A chair isn’t just a chair in the eyes of a designer—especially when it’s Eliot Noyes, the first director of industrial design at MoMA. When the museum embarked on a crusade against “horrible” design, it skewered an upholstered armchair. Its overstuffed seat, arms, and back might read as pure comfort to some, but to Noyes it was a monstrosity.
“Weight when fully matured, 60 pounds,” Noyes wrote on 1941 exhibition label of the armchair pictured next to a gorilla. “Habitat, the American Home. Devours little children, pencils, small change, fountain pens, bracelets, clips, earrings, scissors, hairpins, and other small flora and fauna of the domestic jungle. Is far from extinct.”
What exactly is good design, then? It’s a question modern designers have dedicated their lives to answering in the form of written manifestos and objects that turn those principles into objects. Curators, too.
Since the 1930s, MoMA has tried to articulate its response to the question. Its latest attempt is “The Value of Good Design,” a new exhibition organized by curator Juliet Kinchin and curatorial assistant Andrew Gardner. On view until June 15, the installation features furniture, textiles, household items, videos, posters, and more culled from the museum’s collection. It revisits the institution’s past efforts to steer consumers toward “good design” and how that might be applicable today.
“The values that are encoded in ‘good design’ are still relevant for us to reflect on and think about today,” Kinchin tells Curbed. “We live in a global consumer culture—for better or worse—and it behooves us to think a bit about what values we’re buying into.”
How design became “good”
In the 1940s and 1950s, MoMA championed a doctrine of tasteful, functional, well-made, simple, and “honest” design. The Bauhaus—a German design school active from 1919 to 1933 and known for marrying art and industrial production—originally synthesized these traits. But it was MoMA that spread the philosophy in the United States and articulated it into an American endeavor.
MoMA’s industrial design department, established in 1934, was a promotional machine. Under the leadership of Noyes, an industrial designer who studied under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, and then Edgar Kaufmann Jr., a department store merchandiser and apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, MoMA articulated what “good design” was: a combination of “eye appeal, function, construction, and price.” Then, it persuaded Americans to embrace its design perspective through exhibitions, competitions, international expos, and partnerships with retailers, manufacturers, and media.
The popular “Useful Objects” series, which ran from 1938 to 1948, championed functional, affordable, and handsome everyday products and taught consumers how to shop with more holistic considerations. The 1938 exhibition “Useful Household Objects Under $5” included 100 commercially available items—like cookware, tableware, and decorative items, many of which had no designer attached to them—and traveled to seven different venues across the country. Other iconic items to appear in this series? The Slinky, Tupperware, Corning glassware, and Edith Heath ceramics.
“It was a way of bringing a lot of ordinary objects to people’s attention and giving them the space and context of an art museum to reflect a bit on what might make a broom, the plastic pail, a bowl valuable in terms of combining functionality, eye appeal or material appeal, and affordability,” Kinchin says.
The “Good Design” series, which ran from 1950 to 1955, highlighted MoMA-approved home furnishings available to consumers at retail partners. The objects on view included collaborations between contemporary designers and manufacturers, like the circa 1953 Hang It All by Charles and Ray Eames for Tigret Enterprises, the circa 1947 Womb chair by Eero Saarinen for Knoll, and Ovals fabric by Joel Robinson for L. Anton Maix Fabrics. MoMA was instrumental in creating a market for what we recognize today as midcentury modernism, a term author Cara Greenberg coined in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, MoMA competitions invited contemporary designers to submit their most creative designs. Charlotte Perriand’s circa 1940 Low chair made from bamboo and exhibited during the 1941 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” exhibition and Clara Porset’s circa 1950 chair for the “Prize Designs for Modern Furniture” international design exhibition are historic examples included in this year’s exhibition.
“Good design” was framed as a moral imperative and its ideology was inextricably linked to patriotism, both overtly and subtly. The “Useful objects in Wartime Under $10” exhibition—which prized the glass Chemex coffee maker as a patriotic purchase since metals and plastics were reserved for the war effort—framed purchasing certain products as a civic duty.
Meanwhile, there was symbolism coded into the products. Innovative American-made design could enable a better standard of living, drive the economy, and spark innovation. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, “good design” was a proxy for American values. Through State Department–funded exhibitions abroad, it became propaganda for American consumerism. Countries around the world also explored their own versions of good design, pitting nation against nation in a battle of ideology expressed through products.
Values for whom?
Through its design programming, MoMA invited American shoppers to reorient how and why they purchase things—and essentially buy into its perspective. This wasn’t without controversy. The museum was criticized for being too commercial, too elitist, and too concerned with tastemaking—all valid critiques today, considering the state of the design landscape.
Right now, the world is confronting a crisis of too much stuff. Oceans are clogged with plastic. We’re suffocating in clutter. Recycling is broken. Meanwhile, design trends are leaning into a more-is-more sensibility, social media is fueling consumerism, and subscription services are making it easier than ever to accumulate things we don’t really need. Brands have appropriated the language of good design into their marketing and aesthetics, but buying the “best” consumer goods doesn’t necessarily lead to a better life. The reality is most products aren’t made to last—and good luck affording the ones that are.
Kinchin hopes revisiting MoMA’s good design initiatives sparks more creative thinking in designers and more discerning consumers.
“Just this process of spending a bit of time weighing up what it is we’re buying,” she says. “Is it functionality? Is it looks? Is it fun? In what ways is it pleasurable? Is it going to last? Is it sustainable? What is is made of? How is it made? In what conditions is it made? These are all factors in evaluating good design... Kaufmann said good design should reflect the values of the age, and we don’t live in the ’50s any longer. Things that might have been valued at one time or in one place aren’t necessarily true for now.”
Historically, MoMA’s “Good Design” programming advocated replacing one kind of consumer culture with another. A 21st-century reassessment is overdue. The last time MoMA revisited its good design program was through a 2009 exhibition that asked: “What was Good Design?” Now that we know what good design was and the values that it explored, perhaps it’s time for an exhibition that looks beyond the limits of middle-class consumerism.