Objects of Design

Paola Antonelli

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.

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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

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