Since its inception, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) claims to have asked “What is good design and how can it enhance everyday life?” Made from a variety of materials—textiles, wood, plastics, leather, metals, glass, etc.—using then-innovative technology, 100-plus featured objects within MoMA’s 2019 “The Value of Good Design” exhibit highlight the guiding design principles which shaped the tastes of worldwide consumers across generations.
Showcasing a global perspective, from a Brazilian bowl chair to a Japanese poster for a Mitsubishi sewing machine to a mass-market Italian Fiat Cinquecento to a Soviet-era East German Werra camera to an American shrimp cleaner and a propaganda film, MoMA selected pieces featured in past “Good Design” exhibits that demonstrated design’s ability to reflect nations’ respective and shared social and aesthetic values.
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Passing Arthur Young’s bulbous 1945 Bell-47D1 Helicopter (technically not included in the Good Design exhibit, though with it’s plastic bubble made of just one piece, it should be) and instantly encountering Dante Giacosa’s Fiat 500f city car, entering MoMA’s “The Value of Good Design” feels monumental. Upon closer inspection, the exhibit design itself is nothing to write home about. With minimal flow, inconvenient physical pausing points for videos or projections, few object descriptions, etc., the exhibit caused me to wonder if its designers thought to apply the “good design” principles, printed on their walls and projected through their screens, to their spaces and experiences. Perhaps that will be something they will consider in their museum overhaul?
That is not to say the exhibit design was all bad. Standing in the middle of that space, surrounded by pieces—vacuums, furniture, pamphlets, tools, posters, tapestries, and more—whose design principles embody why I chose to pursue industrial design, filled me with joy.
“Since undefinable emotional factors as well as judgment play a part in what one likes, good design will always be different things to different people.” — Betty Pepis, The New York Times, 1951
I was instantly reminded of my first year studying industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, facing assignments that filled me a mix of dread for and paranoia about my inevitable future of designing and creating enough plastic trash to occupy my own personal landfill. I was about to transfer, either out of my major or out of design school all together. Then, as a major requirement, I took Matthew Bird’s class, The History of Industrial Design. Learning about the history of manmade things, about the manufacturing, material developments, and timelines that allowed the objects, furniture, and buildings surrounding me to be built in the first place was perhaps the most fascinating part of my undergraduate education. Deeply thankful for those lessons, I stayed.
But what about people who don’t have that background? That education? That privilege? With many objects resembling those lining the shelves of Salvation Armies and Goodwills everywhere, and with most labels citing only the designer, object name, manufacturer, distributor, and years, how do visitors assign and understand the value of what’s before them?
Without knowledge of and consequent passion for the “Tupperware Seal,” borosilicate glass, furniture systems, and other niche industrial design history, visitors do not know what makes these pieces—pails, rakes, fishing rods, glasses, vacuums, shrimp cleaners, brooms, and other everyday objects—worthy of a museum pedestal. “I have never seen any useful object that could not have been done in innumerable ways, shapes and contours equally well-suited to its purpose,” declared Eva Zeisel in 1946, according to the exhibit’s rotating screen of “good design” quotes. In omitting information regarding the noteworthy aspects of a particular design, the institution leaves the viewer, unaware of the design’s contexts, of which shapes and contours made the object museum-worthy. What responsibility does the museum—an educational resource—have to actually educate, to provide context and information?
“I have never seen any useful object that could not have been done in innumerable ways, shapes and contours equally well-suited to its purpose.” —Eva Zeisel, designer, 1946
The exhibit’s Good Design Lab, hidden behind a wall on the exhibit’s far edge, serves as an opportunity for visitors to interact with some of the show’s pieces.
MoMA aims for the exhibit to raise “questions about what Good Design might mean today, and whether values from mid-century can be translated and redefined for a 21st-century audience.” With that, I anticipated the exhibition to identify how and through what objects and experiences midcentury design principles are still relevant today. Yet, questions regarding what “good design” means today aren’t posed directly in the exhibit. At the most, it is clear what good design was. Perhaps for MoMA, a promotional powerhouse, “good design” is anything they can sell in their gift shops, as they invite visitors to explore “how, through its design stores, MoMA continues to incubate new products and ideas in an international marketplace.”
With very little separating “The Value of Good Design” from a glorified showroom shopping guide, to encourage the purchase of these products (though beautiful testaments to their times) today feels like promotion of the middle-upper class mass consumerism that is destroying the planet. I look forward to a museum exhibition that explores beyond the mass consumption paradigm, offering potential solutions and examples of what iconic, “good design” can look like in 2019 and beyond.
“The Value of Good Design” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City until June 15, 2019.