"Glass + Steel"
We used to salivate over the Design Within Reach catalog as though it were porn—until every friend working in law or finance acquired the same Herman Miller molded-plywood LCW chair, which Charles and Ray Eames designed in 1946. It’s time for a moratorium on exhibitions about midcentury modernism, unless they examine the overexposed movement from a new perspective.
Because of its Illinois slant, “Glass + Steel” almost succeeds. It includes a welcome introduction to the work of Michael and Frances Higgins, pioneering glass designers who spent their decades-long careers in the Chicago area, as well as intimate Hedrich-Blessing photos of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in IIT’s Crown Hall, which the architect completed in 1956. McCormick House, one of only three single-family homes Mies designed in the U.S., sits a few feet away as part of the Elmhurst Art Museum’s permanent collection. But cut corners elsewhere make “Glass + Steel” feel as off-kilter as a knockoff of Eero Saarinen’s Womb chair.
The real Womb chair, which Knoll—the era’s other iconic manufacturer—began producing in 1948, is among numerous pieces of classic furniture on display, along with a phalanx of Eames chairs and seating by Harry Bertoia and Mies. While the show’s wall text provides sufficient information about these superstar designers, its silence regarding slightly less famous figures such as Paul McCobb or Russel Wright falls short of our expectations for a scholarly exhibition. It’s easy to picture certain vignettes—such as the George Nelson sofa combined with Alexander Girard cushions and Charley Harper serigraphs (pictured)—in stylish 1950s living rooms. “Glass + Steel” reveals too little, however, about how consumers lived with these pieces before they became museum quality.