Danielle’s ARTicles: St. Louis Modern
Parked inside the gallery space of Saint Louis Art Museum’s (SLAM) newest major exhibition is a black 1954 Chevrolet Corvette. “St. Louis Modern” is written above the automobile in a sleek, streamlined metal lettering that appropriately matches the style of the 150+ midcentury modern objects that fill the gallery space beyond. Curators David Conradson and Genevieve Cortinovis, in the department of Decorative Arts and Design, worked on this show for four years, collecting furniture, textiles, architectural models, sculptures and household objects made or used in St. Louis from the mid 1930s-60s. The show is organized both chronologically and thematically, including early, classic modern design in America, influences from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, “ideal living” in the architects’ own homes and offices and Scandinavian design.
On the wall beside the Corvette, the viewer is welcomed with an image taken on Oct. 28, 1965 of the Gateway Arch being completed; the keystone is being placed into the center of this iconic parabolic form. The show, “St. Louis Modern: The Era of Innovation Design,” is SLAM’s contribution to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of this defining monument of our city: the St. Louis Arch, designed by architect Eero Saarinen.
The Corvette was considered a bit of an outlier before the show came together, as most of the pieces in the exhibition are architectural. But once placed in this prime location, connections between the style and material of the car and the plethora of modern household objects in the collection became accessible: The use of unconventional materials like stainless steel and molded fiberglass are one.
“The fins on the back really mimic the fins on the Dazey ‘Ice Crusher’…and the mesh mimics the mesh that you see on some chairs,” curator Genevieve Cortinovis pointed out.
The “Ice Crusher” by David Painter of the Dazey Corporation pops up later in the show among the “Good Design” section, which highlights pieces from a movement in the city to bring affordable products to consumers. The ice crusher’s sleek shape, made of a black-enameled-and-chrome-plated top, paired with its functionality is telling of the desire for designers of everyday appliances to comply with the rocket age and modern machines.
Other pieces in the “Good Design” section include funky lounge chairs and a colorful, cubic storage unit with perforated metal by St. Louis-born designer Charles Eames, a desk made of leather, steel and aluminum by George Nelson, and several dainty, glazed earthenware dishes designed by Russel Wright.
“There was a movement around this time that tried to eliminate the lag time between conception, production and consumption,” Cortinovis explained. “We want to celebrate the role retailers in St. Louis had in bringing modern products to consumers—they were cultural centers of the time.”
The result of this goal is an exciting collection of post-war modern objects.
Charles Eames’ and Eero Saarinen’s architecture is featured again by the dducation department’s SLAM Design Studio, a space midway through the exhibition for families and visitors of all ages to pause and process what they’re learning in the galleries. The education team has brilliantly set up three miniature dollhouse size cubbies that host tiny, handmade modern couches, rugs and furniture for visitors to design and furnish their own midcentury modern living rooms. Above the miniature interiors is a bracket that illustrates three designers and their iconic objects, including Eames, Saarinen and Florence Knoll Bassett.
“One of our objectives or takeaways is that visitors will learn the names of these designers and get a visual of what they’re known for,” Lindsey Schifko, learning and engagement assistant, said.
Also in this studio are life-size modern lounge chairs and a pencil table scattered with relevant books for visitors to read and relax in themselves.
St. Louis provenance was significant in the curators’ process. They reached out to community members through the museum’s magazine, searching for examples of private residential architecture. They heard back from two brothers whose parents, Celeste and Erwin Knoesel, were both architects in St. Louis. The couple built their small, streamline brick house in Glenwood in 1938, and their children have since preserved their home and its furnishings. All bought from the Herman Miller catalogue, their belongings include modular wall units, aluminum, brass and chrome-plated steel lamps and a striking spherical aluminum and bamboo “Bun Warmer,” designed by Russel Wright, among other modern geometric appliances. This couple is just one example of how deeply embedded this show is in the personal histories of St. Louis.
A favorite piece is displayed in the “Ideal Living” section of this show: “Book Table” from 1940 designed by Samuel Marks for his wife’s nephew, Morton D. May, who was also an architect living in Ladue. Below the glass top of the coffee table are several slanting wood bookshelves, evoking a sense of industrial energy and movement, as if the table were about to spin off into space.
“It’s an extraordinary example of Marks very effectively using the idea of machine age, taking an industrial looking form, but making it domestic by adding this very rich, burled oak veneer,” Conradson said.
The book table does indeed spin, but visitors are not encouraged to try it out.
The show comes full circle in the final gallery with a Masonite and plywood model of Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, borrowed from the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The model sits beside a photo of Saarinen peering up at the apex of the arch; that same keystone that the show originates with in the first gallery. Take part in St. Louis’ celebration of this iconic monument and its corresponding pieces of midcentury modern objects by visiting “St. Louis Modern: The Era of Innovative Design,” open in the Saint Louis Art Museum until Jan. 31, 2016.