Sunday, June 26, 2011

Designing Tomorrow

Where: National Building Museum

When: through September 5, 2011

The original closing date for this show was July 10, but it has now been extended, so you've got lots of time to see it. This is a show dedicated to the World's Fairs of the 1930s, and if you like Art Deco, this is a must see.

My grandparents took their honeymoon trip to the Chicago World's Fair, so my desire to see the show extended beyond just casual interest. It was great to see a bit of what they saw, and feel some of the excitement that they must have felt, as they traveled from northern Minnesota to see the marvels on display.

A quote at the beginning of the show summed it up very well, I thought. "Their tomorrow looks much like our today." The technological advances we all take for granted now, especially those in transportation and communications, were mere visions then.

I was interested to see a picture of Greenbelt from 1938, an experiment in planned suburban resettlement, which is where my brother and his family live today. Much has changed, obviously, but the idea that people could live outside the city and be able to enjoy a bit of nature is still the same.

The exhibit also mentioned the "White City," the name given to the fairgrounds of the World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. If you've not read the wonderful book, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, I give it a very high recommendation. It was really neat to see pictures of that fair; it brought the book back to me in force. The photograph on display made me appreciate just how beautiful the fairgrounds must have been.

Other fairs held prior to the 1930s that got mentions were the 1925 Paris Exposition, where Le Corbusier declared that houses would some day be nothing more than machines for living. How lucky we are that this has not yet come to pass; the idea of a machine for living sounds a bit cold and antiseptic to me, and the 1927 Barcelona International Exposition. Included was a picture of the German pavilion designed by Mies van der Rohe - almost as ugly as the MLK library in downtown DC.

World's fairs were originally intended to bring people together in appreciation of human advances and a variety of cultures, but they tended to increase nationalism. Reminded me of the Olympics today.

At the New York World's Fair, there was a contest to find the typical American family. Note that the contest was limited to parents with a male breadwinner - anyone deviating from the Cleaver household model need not apply! It was fun to see the 20th Century Limited poster - we have a print of that in our dining room, along with a print of one of the posters from the Chicago World's Fair.

World's Fairs were opportunities for ordinary people to see the works of major international designers, including Raymond Loewy, a critic of bad American design. His idea was that good design is meant to reduce the irritations and uneasiness of the average person. That's the sort of thing you don't think about until you replace your old desk chair with an ergonomic one, and discover you no longer have back aches at the end of the day.

The New York World's Fair featured two architectural marvels - the Trylon and the Perisphere. For some reason, they reminded of me of Disney's Epcot Center. There's something sort of artificially modern about them. To me, they look much like a "Jetsons" future, exaggerated and cartoonish.

Verdict: Go see this show - it's worth the $8 admission, especially if, like me, you're a fan of Art Deco. The show is huge; I only had time to scan the contents - you could spend two hours here with no problem.

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