In 1924, the ancient game of chess was updated by the Bauhaus wood workshop master Josef Hartwig. The Bauhaus School of Design at Dessau, Germany, was an experimental art school that proposed a radical new aesthetic that emphasized functional, machine-made work; it attempted to break the boundaries between the traditionally separated fields of architecture, fine arts, and design. Hartwig replaced figurative chessmen with geometric representations based on a cube, creating forms that were removed from the original game’s association with war. The form of each piece also suggests its movement on the chessboard. The shape of the knight, for example, suggests its L-shaped course. The game of chess appealed to twentieth-century artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and others, sometimes as part of a private or public chess performance.
Featured objects from the George R. Kravis collection, including pieces by Josef Hartwig, Wells Coates, Alberto Meda, Masanori Umeda, and Mathias Bengtsson.
E. K. Cole in Essex was one of Great Britain’s largest manufacturers of radios in the 1930s and ’40s. Cole employed modernist architects Serge Chermayeff and Wells Coates to create contemporary designs for the radio, which previously had been styled as traditional furniture forms. Coates’s round AD65 particularly reflected a new vision, geometric and unornamented, that was appropriate for the new technology of the machine. This Bakelite radio was available in black, walnut, ivory and, though rare, green. Canadian born, Coates spent most of his life in England working as a modernist architect and industrial designer.
Since Gio Ponti’s Superleggera (Superlight) side chair of 1955, designers have pursued the goal of creating furniture that is lightweight and easy to carry. This was a reaction to the size and overwhelming heaviness of traditional furniture, with its springs and upholstery, that required an effort to move. Alberto Meda has spent a lifetime pursuing experiments in new technologies, beginning in the 1970s as technical director at the Milan-based plastic furniture manufacturer Kartel. Meda has many innovative designs to his credit, but this chair for Alias remains his most famous work. Weighing only four pounds, LightLight conveys its lightness both physically and visually. The strength of this elegant, delicate-looking design was achieved by using carbon fiber composites. Although it was intended for mass production, this remarkable achievement was difficult to manufacture, and only a limited number were produced.
Although we often associate Japanese design with minimalist, restrained aesthetics, it can also be playful and decorative. Umeda, a leading figure in Japan in this genre, was one of three Japanese designers invited to join the Milan-based group Memphis. Formed in 1980 by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, Memphis was a radical design association that rebelled against the functional modernist design that had dominated the twentieth century. Memphis designers shared a belief in celebrating ornament with color, symbolic meaning, and humor. Ginza possesses all of these characteristics and, at its imposing height, captures the imagination of designers and consumers alike. Ginza was named after Tokyo’s upscale shopping district, and it’s form was inspired by toy robots—finally, design would be fun.
The Royal College of Art in London has produced some of the most creative international designers of our time, including Mathias Bengtsson of Denmark. Slice, so named for its production technique, was a design developed the year of his graduation in 1999. Bengtsson took advantage of the latest technology to produce an organic form that is more sculpture than furniture. After creating a wax model of the form, he used a computer to scan and digitally slice the design into thin layers, either vertically or horizontally. The data was then used to create three-millimeter-thick slices of plywood (and later in aluminum as well). The slices were then assembled and glued together by hand. More limited-edition object than a mass-produced industrial design, Slice combined handcraft and computer technology to create unique pieces—an ideal sought by some contemporary designers.