 1930s and 40s, both men had been responsible for exposing American viewers to avant-garde European Modernist design for the first time. In addition, their revolutionary vision helped to inspire generations of museum professionals to come. Sparked by their passion, design slowly became understood as something that could be discovered everywhere. Suddenly, a chair or a table were deemed worthy of a museum display not because of their historic relevance, but due to their aesthetic qualities.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:
Barcelona Chair, designed 1929
(Stainless-steel and leather, 30 7/8 x 29 1/8 x 30 in.). Produced by Knoll International, NY. Photo by Denis Farley.

The precursor for Barr and Johnson, of course, was the Bauhaus, the famous art school founded by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, where crafts and the fine arts came together in the name of design. David A. Hanks, curator of “Partners in Design,” succeeds in pointing out the Bauhaus legacy, while also enabling visitors to explore the ultra modern interiors of “The Barr and Johnson Apartments” through 3D simulations of Johnson’s living room on E. 52nd St., for example. In fact, Johnson’s apartment (once described as “the most modern interior in America”) and Barr’s home (which for three years was directly above Johnson’s) served as laboratories where both men experimented with new designs and discussed them with each other incessantly.

“That Modern design became a dominant esthetic in North America,” noted Hanks in the exhibition’s press release, “wasn’t inevitable. Rather, it took the convergence of an emerging European design movement, a young museum, and a unique partnership — one that spanned fifty years, two continents, and countless conversations — to generate the modernism that to this day still says ‘home’ to millions of Americans.”

Through Dec. 9 at Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Sq. East, btw. Waverly & Washington Places). Hours: Tues., Thurs., Fri., 11am–6pm; Wed., 11am–8pm; Sat., 11am–5pm. Thanksgiving weekend hours: Closed as of 5pm Wed., Nov. 22, open again Tues., Nov. 28, 11am. Visit greyartgallery.nyu.edu or call 212-998-6780.

Eva Zeisel: Cloverware Bowl, designed c. 1947
(Plexiglas, 2 1/2 x 12 7/8 x 11 in.). Produced by the Clover Box and Manufacturing Company, NY. Photo by Richard P. Goodbody.

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