April 6, 2010
by Jacqueline Pezzillo Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: Annual Gil Oberfield Memorial Lecture — American Design in the MoMA Collection
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.25.10
Speakers: Russell Flinchum — Author, American Design
Organizers: AIANY Interiors Committee


Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

During the seventh annual Gil Oberfield lecture, Russell Flinchum — archivist, author, and curator — presented the content and thesis of his latest publication, American Design (The Museum of Modern Art/5 Continents, 2008), which he describes as an unrivaled research experience that was “a delight to have written.” An investigation into MoMA’s collection of American design, Flinchum’s book extracts the most representative pieces, albeit not always the most iconic, to determine what exactly is American about American design.

With a penchant for labor saving devices and a fascination with process, 20th-century American designers engendered functionalism and consumerism. “American design is commercial design from its inception,” Flinchum stated. Even Henry Ford’s popular Model T was outmoded when stylistic preference began to encroach upon a consumer population. As freedom of choice prevailed and multiple body styles became available, American auto enthusiasts embraced a culture of design, which spread to an entire nation.

In a post-war era, Ekco Housewares Co. began to produce kitchen tools that responded to consumer needs with innovations such as stainless steel to prevent rust, and the inclusion of a hole in the utensil handle by which to hang it from a nail. According to Flinchum, all-American designs are intrinsically compromises since they are consumer products and must yield a profit. A divergence from contemporary European design products, streamlined American designs of the 1930s left MoMA curators suspicious and reluctant to include American products into their collection. Later, enlightened by the purposeful aesthetic and prevalent usability of American design, the museum opened its door to welcome products of designers including Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Dreyfuss, Richard Kelly, and Russel Wright.

An enthusiast of American design and a champion of its merits, Flinchum has substantiated his premise that American design is inclusive of the objects that anchor our lives, such as the Trimline telephone and the Leatherman multi-tool prototype, worthy of their place in The Museum of Modern Art.

Jacqueline Pezzillo, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is the communications manager at Davis Brody Bond Aedas and a regular contributor to e-Oculus.


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