Designing Democracy: The Nut Dish and Other Populist Gems at MoMA

Like a Trojan horse, that can opener could sneak modernist ideas through the front door.

Under the museum’s founding director, Alfred Barr, and later, René d’Harnoncourt, who became director in 1949, the Modern hyped its design initiatives on radio shows and via the emerging medium of television, with curators appearing on morning programs to demonstrate the benefits of modern lounge chairs and folding lamps. There are scratchy, sweetly awkward, black-and-white video clips of these early forays in the show.

In recent years, MoMA has archived online all the catalogs, publicity materials and installation photographs from these shows, a gold mine for design buffs and historians. I looked up the catalog for “Useful Objects Under $5,” from 1938, which included five cent bowls from Woolworth’s, a nineteen cent sherry glass from Macy’s and a nifty little $4.50 orange juice squeezer from Hammacher Schlemmer.

By 1947, when Mies oversaw the show’s installation and the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant, Le Corbusier’s collaborator, designed the cover illustration for the accompanying pamphlet, “Useful Objects” included handmade ceramics from California. There was a $25.75 kitchen cabinet by Raymond Loewy; a nut dish made of porcelain by Zeisel ($1.50) and an Eames dining table that sold for $75.

That Eames table retails now for $1,200. Vitra is selling the Eames chaise for $11,525. The message behind the shows was that cost isn’t value. This idea was gradually lost at the increasingly hierarchical museum. Classic furnishings from the Modern’s egalitarian exhibitions have inevitably become status symbols for the one percent.

That said, the message endures, as “Value” reminds us.

Maybe it’s time for a new round of “Good Design” exhibitions.

The Value of Good Design

Through June 15 (June 16 for members) at the 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400,

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