total art for small apartments

barbara Cohen Stratyner

Photo: Maureen Drennan

Photo: Maureen Drennan

Our museums support the belief that things are art.  Inspired by the Aesthetics movement, Bauhaus, Art Deco, material culture, or common sense alike, the museums that New York is fortunate enough to host serve to promote the idea that all exhibitable objects are designed for use and can themselves inspire design. Though most New Yorkers do not have the option to make major changes in our apartments or offices, we can go to museums to see shapes, textures, colors, and material may change how we consider our interior spaces. This summer, five shows at New York museums have dedicated galleries to work that might transform your thinking about how we live with things.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive (MoMA, through October 1, 2017)

Rather than attempting to confront Wright’s long career and massive output in full, this exhibit focuses on twelve design challenges, each inhabiting a discrete area with thick, white walls. Although most of the exhibition comprises framed two-dimensional drawings or architectural plans, each of the twelve challenges is designated by a three-dimensional artifact.  Many visitors spent their time with the architectural models, especially of The Guggenheim’s 5th Avenue building. If your life includes single-family houses, you will enjoy viewing the designs for them that so influenced the American suburban landscape, but it was two practical objects that Wright re-imagined which captivated me most.

Wright’s Clerestory windows have become among his best known works, though are often seen outside of their normal context in everyday use.  He thought of them as functioning windows, set high on walls or even in a ceiling to admit light. Typically, as in gothic cathedrals, they were stained or leaded glass, whose graphic designs could vary the color or texture of the light.  The one on display, from the Avery Coonley Playhouse, Riverside, Illinois 1912, has leaded grids with squares and bubbles clustered in the center.  Museums have regularly shown extant examples of his clerestories over the years and frequently adapt the extended-rectangle shape into posters, bookmarks, and ties, so they may look familiar.  MoMA could not use it in a window without admitting more light than was good for the art, but it displayed this one horizontally as the lintel of one of the room entrances in the gallery.  

Wright also designed concrete blocks for his buildings.   These blocks are, in many ways, a 19th century architectural concept.  Many urban landmarks use molded concrete facings over the basic structure, which were made in plain, practical concrete reinforced with metal beams.  The block on exhibit, from the Ennis House, Los Angeles, 1924, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.  As shown in the draft axonometric studies hung nearby, it is a cube set deep enough to prove that it is a structural unit, not just a piece of the facade.  Its molded design explores what can be done with concentric and overlapping square lines and shapes of varying weights and widths.  

Your landlord may not let you make your own windows or concrete blocks, but you can dream.  MoMA invites you to do just that at its wonderful People’s Studio, available during the run of the Wright exhibit. The People’s Studio: Design Experiment Build offers four ways to experience the design process.  Computers give you access to Sketch Up, the software that many exhibition designers use, and lets you play with two- and three-dimensional shapes.  If you prefer a pencil to a mouse or stylus, there are drawing desks with paper pads and graphite pencils overlooking the sculpture garden.  Prompts suggest thinking about “positive and negative space,” “geometry and abstraction,” and “decoration and ornament.”  Community Build tables in the center create a communal work/play space and are supplied with packs of the large Eames Cards, wooden blocks, and architectural Legos.  MoMA has also provided a fascinating mini-exhibition relating these tools to early childhood educational theory, multilingual facilitators, and a comfortable seating area around a book case.  

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s (Cooper-Hewitt, through August 20, 2017)

The Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum currently has an exhibition on The Jazz Age, focusing on decorative arts and clothing from the 1920s.  Go to see the beautiful things in beautiful condition in clear, uninterrupted view.  A theme of the exhibition is “A Smaller World,” reminding us that transatlantic air travel made it possible for people and artistic movements to move across larger distances in far shorter time. For me, it also signals a golden age of design for smaller spaces.  

The top floor has all scales of domestic objects, from wall hangings and fireplace grilles to cigarette cases and earrings, identified by designer and/or manufacturer.  I walked through, following two concepts:  the first, familiar to all New Yorkers, was the cleverness and beauty of the furniture designed to have multiple purpose as well as storage.  There is a day-bed by Frederick Kiesler from 1933 that I crave – it has storage drawers and shelves in the headboard and a side piece that curls around the back. And at perfect height, there is a tray supplied with a reading stand like a beautiful wood-grain hospital tray.  There are sideboards and desks throughout the exhibit of great beauty and practicality for apartment dwellers. The exhibit also features possibly less helpful artifacts made for very specific purposes – notable among them are separate tea and coffee services in gleaming or matte silver shapes nestled together, and a large selection of cocktail shakers for those too wealthy to worry about Prohibition. 

The second floor focuses on the Paris Exposition of 1925, which established Art Deco as an ideal.  It influenced the designers whose work is shown on both floors, so the historically minded should start on 2.  This floor also includes a separate but related exhibition on cigarette cases and one on radio, relevant since commercial radio developed in the 1920s.  It moves chronologically forward in time through the iPod (2009) and Google Smart Home Assistant (2016).  If you ask for a “smart pen” at the admissions desk, you can go to the huge tabletop screens in the galleries and bring up additional information on individual artists or artifacts. 

Simple Gifts: Shaker at the Met (through August 6, 2017)

At the encyclopedic Metropolitan Museum of Art just a short walk down 5th Avenue, you can find home décor inspiration in the period rooms, focused exhibitions on ceramics or ivory, or walk through the Impressionists with a Benjamin Moore palette to find a perfect wall paint. I have been trying to match yarns to Van Gogh’s olive trees for years.  

Two temporary exhibitions seem tailored to apartment living in the summertime.  The two-room tribute to Shaker furniture and objects had many examples of brilliant use of material and space.  The chests, chairs, pews, and tables are frequently copied and still in production, so the woodworking details may appear familiar.  But the exhibition also includes lesser-known metal-ware including an iron fireplace set of tongs and a shovel.  There is no surface decoration in the exhibition.  A large screen is showing excerpts from Martha Graham’s dance work Appalachian Spring set to Aaron Copland’s score, which includes the hymn from which the exhibition gets its name.  Pay attention to Isamu Noguchi’s minimalist set. And in case you need any reinforcement of the association of the Shakers’ “simple” approach, the exhibition is installed next to a gallery of Arts & Crafts furnishing beloved by American aesthetics.  An 1877 cabinet just beyond the Shaker platforms is decorated with wooden inlay plaques and rondels, iridescent glass panels of irises, and a floral egg and dart edging in wood, demonstrating the stark contrast between the two concurrent styles.

Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Gift (through February 4, 2018)

Go up the stairs, through the Luce Center visible storage units, up the Louis Sullivan staircase, and through American ceramics to reach the Asian wing.  There is a temporary exhibition up on Japanese bamboo, which I would recommend as a corollary to the Western-focused design shows and as a visual treat.

While many use nice nice-looking bamboo baskets for holding magazines or hiding trashcans, we may not appreciate their broader purpose or design. This exhibition features a vast variety of flower baskets designed for use in different shapes to support the stems and heads of individual species of flowers. (Did you know that peonies need a wide basket with a narrow opening?) The exhibit, in an unexpected congruence with the Jazz Age, also includes a variety of baskets specifically designed for carrying tea and the utensils and fuel needed for a tea ceremony.  

While at the Met, visit the artifacts in ReiKawakubo/Comme des Garcon: Art of the In-Between. The artifacts are garments, wearable art, but they can inspire you through color, shape and texture.  Even the white gallery walls seem inspired, and may make it possible for you to see your own in a new light.

Most of New York's historical houses and museums have extended summer hours and a free day or evening. Investigate them all summer and of course, don't forget the museum shops.