Alexandra Lange | Essays

Shopping With Sandro, and Other Tumblr Delights

Herman Miller’s 675 Lounge Chair designed by Charles Eames (via Documenting Modern Living)

I recently began following a number of new archival Tumblrs, and want to spread the word.

Top of my list at the moment is the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Tumblr following the process of digitizing the Miller House and Garden Collection, called Documenting Modern Living. Rather than waiting until every last piece was scanned, or saving the collection for scholars, the IMA (thanks to a $190,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant), is putting the process and the archival treats out there, day by day. I've written about the Miller House in the past: located in Columbus, IN, it was the longtime residence of J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, and created by an all-star cast of mid-century modern designers. Architecture by Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche, interiors by Alexander Girard, landscape by Dan Kiley. And I have always wanted to know more about how these designers and their clients, all strong-willed and all knowledgeable, interacted.

Even in the site's first weeks one can get a taste of the relationships, principally through their detailed correspondence. Highlights so far include back-and-forth between both Millers and Girard about fabrics and furnishings for the house. Attached to the image above of Herman Miller's 675 Lounge Chair, designed by Charles Eames, is a handwritten note from Xenia: "Don't like it for den even in brass." I've never liked this chair either, as it seems oddly stuck between an office chair and the Eames Lounge, with puffy proportions and a beefy silhouette. It made me happy that Xenia agreed. Calling Mrs. Miller Xenia may be too familar, but that's the wonderful thing about reading letters. You get the flavor of the times and the players. And the notes between the Millers and Girard, in particular, seem ripe for episodes of a show called "Shopping With Sandro." I've peeked ahead in the archives, and another note comes with a drawing of a bracelet Girard designed for his own wife Susan; he offers to have one made for Xenia on behalf of her husband. That's full-service design.

Abram Games. Your Britain, Fight for It Now (1942) (via 100 Objects from Century of the Child)

I think it is a plus that this Tumblr is exclusive to the Miller House archive, and not for the museum in general. Single-serving Tumblrs often work best, allowing for an ongoing narrative and concordance between images. I find myself less interested in the whole collection of a museum than in individual exhibits, archives or -isms. These Tumbrs can also be time-sensitive. When the Miller House Collection is fully digitized, the Tumblr could be done (though surely there are years of interesting documents). For the Century of the Child exhibition, which I wrote about last week, the Museum of Modern Art set up a 100-day 100-object Tumblr, to expire when the exhibition closes in early November. Every day they highlight one object or image from the show, with a short paragraph about its origins and meaning. As I mentioned in my review, I found the exhibition somewhat overwhelming, so the Tumblr has shown me many items I missed, despite two careful visits. Everything looks the same size on the web, so ephemera and playground equipment can hold equal ground in a way they can't in a gallery. So far the choices of material for the Tumblr have been wide-ranging, avoiding the usual subjects and offering a glimpse of the exhibition's complexities.

1968 product photography, art directed by Gunther Kieser (via Vitsoe)

Finally, there is the corporate archival Tumblr. When I was researching my dissertation, I spent a lot of time trying to track down corporate design archives. Some, like those of CBS, seemed to have disappeared into a dumpster. Others, like those of IBM, were behind layers of security in suburban locations. If only every company was like Vitsoe, best known for its 606 shelving system designed by Dieter Rams, which recently started a Tumblr featuring its own archives. So far the site seems primarily of interest for its vintage, gridded graphic design, but I hope for more period photography like that above and this Formes Nouvelles spread as well as design drawings for its products. Vitsoe was sold at Design Research and, according to D/R employees, came to the store with a white-coated Vitsoe employee to serve as an installation assistant. In those days, modular was not second nature, and a company couldn't send you home with an allen wrench and pictorial directions like IKEA.

When I wrote about Tumblr in 2011, I suggested the Tumblr might replace the art book. I now amend that to say some art books, and to ask why can't Tumblrs and art books be published in tandem. They ask for different information. I certainly wish Vitra would Tumblrize its current Alexander Girard digitization project, making the images seen in Todd Oldham's unwieldy and expensive book available to a wider public.

"The Wedding,"       Saul Steinberg (1950) (via Cooper-Hewitt Collection)

As I wrote then,
On a Tumblr, every kind of memory could be collected and streamed, linked, as so many of the "f*** yeah" genre are, by a single word. Vintage ads and color samples, quotes from literature and scenes from movies, new product, old furniture, cleaning tips and housewives' economiums. All these things would sit easily next to each other (and, I believe, attract a larger following) on Tumblr. A book seemed like it might be just another vanity production, dead and not living a second life of likes and reblogs and potential new fans. A Tumblr seemed generative, and potentially creative.
These archival Tumblrs seem creative in multiple ways: as visual narratives, for which an author or authors should be credited; as inspirations for research, writing, and separate Tumblr streams about textiles or kids or Swiss graphic design; as prompts to more companies and more museums to think of ways to slice their own collections and spread the wealth.

On a related note, I am also loving the Cooper-Hewitt's new alpha collections website, which is much more elaborate than a Tumblr but, at least on its three-image splash page, sharing some conceptual DNA. The tagline sums up what's so important about a casual, visual online presence for archives: "This is our stuff, we have lots of it." I hope to interview Seb Chan, the museum's director of digital and emerging media soon, but in the meantime: Enjoy.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Business, History, Media, Technology

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