Objects of Design
In MoMA’s curators’ mind, the term modern does not refer to a historical
phenomenon but, rather, a spirit attuned with its own time, and the Museum was
established for the express purpose of “… encouraging and developing
the study of modern arts and the application of such arts to manufacture and
practical life.” The idea of the Museum’s founders, and especially
its first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., was a museum concerned with all the
arts of its own time, and modern design was included from the outset. Initiated
in 1934, the collection of design objects of The Museum of Modern Art represent
to this day the canon against which any treatment of twentieth century design--whether
in the form of a collection, a history, or an exhibition--cannot avoid to measure.
While several other excellent collections exist in the United States and in
other parts of the world, some larger and more encyclopedic, others diversely
focused and smaller, the Museum’s pointed curatorial choices over some
seventy-five years have done nothing less than establish modern industrial design
among the arts.
Today, the collection of design objects and textiles includes circa 3800 records,
the oldest being a swatch of double-warp silk brocade from the seventeenth century,
and the most recently designed being a felt by Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra,
dated 2001. In range, the collection spans across types, materials, and dimensions,
from a helicopter (the biggest item) to microchips, the smallest objects in
the collection. As expected in any assemblage of examples of design, almost
10% of the entries are chairs, but among the other categories figure, for instance,
household appliances, cars, office and sports equipment, an entrance to the
Paris métro, a ball bearing, a glider nose, and a drinking straw.
A grease cup spring by American Steel & Wire is the very first design object
that was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art in April of 1934, together with
about a hundred other industrial objects that were shown in the Museum’s
second design exhibition, Machine Art, of 1934. The chairman of the new department
was Philip Johnson, whose 1932 Modern Architecture -International Exhibition,
in collaboration with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, had provided modern architecture
with a definition that was to have a lasting influence throughout the twentieth
century. With Machine Art, Johnson surprised the public with a three-story display
of machine-made pieces, from propeller blades to coils and springs, manufactured
laboratory appliances and working tools, household objects, and furniture. Set
on white pedestals and platforms and against white walls, the decontextualized
objects were installed with the same focus and drama that was reserved for sculpture.
Machine Art provided a great leap forward.