Remembering Organic Forms as Design Motifs

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 17, 2001 at 4:14 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- From 1940 to 1960, organic forms ranging from amoebas to men, dominated the world of design, replacing the dehumanizing, hard-edged machine imagery that prevailed between the two world wars.

This almost forgotten era is being recalled by a landmark exhibition titled "Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age," currently beginning a national tour with a showing at the Brooklyn Museum, the show's organizer. It will visit Minneapolis, Nashville, Tenn., and Phoenix after closing in Brooklyn Jan. 6.

The exhibition is a followup to another show organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 1986 concerning the previous two-decade design era and titled "The Machine Age in America." The survey of atomic age design is the first in the United States ever to present examples of all the visual arts that made use of organic forms.

Some 250 examples of how fluid, often curvilinear forms were used in painting, sculpture, industrial and architectural design, photography, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, furniture, glass and graphics have been drawn from many public and private sources for this show. About a quarter of the material is from the Brooklyn Museum's own collections.

Think Slinky toy and hula hoop. Think Hobie surfboard. Remember William Baziotes and Jackson Pollock paintings, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder sculptures, Charles and Ray Eames furnishings, Eero Saarinen and Morris Lapidus architecture, Claire McCardell dresses and Sally Victor hats, Berenice Abbott photographs, and Russel Wright tableware?

It's all in the Brooklyn show, a grand spread of familiar but exciting treasures spilling through several large galleries painted in patterns of pure acid color and divided by faux panels consisting of slender white ropes hung vertically to give the illusion of glass. Take a trip through the past, maybe even your childhood!

But don't forget that organic form was not all that design offered in the era covered by the exhibition. It coexisted with machine imagery known as the International Style and its streamlined variations while heralding the promise of the atom and the energy it produced in a new age full of anxieties.

Some of the new designs and artworks of the era had their roots in the first and only war so far to use atomic weaponry.

The Slinky, a snakelike wire toy that swept the nation in 1945, was designed by Richard James after he observed a torsion spring in motion on a World War II battleship. It has sold 250 million worldwide. Camouflage fabrics were inspired by Marine Corps ponchos patterned to imitate the colors and forms of nature and were used in gowns created by Adrian, the Hollywood designer.

The Museum of Modern Art's controversial "Images of Man" show in 1959 exhibited shattered and fragmented human forms including Leon Golub's frightening "Damaged Man," included in the show along with a painting from Willem de Kooning's brutal "Woman" series. Jewelry designer Sam Kramer's tortured silver wrist cuff is decorated with a single, staring human eye in yellow glass.

The splitting of the atom, simple biological forms, and even astronomical discoveries caught the imagination of artists in every field of endeavor.

The amoeba shape was particularly popular showing up Noguchi's coffee table and chess table and Maurice Heaton's glass serving plate design, and the liver-shaped swimming pool and sinuously curved bar were ubiquitous in clubs and homes across the land. Irving Harper's familiar Ball Wall Clock marks the hours with red atomic balls extending from the central mechanism on spokes.

Lee Bontecou's famous welded steel and canvas sculpture of 1960 with its mysterious central aperture gives the viewer a menacing sense of implosion related by chance to heavenly Black Holes that had not even been discovered at the time.

Botanical inspiration accounted for Saarinen's plastic molded pedestal armchair suggesting a tulip, Calder's "Red Lily Pads" mobile, Lee Krasner's abstract painting full of plant imagery, "Upstream," and Seymour Lipton's depiction of a flower and bud in a steel sculpture titled "Earth Forge." Of insect inspiration was Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy's leather Butterfly Chair of leather on a steel frame.

Photographers returned to nature by the dozens. Abbott did close-ups of soap bubbles recalling the asymmetrical structure of cells and penicillin molds as seen through a microscope. Edward Weston's beautiful print "Cypress and Stone Crop" focuses on the patterns of wood and lichens, and Minor White's photo titled "Empty Head" is actually frost on a windowpane.

Richard Higgins designed a silver table service for the USS Long Beach, a missile carrier, in the form of UFOs with a coffee urn topped by a model of electrons circling the nucleus of an atom. Sally Victor's Airwave Hat, which was worn by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower at the 1953 presidential inauguration, looks like a UFO mother ship with air vents.

Curves were the name of the new design game. Alfred Levitt build his cookie-cutter houses on curving streets to provide a modicum of variety. Frank Lloyd Wright built a spiraling dome for New York's Guggenheim Museum, and another Victor hat in straw imitated its design. Georgia O'Keefe painted the spiraling blossom of a pineapple plant and Dole Pineapple Company used it for an advertisement in 1940.

Two of the commercial uses of the new trend in design stand out. Benjamin Bowden's Spacelander bicycle first marketed in 1946 sports a fiberglass frame in lipstick red with sweeping curves and amoeba-shaped voids that make it possibly the most beautiful bicycle design ever. It's a real show stopper!

And one of the most beautiful automobiles ever designed is the Chevrolet Corvette designed in 1953 by Harley Earl in the form of a sleek bug made up of molded fiberglass body parts. A white model of the car upholstered in red is on display at the entrance to the exhibition.

Cadillac introduced the tail fin six years later. It was based on another vital form, the shark's fin.

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