GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — On view through August 24, “Michigan Modern: Design That Shaped America” is the newest exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The show, which celebrates Michigan’s remarkable contributions to Modern design, debuted last summer at Cranbrook Art Museum and has grown in popularity while on display in Grand Rapids. A dynamic exhibition incorporating the history of design in the state, “Michigan Modern” celebrates the people and the companies that made it happen here.
Why “Michigan Modern”? Michigan has a rich and fascinating history of design, craftsmanship, innovation and manufacturing. The show explores the highly influential role that the state has played in Midcentury Modern design and looks specifically at the decades between 1900 and 1980. The exhibition brings together hundreds of landmark design objects, fascinating photographs, concept drawings and video documentation of the leading figures and key historical developments in architecture, industrial design and furniture from that period.
This exhibition was organized by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office in association with Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills. It was curated by MPdL Studio of Ann Arbor. When the State Preservation Office began its Michigan Modern initiative, it looked both backward and forward. It wanted to celebrate Michigan’s role in defining American Modernism and to attract young and talented workers for the state’s creative class. The State Historic Preservation office also knew that midcentury design has a cross-generational appeal and that the show would boost cultural tourism.
“Through the Michigan Modern project we have demonstrated that Michigan has had a strong impact on the development of design, specifically Modern design throughout the country and the world,” says Brian Conway, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office’s director. The show, Conway explains, “is a crossover between a design exhibition and a historical exhibition with an attempt to tell the story of design and how it started in Michigan.”
Specifically, “West Michigan is key to the international history of Modern design. As soon as I learned of this exhibition, I reached out,” says Dana Friis-Hansen, the Grand Rapid Art Museum’s director and CEO. “When we were planning the presentation in Grand Rapids, we expanded it to include key achievements and leaders from the area. We wanted to highlight the field of recreation, which play a key role in the west Michigan story.”
Among other display highlights are a Ford Model T cutaway and a garden apartment simulation from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park Apartments with furniture that guests can try out and enjoy. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to sit in an Eames lounge chair, this is your chance to try one. Other exciting features include a 1950s Wagemaker Wolverine wooden boat that was manufactured in west Michigan, “pop-up” tents by Bill Moss and 1970s playground equipment that transformed fun for a generation of children.
The exhibition celebrates the companies that developed the ideas of Modern design for everyday life. These companies, which became international leaders in their respective fields, include Steelcase Inc and Herman Miller, Inc, automotive companies, and boat companies, especially those that made the transition from wood to fiberglass.
Taking risks, trying new materials and thinking outside the box also helped modernize design education. Notes Friis-Hansen, “Albert Kahn’s firm was essential for the transformation of manufacturing spaces and processes. The University of Michigan School of Architecture, through Emil Lorch, introduced Modern ideas to generations of architects and Cranbrook Academy of Art was a fertile mixing ground for the ideas of the Saarinens, Charles and Ray Eames, and Florence Knoll.” Because of these academies, which stressed experimentation and excellence, Michigan attracted some of the nation’s top design talent, individuals, in addition to the above, such as Harry Bertoia and Ralph Rapson. By mid-century, Michigan was a leader in organic architecture.
A symposium at the museum in late June featured presentations by artist and designer Todd Oldham, whose book Alexander Girard explores the life and career of the critically acclaimed textile designer for Herman Miller; Mira Nakashima, daughter of furniture designer George Nakashima; Donald Albrecht of the National Building Museum, who discussed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes; Marilyn Moss, who spoke about the fabric artist Bill Moss; and sculptor and playground equipment designer Jim Miller-Melberg.
Symposium attendees had the opportunity to tour the Herman Miller Furniture Company design and manufacturing facilities in Grand Rapids and Zeeland; the Meyer May house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; and the Marcel Breuer-designed St Francis de Sales church in Muskegon. The program was organized jointly by Kendall College of Art and Design, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.
Seth Alec Keller designed the Grand Rapids Art Museum installation. The presentation is organized by topics such as “Modernizing Industry,” “The Teaching of Architecture and Design,” “Public Housing,” “Work Space” and “Recreation.” Friis-Hansen explains that the museum recently expanded its mandate to explore art, design and creativity. He says, “Since I arrived here three years ago, I’ve been increasing the visibility and dialogue around contemporary design. This exhibition allows our audience to understand some of the key precedents for today’s design innovation.”
“Michigan Modern” is meant to appeal to a broad spectrum of visitors. It offers much to see — cars, boats, furniture and fabrics produced in the state — and tells the stories behind the objects in wall text, videos and interactive displays. Friis-Hansen says, “I hope that people will be excited to know more about what we now call Midcentury Modern design and think about how many of those ideas and visual elements can be expanded in today’s world.”
With collections ranging from Renaissance to Modern art and special holdings of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century European and American art, the Grand Rapids Art Museum is downtown at 101 Monroe Center Street NW. For information, 616-831-1000 or artmuseumgr.org.