DESIGN VS. FASHION
NYC Fashion Week of 2019 has been upon us - that’s the time when citizens can see “swans” wandering our streets: models of such other-worldly perfection (?) that one sometimes wonders if they’re aliens! The season has made us contemplate the relationship between design and fashion - and, for that, our thoughts turn to the High Temple of design: MoMA.
Arthur Drexler (1925-1987) was, for over a third-of-a century, the Director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design. It was (and remains) a powerful position, virtually “the pope” in the world of design. That’s because whatever the Museum chooses to recognize, collect, exhibit, and/or publish becomes very widely known, focused-upon, and studied - it is the design equivalent an “imprimatur” from the church. Drexler exercised this power with penetrating intelligence, an excellent eye, and a sharp awareness of the context of history - and his successors, particularly Barry Bergdoll and Martino Stierli, have continued to work at that high standard.
MoMA divided their Design Collection into two parts:
objects which belonged to the “Permanent Collection”—which met the highest standards of timeless excellence in design
objects which were assigned to the “Study Collection”—things which might not merit being in MoMA’s aristocracy of design objects, but which were interesting for formal or historic reasons, and therefor found a home at the museum
We mention all this because, during a 1970’s “backstage” visit to MoMA, down in the basement offices of the Department of Architecture and Design, Foundation member Seth Weine had a chance to ask Drexler: Why didn’t we see examples of jewelry in the museum’s collection? After all, the making of jewelry is important to humans: it goes back to nearly the beginnings of mankind - and there were certainly many Modern designers working in jewelry. Drexler answered astutely, pointing out that that most jewelry falls into the category of “fashion” - which is inherently about change: what’s fashionable today will be out-of-fashion tomorrow. By contrast, MoMA’s collection aspired to permanent [timeless] excellence. So there was an inherent incongruity between most jewelry objects and MoMA’s high design criteria. Even so, Drexler walked Seth over to some display cases and pointed-out the few examples of jewelry therein: some simple geometric “mood rings” of the 1960’s:
and a metallic bracelet with a rather mechanical look:
So they did have some jewelry—but as part of the Study Collection.
ONE THAT MADE IT (INTO THE MoMA PANTHEON)
Many architects are obsessed with wristwatches—and some architects have even designed them—like Sottsass, Isozaki, Hollein, and Graves. Michael Graves was particularly active in this, with a great range of designs.
Inventive—yes. But frankly, many of those designs strike us as being, at most, of historic interest: their forms and colors reflecting the architectural modes of the day—precisely what Drexler identified as passing fashion.
Are there, in watch designs, any exceptions to such fashion ephemerality? Yes, several - and one of them is most famous of all: the “Museum Watch” designed by Nathan George Horwitt. This wristwatch became an iconic object of Modernism, and was so named because it was elected to be part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection (where the original version was on display). It also became part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum:
What watch did Mies wear? What about Gropius? Bunshaft? Sullivan?—well, he was from an era well before wristwatches became popular for men (that changed only with World War One)—but Wright spanned into the wristwatch-wearing era: So did he wear one?
When we were assembling materials for our recent Rudolph centennial exhibit, we were wondering—given many architects’ interest in watches - if Paul Rudolph had a special wristwatch that we could include in the show. It’s hard tell, just from photographs, what watch (if any) Rudolph ever wore. Indeed, it’s actually rather hard to clearly see any person’s watch in photographs, and even more difficult to determine the make and model. (Although there are now websites which attempt such “watch spotting”.)
While we didn’t find a Rudolph watch for the exhibit, we’ve recently heard about this subject from his close friend, Emily Sherman. Emily tells us that she gave Rudolph a wristwatch: the famous “Museum Watch”!
P.S. Would Rudolph have also liked this watch?
It certainly features that rust-orange color (“paprika”) that Paul Rudolph used in many of his interiors. Moreover: it also has a pronouncedly octagonal shape - in fact, it has 5 octagons.
That’s a form which Rudolph became quite friendly with in the final phase of his career, when he was working in Asia—particularly in his Lippo [Bond] Centre towers in Hong Kong and in his Concourse in Singapore.