Review of reviews: Art & Stage
Exhibit of the week
Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, 1950–1975
The Cantor Arts Center, Stanford, Calif., through Aug. 21
“Creativity on the Line” is sure to inspire fits of nostalgia among Baby Boomers, said Sarah Hotchkiss in KQED.org. Wandering among its famous mid-20th-century design objects, viewers of a certain age will instantly recognize Polaroid’s SLR camera, a molded fiberglass chair by Charles and Ray Eames, and the 1961 IBM Selectric typewriter. But the show is more than a trip down memory lane or a celebration of a moment when great designers were defining the look of modern life. One wall is crowded with text that repeats the ambivalent, “sometimes outright cynical” comments that Saul Bass, Raymond Loewy, and other creators made about the experience of designing for corporate clients. “Big business embraced design,” said Bass, “and promptly turned it into a commodity.” By focusing on the compromises the designers made, often unhappily, the exhibition “simultaneously tempers the glamour of the objects on view and humanizes the people behind their sleek surfaces.”
The story starts well before midcentury, said Patrick Sisson in Curbed.com. The oldest object in the show, a 1908 electric teakettle designed by architect Peter Behrens, helped establish that sleek functionalism would be the style manufacturers would try to sell to an emerging boundaryless global market. To reach that market, some firms gave designers wide latitude. Eliot Noyes, the design director at IBM, was a onetime Museum of Modern Art curator who recruited graphic designer Paul Rand and architect Eero Saarinen in his bid to polish the company’s public image. But IBM was an outlier. More often, the modernist pioneers recruited by corporations grappled with a tension embodied in a phrase coined by Loewy: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” Executives, whether following their own tastes or interpreting focus groups, tended to rein in designers’ creative impulses. Saarinen was lucky enough to be hired to design a new John Deere headquarters. But once the complex was built, the same honchos who’d wanted a modernist aesthetic wanted to soften the building’s hard edges, and so ordered plantings added.
One question hangs over the show, and the display “doggedly” pursues it, said Jeffrey Edalatpour in the San Jose, Calif., Metro. Is a designer always compromising higher ideals when designing for business? An elegant object like Sara Little Turnbull’s antipollution mask, for 3M, argues no, and that’s where the show’s heart lies. Designers today worry less than their midcentury forebears about selling out, said Diana Budds in FastCompany.com. Still, “the debate over the role of design in society is repeating itself,” as the public has become increasingly inclined to call businesses out for creating products they deem wasteful or harmful. “Now, more than ever, designers have a responsibility to assert themselves.” ■