Trash or Treasure: MOMA exhibit in New York explores 'The Value of Good Design'

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News


Installation view of  "The Value of Good Design" at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (February 10–June 15, 2019).


“Is there art in a broomstick?” That’s the question on a placard introducing the fascinating small exhibition I unexpectedly stumbled on recently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s also at the heart of “The Value of Good Design,” on view through June 15.

Located on the third floor, the exhibition is easy to miss on the way to the fifth-floor’s more popular masterworks, including “Starry Night” by Van Gogh and “The Dance,” among other luminous pieces by Matisse. It’s well worth the detour and is a refreshing break from the crowds even if you’re not a fan of mid-century modern design (and these days, who isn’t?).

If you are a fan you’ll be enthralled by the clean lines of objects and furniture you may have in your house and may have taken for granted. From Chemex coffee pots, invented in 1941 by a German chemist and inspired by laboratory equipment, to plastic Tupperware and streamlined Russel Wright ceramics, it’s a treasure trove of the art of everyday life,  

With hundreds of objects from domestic furnishings and appliances to ceramics, glass, electronics, transport design, sporting goods, toys, and graphics, “The Value of Good Design” explores the democratizing potential of design, beginning with MoMA’s Good Design initiatives from the late 1930s through the 1950s, which championed well-designed, affordable contemporary products. Many of the objects will look familiar, from the fore-mentioned Tupperware, invented in 1946, to a classic Olivetti typewriter from 1950.

Highlights come in all shapes and sizes, from a tiny shrimp cleaner from 1954 to a full-size Fiat Cinquecento automobile parked in the center of the space. In between you’ll find the Slinky, designed in 1945, an Eames La Chaise, Eva Zeisel ceramics, Isamu Noguchi table, George Nelson clock, textiles, furniture, even a futuristic Spacelander bike that dates to 1946.

The exhibition also raises questions about what good design means today, and whether values from mid-century can be translated and redefined for a 21st-century audience. Visitors are invited to judge for themselves by trying out a few classics still in production in a small area at the back of the exhibition.

The chance to catch the exhibition is limited, however. It ends in mid-June as the museum closes to prepare for the unveiling of a massive renovation. While I couldn’t find a broomstick, there is an electric vacuum cleaner that dates to 1956, proving that, if well designed, things like pepper mills, rakes, vacuum cleaners and shrimp cleaners can indeed qualify as art.

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