SLAM's 'Blow Up: Graphic Abstraction in 1960s Design' Is a Trip (Through Time)

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

It’s a small gallery, but it’s a treasure trove: Down the steps to the left of Saint Louis Art Museum’s main entrance, then down to gallery 100, you’ll find shallow glass cases on your left with geometrically patterned dresses and then deeper ones on your right showing off molded chairs, Italian tube lighting and Marimekko textiles. The exhibition, “Blow-Up: Graphic Abstraction in 1960s Design,” celebrates innovative Italian and Finnish design from the Swinging Sixties.

The Marimekko factory | Photo taken by Martin Schweig

The Marimekko factory | Photo taken by Martin Schweig

True to the decade’s enjoyment of consumerism and youthful exuberance, strolling down the gallery is a bit like window-shopping through time. Finns emerged in the 1960s with design (There’s a little bit of a joke, says curator Genevieve Cortinovis, that Scandinavians thought they’d already created some fabulous pieces in the previous decades—why reinvent the wheel?), and, like the Italians, were willing to experiment with new materials, like new uses of plastics.

"Bright Spirit of Marimekko," taken June 24, 1966, by Tony Vaccaro for cover of LIFE magazine © Tony Vaccaro

”Bright Spirit of Marimekko,” taken June 24, 1966, by Tony Vaccaro for cover of LIFE magazine © Tony Vaccaro

The exhibition’s title is based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s stylish and eponymous 1966 thriller, and fashion plays significantly into the exhibition with several dresses—some of which came from Stephens College (Columbia, Mo.). These are from Vuokko Nurmesniemi, who got her start at Marimekko before striking out on her own. Others come from the archives of local legend Emily Pulitzer’s closet. One of her Marimekko pieces was bought from the very first US retail space for the designer, Design Research—which would go on to greatly influence Crate and Barrel (which still carries Marimekko prints to this day).

Ettore Sottsass Jr., Italian (born Austria), 1917-2007; Superbox Wardrobe, 1968; plastic laminate on particle board; 78 1⁄2 x 31 1⁄2 x 31 1⁄2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, The Marjorie Wyman Endowment Fund, 46:2005a,b © Ettore Sottsass Jr.

Ettore Sottsass Jr., Italian (born Austria), 1917-2007; Superbox Wardrobe, 1968; plastic laminate on
particle board; 78 1⁄2 x 31 1⁄2 x 31 1⁄2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, The Marjorie Wyman Endowment Fund, 46:2005a,b
© Ettore Sottsass Jr.

The vitality of the day is most apparent in the playful furniture design, and of course, the bold wall hangings. Also Marimekko, one of the hangings was gifted to SLAM in 1971 and, once found in storage, partly formed the impetus for the exhibition. Pulitzer had visited Marimekko and facilitated the gift, says Cortinovis. “We didn’t have any record of them being on view—they probably were at least once—but they’re in really pristine condition.”

“Blow-Up” runs at SLAM through March 20, and St. Louis Modern, which takes a step back in time, opens Nov. 8. 

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