A good cup of coffee is a wonder of chemistry. To make the preparation flawless, the chemist Peter Schlumbohm conceived a coffee maker as he’d design an experiment. Introduced in 1941, and still in production, the Chemex has the clean look of laboratory glassware. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, it’s an object lesson in good design.
MoMA has explored good design since its founding, and promoted the idea extensively through a series of Christmastime exhibitions staged from 1938 through 1955. These exhibitions, and their impact on consumer culture, are the subject of The Value of Good Design, opening at MoMA this weekend. In addition to the Schlumbohm’s coffee maker, this retrospective includes objects as varied as the Fiat Cinquecento and the original line of Tupperware.
Most all of these objects embody aesthetic preferences of midcentury Modernism. Like the Chemex, they tend to be explicitly functional and broadly affordable. (Even in its stylishness, the design of the Cinquecento was driven by the goal of bringing maximum mobility to as many Italians as possible.) They’re also mostly products of midcentury economics, self-assembling building blocks of compulsive consumerism. (If you have any doubts, just consider the infamous ’50s Tupperware party.)
These values would appear to be contradictory: Should necessity be the mother of invention or invention be the mother of necessity? This tension, which is at the crux of midcentury Modernism, is what makes this retrospective most stimulating.
No resolution is given by the curators, but the inclusion of Glimpses of the USA by Charles and Ray Eames provides critical framing. Commissioned by the United States Information Agency, and originally screened in Moscow at the American National Exhibition, this 1959 propaganda film showed Russians the domestic life of Americans, replete with consumer products such as those shown at MoMA. In this context, the products become articles of Capitalist ideology.
To dismiss good design as an artifact of politics or economics would be overly simplistic, but it would be equally simplistic to ignore the political and economic foundations of mass-production, which have depended on mass-consumption. The Chemex not only had to make good coffee, but also had to make good consumers to buy it, which Schlumbohm ingeniously achieved by lending the appearance of scientific precision to breakfast preparation. If good design is enlarged to encompass the design of a complementary society, the contradiction of midcentury Modernism turns out merely to be an artifact of its multi-level complexity.
Mass-consumption is a function of good design as defined in the middle of the 20th century. The familiarity of many items at MoMA, and their evident aesthetic connection to many products now entering the market, shows that we’re still living under that old paradigm, even as the planet suffers from the consequences. Appreciating why these designs were good, and toward what end, is a valuable starting point for deciding how good design can be redefined today.