Sneak Peek: 5 Retro-Fabulous Pieces From STL Modern

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

On Nov. 8, Saint Louis Art Museum opens “STL Modern,” which marks not only a great era in design, but in architecture, with the construction and completion of the St. Louis Arch.

The galleries feature more than 150 objects; not quite half from SLAM’s permanent collections, the other from more than 30 lenders and museums across the US. One source is a collector in St. Louis who’s been seeking out objects since the early ’90s, when modern design wasn’t quite on people’s lists; he’s like a dealer that never sells anything, the exhibition’s curators say.

Those curators are David Conradsen and research assistant Genevieve Cortinovis—the mind behind “Blow-Up: Graphic Abstraction in the 1960s,” which happens to make a perfect epilogue to this exhibition.

The exhibition doesn’t just focus on the midcentury aesthetics “Mad Men” fans know and love, though there is plenty of that. Instead, it zooms in on the ascent of modern design, too, tracing it from a few late-1920s pieces up through the mid-’60s, focusing particularly on 1935-1965—the years in which the St. Louis Arch, that timeless emblem of modernity, was built and completed. The galleries are organized by theme—a whole room is dedicated to the Cranbrook School, which gave STL design dream team Charles and Ray Eames their start—as well as chronologically.

Corvette, 1954; plastic, fiberglass, chrome, rubber, leather, glass, canvas, and assorted metals, collection Stephen F. Brauer | Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum

Corvette, 1954; plastic, fiberglass, chrome, rubber, leather, glass, canvas, and assorted metals, collection Stephen F. Brauer | Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum

The car is the very first thing visitors see walking into “STL Modern.” It sits perpendicular to the wall-size photo of the Arch to the left, driving out from underneath it. Through much of the exhibit, you can look over your shoulder and see it—a reminder of the launch into the future that modern design seemed to provide for those who embraced it.

There’s a lot to say about this Corvette, but the iconic design’s attributes—the mesh screens in front of the lights, the fins on the back—can be picked up throughout the exhibition (there’s an ice-crusher that even ties in the space-age fins). It also follows the modern trait of borrowing materials from other industries, or putting them to new use: in this case, the fiberglass that gives this icon its famous, fabulous curves.

Victor Hugo Proetz, Bull’s Eye Mirror, 1941, Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Dr. Arthur W. and Mrs. Esther S. Proetz in memory of Victor Proetz 68:1987a,b

Victor Hugo Proetz, Bull’s Eye Mirror, 1941, Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Dr. Arthur W. and Mrs. Esther S. Proetz in memory of Victor Proetz 68:1987a,b

One of the most intriguing pre- to post-war differences is that pre-war, commissioned houses would sometimes have bespoke furnishings by the architect or his/her design partner. Post-war, of course, the focus turned largely to mass production and making good design accessible to everyone (more on that later). The mirror was added, the curators say, so that it would emphasize that the focus wasn’t just on midcentury design.

“The mirror is an interesting object,” says Conradsen. “It was designed by an architect named Victor Proetz. He was born and raised in St. Louis. He studied in Chicago but was working with an architect in St. Louis. … In their work here in St. Louis during the early ’30s there wasn’t so much mass-produced design. They were doing full commissions where they would design the house but also select the fabrics, have them woven, design furniture and have it handmade.’

Furnishings during Proetz’s time tended to bridge a gap between the ornate furniture of the early 20th century and the streamlined shapes of the years to come. “There’s an interesting streak of modern design in St. Louis in the 1930s where we call it ‘classic modern,’ because it’s modern, but it does make reference to a historical past,” says Conradsen.

Proetz traveled to Sweden and took inspiration from the palettes of creamy white and gray, along with painted wood, that are hallmarks of the aesthetic. But on the eagle “there is silver-leafed and makes reference to an early type of mirror and sideboard,” says Conradsen. With the mirror, and the accompanying sideboard and dining chairs, “he’s giving them a very Proetizan, very modern and fresh interpretation of historically based designs. This is from a house he designed for his brother and his wife, Dr. Arthur Proetz, who was a medical researcher, and his wife Erma was an advertising executive, and the house still stands on Westmoreland Place. You can see the garden façade of it from Lindell if you sort of part the ivy and peek through.”

Designed by Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser Eames, manufactured by Herman Miller Furniture Company, Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), designed 1946; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Tom and Jean Wolff in memory of Charles Eames 47:1985; © Eames Office, LLC

Designed by Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser Eames, manufactured by Herman Miller Furniture Company, Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), designed 1946; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Tom and Jean Wolff in memory of Charles Eames 47:1985; © Eames Office, LLC

While the seeds of what would be later considered “midcentury design” were planted before WWII, the war essentially put a pause on design as the country reprioritized resources for the war effort. Many architects and designers also served in the war, picking up inspiration from aesthetics abroad, and after the war, Cortinovis says, they were adapting wartime innovations for domestic use: new kinds of plastics, new kinds of laminates.

Other times, they picked up where they’d left off before the war: Molded plywood, Conradsen adds, was experimented with before the war—and now, after the war, it was a time of “getting organized” about all of it, he says. The trajectory of design, he says “would be a lot more fluid if not for this six-year period where everything domestic kind of ground to a halt.”

The Museum of Modern Art’s organic design competition in 1941, for example, was searching for modern, flexible furnishings that might incorporate materials from other industries. Soon-to-be-iconic, St. Louis-born Charles Eames and soon-to-be-iconic designer Eero Saarinen submitted many designs to this competition, says Cortinovis, but they weren’t quite there: They were chunky and expensive to produce. After the war, though, they picked up where they left off.

The much more sophisticated, streamlined result? The chair above, which Eames designed with Ray. Together, they would make up the design powerhouse that carried their name.

Dwight Dillon, Chalice, 1958; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by the Decorative Arts Society in honor of Lynn E. Springer 65:1981; © Dwight Dillon

Dwight Dillon, Chalice, 1958; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by the Decorative Arts Society in honor of Lynn E. Springer 65:1981; © Dwight Dillon

“There’s this wonderful smoothness to the base, and it has a real soaring form—and even that has sort of an astral, space-age feel to it,” says Conradsen. It looks a bit like the Space Needle, which, after all, isn’t entirely unusual in this exhibition.

“You’ll see lots of those visual connections,” he adds. “It’s kind of amazing, that dynamic change from objects like the mirror that were made right before WWI, and right after the war, this explosion and transformation that happens.”

Designed by Eero Saarinen, manufactured by Knoll, Inc., Armchair, 1956, manufactured c.1960; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Michael Ashworth 8:2000; ©Knoll, Inc.

Designed by Eero Saarinen, manufactured by Knoll, Inc., Armchair, 1956, manufactured c.1960; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Michael Ashworth 8:2000; ©Knoll, Inc.

Eero Saarinen is best known—in STL at least—as the designer of the Arch. He’s also responsible for this iconic chair, which for many, conjures up complementary ideas of shag rugs and boomerang-shaped coffee tables.

“This is a good example of Saarinen’s mass-produced design,” says Conradsen. It picks up on the space-age theme of the chalice with a seamless integration, like the “idea of a skin,” adds Cortinovis.

Modernism, at its heart, was about bringing good design to everyday people; it wasn’t just reserved for the upper echelons of society—those who could afford to not only build a house but commission the furniture in it as well. Instead, elevated design, through mass production and affordable materials, became available to the middle class.

One of the best examples of this? Look no further than just off I-64, where a certain un-ignorable blue-and-yellow sign has been advertising design for all since 1943.

STL Modern” runs at SLAM through Jan. 31. Want more great design? Check out our coverage of Cortinovis’ “Blow-Up: Graphic Abstraction in the 1960s,” featuring the switch of design from the modernism of “STL Modern” to the post-modern era that would dominate the mid- to late-’60s and early ’70s. And because there’s no such thing as too much midcentury, check out some “Mad Men”-era events coming up this month around town. 

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