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The pain of layoffs notwithstanding, the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings.

“American designers took the Depression as a call to arms,” said Kristina Wilson, author of “Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression” and an assistant professor of art history at Clark University. “It was a chance to make good on the Modernist promise to make affordable, intelligent design for a broad audience.”

The most popular American designer of that era was probably Russel Wright, who acted as the Depression’s Martha Stewart, turning out a warmed-up, affordable version of European modern furniture, tableware and linens for a new kind of informal home life. A bentwood armchair cost $19.95. “They were not just cheap, they were beautiful, and that was a powerful combination,” Ms. Wilson said.

Design tends to thrive in hard times. In the scarcity of the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames produced furniture and other products of enduring appeal from cheap materials like plastic, resin and plywood, and Italian design flowered in the aftermath of World War II.

Will today’s designers rise to the occasion? “What designers do really well is work within constraints, work with what they have,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. “This might be the time when designers can really do their job, and do it in a humanistic spirit.”

In the lean years ahead, “there will be less design, but much better design,” Ms. Antonelli predicted.

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