If you’ve heard mention of Philip Johnson in the news recently, it’s likely due to the ongoing battle over whether or not to remodel his 1984 AT&T Building. But long before Johnson even had his eye on the Manhattan skyline, he and his friend and collaborator Alfred H. Barr Jr. were already making design history.
On view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, Partners in Design is the first exhibition to trace the partnership between Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Johnson, the museum’s first curator of architecture. Organized thematically, the show starts with Barr and Johnson’s initial encounters in the late 1920s and their visits to the Bauhaus in Germany, later weaving through their influential modernist exhibitions at MoMA and their dissemination of modernist design into the broader American culture.
Throughout the exhibition, examples of the furniture, textiles, and household and industrial objects championed by Barr and Johnson look strikingly like items that today are very much a part of our everyday lives. Several objects on display are still available — most notably a Chemex coffee maker — but perhaps most striking are the chairs, many of which are reminiscent of items readily available at today’s biggest name in furniture, IKEA. I decided to trace a few IKEA pieces to some of the iconic furniture on display at the gallery.
In 1928, Hungarian-born Bauhaus member Marcel Breuer — who would later design what is now the Met Breuer building — created his B32 Chair (above left). The tubular steel chair is still produced today, and it’s particularly popular as restaurant furniture. IKEA’s TOBIAS and RÅDVIKEN chairs echo the B32’s unique structure and materials.
Created by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, the Barcelona Armchair (above left) was one of Johnson’s favorites. Johnson called it “the most beautiful piece of furniture [Mies] has ever designed” and had a couple of the chairs in his own apartment on East 52nd Street. IKEA’s BROMMÖ and POÄNG chairs take inspiration from the Barcelona Armchair’s laid-back construction and materials. The POÄNG chair, one of IKEA’s most popular designs, was directly inspired by a design by Alvar Aalto, who himself was greatly influenced by the Bauhaus.
American industrial designer Donald Deskey — who designed the interior of Radio City Music Hall — clearly took inspiration for the chairs at his dining table from Breuer’s B32 Chair. While Johnson hired Mies van der Rohe to design his whole apartment, the less wealthy Barr was content with one of Deskey’s “knock-off” tables in his own living room. IKEA’s TÄRENDÖ / ADDE and TORSBY / TOBIAS dining sets match Deskey’s simplicity of form, materials, and color.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the massive Swedish furniture-maker, next time you see IKEA in the US, you can thank Barr and Johnson. If it weren’t for their efforts, midcentury modern design may never have marched so successfully across the Atlantic.
Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson continues at Grey Art Gallery, New York University (100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through December 9.