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Art & Museums

Hot metal: Pittsburgh businesses connected with, promoted Modernist design

| Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, 8:19 p.m.
Forecast program tables, 1957; Isamu Noguchi, designer; Aluminum Company of America, manufacturer
Carnegie Museum of Art
Forecast program tables, 1957; Isamu Noguchi, designer; Aluminum Company of America, manufacturer
Desk, ca. 1958;  Donald Deskey, designer; Charak Furniture Company, manufacturer
Carnegie Museum of Art
Desk, ca. 1958; Donald Deskey, designer; Charak Furniture Company, manufacturer
McKaycraft magazine rack, ca. 1933; James Waring Carpenter, designer; McKay Company, manufacturer
Carnegie Museum of Art
McKaycraft magazine rack, ca. 1933; James Waring Carpenter, designer; McKay Company, manufacturer
Ruba Rombic pitcher and two tumblers, 1928-1932;  Reuben Haley, designer; Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co., manufacturer
Carnegie Museum of Art
Ruba Rombic pitcher and two tumblers, 1928-1932; Reuben Haley, designer; Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co., manufacturer
Dynamique tray, ca. 1932; George Switzer, designer; Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, manufacturer
Carnegie Museum of Art
Dynamique tray, ca. 1932; George Switzer, designer; Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, manufacturer

In the 1950s, when Edgar Kaufmann Jr. was director of the Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, he organized a series of exhibits he called “Good Design.” The series showcased furniture, textiles and affordable everyday objects that were contemporary to the times and heavily influenced by modernism.

As the son of Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann Sr., whose Kaufmann's department store was a cultural centerpiece of Pittsburgh's Downtown for the near half-century Kaufmann Sr. oversaw its operations, Kaufmann Jr. knew his stuff when it came to good design.

After all, his father was a big proponent of modernist design. He commissioned prominent architects such as Benno Janssen, Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright to design his homes in Fox Chapel, Palm Springs and Mill Run (Fallingwater), respectively. He displayed and sold avante-garde goods in his Downtown store such as cubist-inspired Ruba Rombic glassware and industrially chic McKay furniture.

A new installation in Carnegie Museum of Art's Charity Randall Gallery, “Hot Metal Modern: Design in Pittsburgh and Beyond,” reveals not only the Kaufmann connection to modernist design but that of other Pittsburgh designers and businesses, such as Westinghouse, PPG and Alcoa.

Organized by Catherine Walworth, curatorial research assistant, and Katie Clausen, curatorial assistant, in the museum's Decorative Arts and Design department, the exhibit showcases modernist design objects from around Pittsburgh and the stories of innovation and industry behind them.

“In the 1920s and '30s, Kaufmann's was considered a real ‘Palace of the Arts,' and they promoted good, modern design, including Pittsburgh-based design,” Walworth says.

One of the items you might find in the store in the 1930s was a McKaycraft magazine rack, circa 1933, made of chrome-plated and enameled steel, an example of which is on display here.

“This is a recent acquisition with gritty industrial style that we particularly love,” Walworth says. “It's totally Pittsburgh. It looks like somebody dropped out of the Bauhaus and made this in their garage.”

The rack looks something like a large, extended spring or coil; Walworth says its “look” is not without good reason.

“In the 1930s, the McKay Co., based in Pittsburgh, went from making steel coils and automobile bumpers to furniture that debuted in Chicago in the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition,” she says.

The same industrial projection to home goods can be seen in objects created by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, which is represented here with a slumped glass chair attributed to designer Louis Dierra and believed to be just like one of a set of six exhibited in the 1939 World's Fair.

Other PPG wares include two panels of Carrara structural glass, which was promoted to be used in sleek commercial exteriors, along with fiberglass curtains that could be used in interior settings — domestic and commercial.

Alcoa is highlighted with a walnut, mahogany, Micarta and aluminum tambour desk designed by Donald Deskey and manufactured by Charak Furniture Co. in 1958, and two tri-colored table prototypes designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1957, which were never manufactured but used as promotion in conjunction with one of Alcoa's series of Forecast initiatives.

Facing an oversaturated aluminum market in the 1950s, Walworth says, the company sought creative ways to market the metal as an industrial design material that was “too hot to miss.”

Through Forecast, Alcoa commissioned novel aluminum products, showcased innovative designs and techniques in trade publications and launched a national ad campaign to secure aluminum's role in the “wonderful world of tomorrow.”

Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. is represented in the exhibition in several ways, ranging from a trains-planes-and-automobiles-themed “Dynamique” tray designed by George Switzer, circa 1932, to a video from 1967 featuring the famous Westinghouse sign that hung on the North Shore for decades.

In 1959, a local advertising firm suggested to executives at Westinghouse that they redesign their corporate logo — a “W” underscored and set in a circle — to better reflect the company's image of itself.

Richard Huppertz, coordinator of corporate design, engaged consultant designers Eliot Noyes and Paul Rand. The result, launched in 1960, was Rand's now-iconic “W” with three dots. Resembling both a light socket and a molecular particle, the design nods to historic Westinghouse light bulbs and the company's postwar atomic research.

In 1966, Huppertz collaborated with Rand again to develop a sign for the 200-foot wall of Westinghouse's North Shore warehouse.

The result was the country's first computer-operated electric sign. In June 1967, blue neon tubing illuminated nine of Rand's logos, broken down into a total of 81 individual elements from which Westinghouse designers developed 120 charming sequences in a five-minute loop.

The sign survived until 1998 when the area was cleared to build PNC Park. It remains, however, in many Pittsburghers' happy memories.

Finally, several ceramic pieces, including Westinghouse Refrigerator Wares, complete the exhibition.

“Westinghouse Refrigerator Wares were arguably some of the most contemporary objects in American homes when they entered the market,” Walworth says.

In the late 1930s, the Hall China Co. of East Liverpool, Ohio, began producing ceramic wares for the Westinghouse, often included as gifts with the purchase of a new electric refrigerator.

The design of these sturdy ceramic food-storage containers (Earl Tupper's plastic Tupperware would not hit the market until 1948) reflected the ultra-contemporaneity of the latest kitchen appliances.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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