smow blog Design Calendar: April 9th 1910 – Happy Birthday Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.!

The (hi)story of contemporary design isn’t just about those designers, artists and architects who have, literally, formed the past century or so, but also about those who encouraged them, advanced their ideas and provided platforms on which they could present their works.

Men and women such as Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 9th 1910 as the only child of Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, owners of the city’s “Kaufmann” department store, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. was raised in an environment dominated by art as much as it was by commerce. After attending the Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh the 17 year old Edgar “resisted going to college”1 and in 1927 travelled to Europe to study art in Vienna, Florence and London. Upon his return to America in 1934 Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. applied for and received a fellowship to study architecture at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin project: a fellowship which was not only to help shape Edgar Kaufmann, Jr’s future but which also inspired his father to commission Frank Lloyd Wright to build a new family home for the Kaufmann’s. The resulting Fallingwater house – so-called because of the waterfall that runs beneath and through it – being universally considered one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important projects. If not one of the most important buildings of American modernist architecture.

Fallingwater was finished in 1937 by which time Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. had left Frank Lloyd Wright and joined the family business as merchandise manager for the Home Furnishings Department. In January 1938 the New York Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, presented a small photographic exhibition devoted to Fallingwater; following which Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. was invited to join the museum’s Architecture and Industrial Design Advisory Board. Initially brought in to help organise the museum’s new “Useful Household Objects under $5.00” exhibition series – Kaufmann’s experience of both contemporary commerce and contemporary design being especially useful in context of an exhibition concept which sought to market as much as to curate – it was with the 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition that Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. really made a name for himself. Conceived as a “program for the purpose of discovering young designers who are capable of a fresh approach to design problems”, an important component of the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition was that the winning entries would be produced and sold through the leading US department stores of the day, thus creating “a group of designs which will serve their purpose simply and efficiently and which will be a contemporary design expression.”2 The subsequent winners including Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen with amongst other objects a chair which would, eventually, become globally famous as the Conversation, or Organic Chair.
Although run during Eliot Noyes’ tenure as Director of the MoMA’s Industrial Design Department, the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition was conceived and principally organised by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.; consequently, it came as no surprise when in 1946 Kaufmann succeeded Noyes as Director of the Industrial Design Department following the latter’s resignation and the former’s return from military service.

The Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen through Vitra

The Conversation Chair / Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen through Vitra, part of the pairs winning entry to the MoMA New York’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition

In the autumn of 1946 Edgar Kaufmann Jr. published his text “What is modern industrial design?” in which he concludes that modern industrial design “springs from an application of the principles of modern design to the needs of an industrialized community. In the hands of a great artist, the resulting design will be beautiful. In all hands, modern industrial design must remain ethical according to its code; abandoning this, it becomes mere promotional trickery as machine-carved “Chippendale” chairs or “streamlined” bathroom scales”3, before in 1947 he set such thoughts into action with the launch of the MoMA’s Low-Cost Furniture Design competition, a competition which sought to utilise new technologies to create “adaptable furniture for small apartments and houses, well-designed yet moderate in price, comfortable but not bulky, and easily moved, stored and cared for”4. And a competition which ultimately gave us the Charles and Ray Eames Plastic Chair Collection.
In 1949 Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. was replaced by the returning Philip Johnson as Director of the new Department of Architecture and Design, remained however an integral part of the MoMA team and used the freedom awarded him to create perhaps his most important contribution to the development of post-war American design: the “Good Design” exhibition.

Organised in conjunction with the Merchandise Mart wholesale depository in Chicago and staged from 1950 until 1955, the Good Design exhibition was in fact three annual exhibitions – one in January and one in June in Chicago followed by a November, so pre-Christmas, showcase in the MoMA New York. For the two Chicago shows a jury of experts selected the best examples of home furnishings, lighting and accessories launched in the previous six months, the New York showcase was then a condensed “Best Off”. For the first Good Design exhibition the jury comprised in addition to Kaufmann, Alexander Girard and Meyric Rogers, the then curator of decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, with the selected objects being presented in an exhibition design created by Charles and Ray Eames. Whereas the criteria for the exhibition were at best lax, and certainly less restrictive than those of its antecedent “Useful Objects” showcase, the aims of the event were precisely defined and sought to present “Design intended for present-day life, in regard to usefulness, to production methods and materials and to the progressive taste of the day.”5

Although not an award per se a central feature of the Good Design exhibition was a logo with which selected products could subsequently decorate themselves: the first instance of such branding and a step which meant “Good Design” moved from being an idea into something marketable. Through the Good Design show “Design” became, in effect, commercial in its own right, and by extrapolation something sought after and desirable. The association with the reputable name of the Museum of Modern Art underscoring this public certification of quality. (With Good Design Kaufmann of course also, if unintentionally, initiated the current glut of commercial design competitions, competitions which all too often seem more interested in sucking marketing fees from those unfortunate enough to “win”, rather than promoting and encouraging design. But we’ll not hold that against him. Or at least not today.)

Following his father’s death in 1955, and his subsequent inheritance of the Fallingwater property, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. left MoMA to pursue other projects. In 1956 he joined, amongst others, Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand, Charles Eames and George Nelson on the IBM Design Programme6, an initiative which sought to integrate design into all aspects of the IBM’s output and processes; he participated over the years in numerous international conferences exploring how industry could better utilise and harness the benefits of design led processes; served as an Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Art History at Columbia University from 1963 until 1986; curated the 1970 exhibition “The Rise of an American Architecture 1815-1915” at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and published numerous texts and books on American architecture.

Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. died in New York on July 31st 1989.

Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. wasn’t alone responsible for helping mid-century American modernism establish itself as an important design movement, but in facilitating and mediating he did play a very important role in establishing the ideals that underscore so many of those objects we know and adore today. For all in context of his 17 year association with the MoMA where he not only acted as a conduit between designers, architects, manufacturers and retailers, but also played an important role in defining how the developing design culture of the day was presented, how the developments of the period and the resulting new products were understood – culturally, socially and politically – by the American public. Yes, one can, indeed should and must, reflect and consider in how far Kaufmann’s curatorial motivations were guided by the interests of commerce over the interests of culture and society, and certainly he was very well connected in commercial circles. What one can’t argue with however is the importance of the legacy his work has left us.

We never met the man, and so we’ll leave the last words to a someone who did, the former New York Times, New Yorker and Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger who, writing shortly after Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.’s death, noted, “There are few like him left, for he was so completely unlike either the populist, respectful only of what is already loved by the masses, or the elitist, suspicious of anything that the broader public might find attractive. Edgar Kaufmann Jr.’s standards were the highest, but so was his belief in the civilizing power of art and design”7

Happy Birthday Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.!

(And as soon as we get permission to publish some photos of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., we will!!)

1. Paul Goldberger, “A Discerning Eye and a Democratic Outlook”, New York Times, Aug 6th 1989

2. “The Museum of Modern Art will sponsor a comprehensive competition for furniture and textile designs”, Press Release, Museum of Modern Art New York, August 3 or 4 1940 Accessed 09.04.2015

3. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. “What is modern industrial design?”, in The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Vol. 14, No. 1, Autumn, 1946

4. “Participates in international furniture competition organized by Museum of Modern”, Press Release, Museum of Modern Art New York, August 8th 1947 Accessed 09.04.2015

5. “Museum of Modern Art and the Merchandise Mart announce continuing series of exhibitions in a joint program: “Good Design”, Press Release, Museum of Modern Art New York, November 10th 1949 Accessed 09.04.2015

6. John Jeffrey Harwood, “The Redesign of Design: Multinational Corporations, Computers and Design Logic, 1945-1976” PhD Thesis, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, New York, 2006

7. Paul Goldberger, “A Discerning Eye and a Democratic Outlook”, New York Times, Aug 6th 1989

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