Wednesday 18 April 2018

Machine Art (1934)

In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York put on an exhibition called Useful Household Objects under $5.00. The curator of the exhibition, John McAndrew, had chosen, ‘…approximately 100 articles of household use selected on the basis of good modern design and available at retail stores’. Amongst other things, the following artefacts where exhibited;

adjustable towel rack - $3.50,
aluminum tea kettle - $3.00,
salt and pepper shakers - $0.10,
glass pitcher - $1.50,
steel pocket knife - $1.00,
orange juicer - $4.60,
travelling iron - $3.95,
can opener - $0.18

The press release for the exhibition explained that: ‘The purpose of the exhibition is to show that it is possible to purchase everyday articles of excellent design at reasonable prices’. This was not the first time, nor the last, that MoMA had paid serious attention to mass produced artefacts. Some of the earliest examples of industrial design that the Museum acquired came from an exhibition they held in 1934 called Machine Art (March 6 to April 30, 1934). 

This was a ground-breaking exhibition that treated mass produced objects of a wide variety as beautifully designed objects in their own right. The exhibition catalogue signalled this seriousness, through two opening epigraphs in Greek from Plato and in Latin from Saint Thomas Aquinas respectively. 

The quotation from Plato’s Philebus 51 C, read as follows:

By beauty of shapes I do not mean, as most people would suppose, the beauty of living figures or of pictures, but, to make my point clear, I mean straight lines and circles, and shapes, plane or solid, made from them by lathe, ruler and square. These are not, like other things, beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely.

The catalogue for the Machine Art exhibition is HERE

Image: Laboratory microscope ESA-105. Carl Zeiss, Inc. $159.00