Thanks to the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s 19th-century roots and the Hewitt sisters’ collection, the institution has strong holdings in that era’s decorative arts. This month, the New York museum announced that its 20th-century collections were strengthened with a considerable gift from George R. Kravis II. Visitors to the museum can currently see over 100 objects from this gift, complemented by objects existing in the collections, in Energizing the Everyday: Gifts from the George R. Kravis II Collection.
“In the 20th century, people were collecting art of the past and not the present of their day, which means we have some considerable catch-ups to do,” Cooper Hewitt curator Sarah Coffin told Hyperallergic. “Thanks to donors like George, we are concentrating our efforts on acquiring things that we can measure up to what we have and enhance it.”
Kravis, who long worked in radio broadcasting, is on the Cooper Hewitt’s Collections Committee. Along with the gift to the museum, over 2,000 items from his collection will be part of a new Kravis Design Center in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. A recently published book called 100 Designs for a Modern World from Skira Rizzoli also features selections from this collection.
There is something of a west-of-the-Mississippi flavor to the objects, such as 1956 furniture from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and a woven oak chaise longue by Edward Durell Stone from the 1950s, created at an Arkansas wagon and tool factory that was on the decline. Yet overall there is a global grasp of functional design, from Walter Gropius’s 1922 nickel-plated brass door handle built for the Bauhaus Dessau to Danish designer Mathias Bengtsson’s laser-cut wood “Slice Armchair” from 1999. Often, these objects fill in gaps in the Cooper Hewitt holdings, such as adding a set of Henry Dreyfuss-designed kitchen utensils from the 1930s, when the museum already had the drawings.
Much of the Kravis collection is focused on the mid-20th century, which means that the Space Age, Atomic Age, and other periods of technologically fueled change are visible in the objects. Rather than arrange pieces chronologically or by material, Energizing the Everyday showcases aesthetic and thematic connections. For example, a display on “balancing” has a 1949 textile by Alexander Calder, a 1951 lamp by James Harvey Crate, and a 1954 stool by Isamu Noguchi, each demonstrating an offset pattern of lines and discs responding to the visuals of atomic structure. Another grouping on “banding form” celebrate the machine-made parallel lines in objects like Norman Bel Geddes’s 1940 “Patriot Radio” with its deep red lines, and Raymond Loewy’s 1933 “New World Radio” formed from a dark, molded plastic globe.
“We are using these objects to tell a design story, either by relating things by design elements, or by color, form, texture, and pattern,” Coffin said. “There’s this kind of conversation, where we’ve got an archive that better informs the objects, and it helps us show the whole story.”
Energizing the Everyday: Gifts from the George R. Kravis II Collection continues at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (2 East 91st Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 2017.