Alexandra Lange | Essays

You Have to Pay for the Public Design

© Ezra Stoller/ESTO

On the topic of the dismantling and uncertain future of Harry Bertoia's bronze screen at SOM's 1954 Manufacturers Hanover Trust on Fifth Avenue, Ada Louise Huxtable undoubtedly said it best. But after my attempts to sound the alarm through my smaller social networks (Twitter, editors, scholars, Design Observer), I find myself continuing to think about Bertoia, public modernism, and what others' lack of alarm (and the building owners' lack of awareness that anyone might care) means about how we like our design.

My conclusion: we like our chairs better than our museums (the Whitney), or hospitals (Michael Reese), or public sculpture (the screen).

© Grahm Mathew Balkany / Gropius in Chicago Coalition

After I posted my first Tweet about the screen's removal, I checked Twitter Search to see if anyone else had picked it up. But searching "Bertoia" turned up a steady stream of enthusiasm for his knock-off, vintage and brand-new wire and diamond chairs, not the disappearing screen. Enthusiasm, too, for a set of newsprint collages of famous chairs, including Bertoia, just in time for Christmas. Twitter Search is lazy research, but it seemed to feint at a larger truth: we like our design as consumer good, as something we can own, and social media often circulates consumable brand extensions rather than high-minded outrage.

Harry Bertoia, a modest man, is not really a brand, but Eames--the name, the couple, the actual work, is. Justin McGuirk's recent review of the new tome The Story of Eames Furniture (which I hope to review soon) starts with the Ebay version of my lazy research: Eames has become the search term for mid-century on Ebay. Eames was also the recent topic of a high-end brand extension, via House Industries: Eames Century Modern. When the new font was discussed on Design Observer, I was surprised no one else seemed to think, as I did, that it seemed like a cheap way to bring attention to a retro typeface, no better than listing your grandmother's sofa as "Eames era" on Craigslist. The Eameses used many readymade faces, stencils, etc. that they thought served their purpose in the same utilitarian way as the industrial windows and steel that made the walls of their incredible house. Are we so under-researched that we need a specified Eames (or Girard) font to lead us back to 1960?

House Industries, Modern Stencil Cameo

It was Charles Eames, in fact, that gave Charles W. Moore the quote that kicks off his seminal 1965 critique of the monuments of California, "You Have to Pay for the Public Life."
Charles Eames has made the point that the crux of this civilizing process is the giving up by individuals of something in order that the public realm may be enhanced. In the city, that is to say, urban and monumental places, indeed urbanity and monumentality themselves, can occur only when something is given over by people to the public.
Designers and architects like Eames and Bertoia and Breuer and Gropius often seem to live on in their chairs, many forgetting (or never knowing) that they made buildings that can be visited and are still being used. I would gladly never own a Bertoia myself (and can easily pass up a collage of a chair) if the screen would go back up on its wall, enriching the public sphaere and making a monument of an indifferent corner of Fifth Avenue.

Paley Park, vintage image (via)

After all, I can still sit in a Bertoia wire series chair whenever I want. Deeper than the irony of Eames's point is the irony that Bertoia chairs were the harbinger of new, mid-century urban life when they were deployed at Paley Park in 1967. Generally considered one of New York's most successful privately-owned public spaces, the chairs were part of a larger design statement (now commonplace) that if you make something beautiful and useful, it won't get wrecked, or stolen, or graffitied. If you maintain it, it can go on giving public pleasure. But we as a society have to give something up--to pay--for a better public design life.

Posted in: Product Design, Social Good

Comments [1]

Excellent observation and writing! So true and so sad
Caroline Halliwell

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