Michael Bierut | Essays

Homage to the Squares

Package design for Command Records, Josef Albers, 1960

A few months ago, I set off to see two exhibitions on view at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The big one, Design is not Art, seemed to be intended as an ambitious, provocative statement on the relationship of those two sometimes contentious fields. The other, Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living, was something I assumed would be more of an amuse bouche, a modest survey of some familiar work to be sampled as a counterpoint to the main course.

I was in for a surprise.

It was Design is not Art that I was really looking forward to. The exhibition's name, however, should have provided a faint warning. Not just complex but complicated, it would be more properly expressed here as Design [is not] Art, since the actual title used the mathematical symbol for "not equal to, but not greater than and not less than." The fact that I cannot properly transcribe the title here (our weblog's particular software doesn't seem to accomodate the not equal sign) says something about a missed connection between conceptual ingenuity and practical utility. Yet what's not to like about cornucopia of functional work by some of my favorite artists, including Donald Judd, Scott Burton, Barbara Bloom, Robert Wilson and Rachel Whiteread?

Josef Albers, on the other hand, had always left me cold. Like many art and design students, I was assigned The Interaction of Color as a freshman and forced to spend several weeks manipulating sheets of Color-Aid, all the while thinking okay, simultaneous contrast, I get it, for God's sake. Later, I read a tossed-off assessment from Tom Wolfe: "Albers had spent the preceding 14 years of his life investigating the problems, if any, of superimposing squares of color on each other." The viciousness of that little "if any" nailed it for me exactly.

In the excellent catalog for Design is not Art, Cooper-Hewitt director Paul Thompson quotes David Hockney: "Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus." But the work of the artists left me surprisingly unmoved. It wasn't just that most of the furniture on display (and design according to artists mostly means furniture) looked almost sadistically uncomfortable: after all, no reasonable person would expect a Barcalounger from Sol Lewitt. Instead, what I sensed was the chilly insularity of the fine art world. Most of the artists on display began as their own clients; the only way to avoid the distasteful products of the mass market was to take matters into their own hands. As Donald Judd put it bluntly, "It's impossible to go to the store and buy a chair." This mania for creating a completely self contained world, centered entirely on the artist's vision, may produce objects of extraordinary beauty, but omits one of the fundamental characteristics of great design, respect for the user. The overall effect was one of tense, hermetic constriction, of meanness where one would hope for meaning.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I went downstairs to view the output of Josef and Anni Albers: surely it was these protominimalists who were partly to blame for all this. So what a delightful surprise to find room after room filled with rich, sensual objects, addressing an almost promiscuously wide range of problem types, from furniture to record covers. I felt like I was discovering an oasis after a parched desert trek.

Josef + Anni Albers: Designs for Living, with essays by Nicholas Fox Weber and Martin Filler, is the only exhibition catalog I've ever read from cover to cover in one sitting. Intimate and engaging, it provides insights into the creative process that will stay with me, and that provide instructive contrasts to those in Design is not Art. Here, for example, is Josef Albers explaining how he approached his famous Homage to the Square paintings: "I paint the way I spread butter on pumpernickel." Compare that to Scott Burton: "Art just seems spiritually insufficient in a doomsday climate and it will take an increasingly relative position. It will place itself not in front of but around, behind, underneath (literally) the audience — in an operational capacity." Whose chair would you rather sit in?

For me, the most startling images in Designs for Living were the pictures of the modest suburban raised ranch at 808 Birchwood Drive in Orange, Connecticut, that Josef and Anni Albers lived in from 1970, so prosaic compared to the iconic Masters' Houses at the Dessau Bauhaus that was their home at the beginning of their marriage. While the photographs of the interiors betray the extraordinary taste of the of occupants, there is no mistaking that this is where everyday life happened, from the Sears furniture to the Formica tabletops, from the blender on the kitchen counter to the potted palm on the coffee table. Clearly, these artists delighted in the world around them. They were not afraid to be uncool.

It is that sure sense of life, everyday life lived to the fullest, that is the mark of a great designer, and perhaps it is part of what separates the designer from the artist. Establishing his isolated retreat in remote west Texas, Donald Judd wrote, "Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again." I imagine that Josef and Anni Albers would have disagreed.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Product Design

Comments [9]

I saw these shows when in NY last November, and I had the exact same reaction ... except that I had no prejudice to the Albers before going in. I was completely delighted with almost all of the objects (fabric, drawings, stained glass, etc.), and was in the mood for raving when I came out. (The Design is not Art show moved me neither to rave nor rant.)

In fact I would have raved, in writing, except that I thought most people would say, "Yeah, didn't you know?" Well, I didn't; and I'm glad to see I'm in good company.
marian bantjes

I've seen these fantastic sleeves in secondhand record stores without realising they were by Albers. He did this Enoch Light one, didn't he?

It is that sure sense of life, everyday life lived to the fullest, that is the mark of a great designer

That simplicity is also appreciated in the fine art world. Takashi Murakami, interviewed in yesterday's New York Times, says of Andy Warhol:

''My concept is, anytime we do the honest thing, we get the win,'' Murakami said. ''People find it very difficult to find their honest desire. Andy Warhol did that. I love his diary: pay the driver two weeks, the coffee is too sweet, the weather is cold. It's a life. Warhol is a master artist for me because he was a really honest person.''
Nick Currie

Slightly off-topic:

I believe MovableType can handle any character entity defined in html - but, like any other character outside of the most basic set, you need to work for it a little bit. I believe the character you're looking for can be returned if you enter in & ne ; with no spaces between the characters. It should appear as ≠ in most (if not all?) browsers. This is a limitation in html, not MT. Sadly, hitting "option =" will not get you there. I think your point about the obscurity of such a character is still relevant, though. Everytime I encounter I new one that needs to be encoded in order for it to appear correctly i spend another few minutes looking up its entity code.

After reading your article I now have even less respect for Donald Judd. He can't find a decent chair at a store, especially with his money? What a gas bag. He has the Modernist ego down.
If art (the art in museums, that is) is so fragile (meaning that a full art education is needed for its appreciation) than it is surely headed for irrelevance. Museum art seems to have been headed down that road for decades - having removed itself from culture at large. Art should connect with life - your impression of the Albers show makes it sound like a success.

Whose chair would you rather sit in?

albers' chairs -- they're like buttah.

one of the fundamental characteristics of great design, respect for the user

I do believe I come here to confirm my own right-thinking. You wouldn't believe how many times I had to argue this point with my bosses, back in my software/UI design days. No, wait, given the state of most software, you probably would.

Whether we realize it or not, design permeates our lives. Art, not so much, although art can speak to us profoundly, it's more of a point-in-time experience rather than the daily immersion that the design of our lives gives us. The question we each must answer is, is it good design? The Albers apparently achieved that perfect level wherein their designs supported and enhanced all aspects of their lives. Such an inspiration!

(I'm still working on it...)

I'm at a disadvantage, because I haven't seen the shows. And since I'm teaching at Notre Dame this semester, I may not make it back it time.

I suffered through a whole semester of Albers' squares -- in a Corbusier building with not a single professor in the department who didn't speak with a German or Central European accent. It drove me straight out of the department and next door to the history of art.

They were all tired missionaries who didn't care at all about the client. It was their vision (more accurately their teachers', or their teachers' teachers', visions) that mattered.

An enormous difference between New Urban architectural practices and the avant garde practices that are most in fashion (see the last two Pritzker Prizes), is that they're dealing with patrons and we're dealing with users.

Patrons pay for buildings like the Bilbao Guggenheim or Disney Hall. They look on the designer as a great artist, and give pretty free reins. Clients are one step down the scale: they might be building their own house, and they respect the architect but want more input into their dream project. These are the ones Thom Mayne has to scream and yell at to get his way. Gehry almost certainly never yells at his patrons.

New Urbanists deal with developers and users, and we never meet the users, who are not only the first buyers, but also the buyers 50 and 100 years down the road. They're usually not interested in great art, and they're not around to be berated. If the place isn't what they want and they can find something better they can afford, then that's what they'll do.

It's a whole different world than Sol Lewitt's. Inside his own universe, I imagine him not that different from Tom Wolfe's Masters of the Universe.

Last but not least, I understand the fetishizing of 50s objects, but many of them, including that album cover, bring back very bad feelings for me. I was a kid during the 50s, and the 50s sucked. I felt so much better when the 60s turned our backs on all that materialism.
john massengale

Adding this one to the mix.

Josef Albers / Donald Judd: Structure & Color
Brooke Alexander Editions, 59 Wooster Street New York,
February 18 - May 21, 2005

"A lot of (designers) seem obsessed about being recognized as fine artists. Not me. I dont have to be a fine artist, because art history proves, they are just like me." Christoph Niemann, in latest PRINT.

One sure way to get old codgers riled up is start talking art/ design/ illustration and who is more significant (better).

The only difference between design/illustration and fine art is that designers/illustrators find out what they will be paid BEFORE the work is completed and fine artists AFTER.
felix sockwell

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