The well-thought-out modernist exhibition on display for two more weeks at N.C. State's Gregg Museum of Art and Design will seem deeply familiar to viewers who were sentient during the 1950s and '60s.
While viewing Southern Roots of Mid-Century Modern, I felt an almost electric shock: Yes! This is how it was. Every home, no matter how traditional or simple, had something in it of modern design, even if it was only a Big Ben wind-up alarm clock. The fully modernist interior was rarer, but it turns out to be not so rare in the Raleigh area, where the School of Design was a hotbed of modernist design, one that continues to influence today's design sense. Younger people interested in the current revival of that sleek design style, which goes so well with vinyl records, will be as delighted by this show as those whose aesthetic sense is tempered with nostalgia.
Mid-century modernism appeals for one of the same reasons vinyl has made a comeback: It exudes a sense of authenticity or honesty. This is, naturally, by design. The phrase "form follows function" was coined by architect Louis Sullivan well before the modernist period (roughly 1940–65), but it became the hallmark of a design movement elastic enough to encompass the severe International Style and the more organic designs of, for instance, George Nakashima, some of whose furniture is included in the exhibition.
The back part of the gallery offers an introduction to the interesting story of how modern design came to Raleigh. As a result, it has more modernist residences than any American city other than Chicago and Los Angeles. From photo-illustrated text panels and selected architectural drawings (oh, the wonder of those pre-CAD drawings!) we get an overview of the forces in action that created the N.C. State School of Design (now the College of Design).
Also included is the wonderful model of Dorton Arena, designed by Matthew Nowicki, one of the first modernist recruits to the School of Design. Opposite it, a video by current architecture students displays photos and 3-D, revolving, digital models of houses by two of the other design school powerhouses. All this is intriguing, but the real fun is in the "rooms."
It can be difficult to display utilitarian objects while trying to illustrate larger trends and themes. As a solution, the curators have wisely chosen to create rooms as they might have appeared in modernist homes. The areas of designed objects—from rugs to furniture to ashtrays and magazine racks—are supplemented with paintings, drawings and prints from the Gregg's collection, while near them are positioned mannequins dressed in period clothing. A Christian Dior suit from 1949, still in the dun color of war, marks one end of the time; a brightly flowered, buoyant Jackie Kennedy-type dress marks the other.
As the exhibition makes admirably clear, World War II and the horrors leading up to it catalyzed modern design. Germany and Austria emptied of artists and designers, especially those from the Bauhaus; North Carolina got Black Mountain College and N.C. State's School of Design, both ready to help retool excess postwar manufacturing capacity for the new, modern "consumer goods." Designers Ray and Charles Eames invented new methods for laminating wood in the leg braces they designed for the military; later they applied these methods to the radical LCW (laminated chair, wood). The MIT-trained architect Nakashima spent the war in an American internment camp where he learned the old ways of wood from Japanese craftsmen; after the war, he became the 20th century's greatest wooden furniture maker.
To see Nakashima and other modernists' influence on two of Raleigh's excellent contemporary craftsmen, step across the lobby to Ben Galata and Evan Lightner: Handcraft is Contemporary Design. Form still sleekly follows function in their work, but these two dismiss the machine-made-multiple aesthetic of modernism, in favor of the handcrafted, uniquely ravishing object.