MILWAUKEE — Many people may own a few of the items in the Milwaukee Art Museum's new exhibition.
It includes mass-produced, everyday items like watering cans from Ikea, a Dyson vacuum, a fax machine and forks, along with rare pieces the average person may be more likely to consider art, such as a chair made of rags, a porcelain vase that resembles a sea sponge and two white shirts with light bulbs behind them.
The exhibit, "European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century," presents nearly 200 pieces of furniture, metalwork, glass and other products from about 100 European designers, juxtaposing fine art with everyday items. It runs through Jan. 9.
"This is the first time anyone has ever looked at this body of material from '85 to 2005 and tried to assign it art historical words," said Mel Buchanan, the museum's assistant curator of 20th century art design. "So instead of it all being contemporary art, they are saying like, 'OK, now let's look backward. Let's treat this like historians. This biomorphic, this is neo dada.'"
Organizers hope museum-goers ask, "What leads design, artistic concept or function?"
Buchanan starts the show comparing two aluminum chairs. The "Toledo" stacking chair by Jorge Pensi is more functional with its tubular aluminum and is found in many airports and cafes. The other is a "Slice" chair, which artist Mathias Bengtsson created by using computers to laser cut shimmering pieces of aluminum.
"Both are art, both design, but from very different ideas of what design means and the bottom line is, 'Is it an industrial process or is it an arty concept?" Buchanan said.
The show includes eight design categories — decorative, expressive, geometric minimal, biomorphic, neo-pop, conceptual, neo-dada/surreal and neo-decorative. Buchanan said she tried to simplify the presentation by categorizing the pieces as modern or postmodern.
The post-modernist objects are conceptual, highly decorative, historicizing or even kitschy. Modernists lean toward "form follows function" with designs usually meant for mass-production.
Buchanan said the marketing tag line, "These are not just objects," is really the essence of the show.
"I think we are making two points at once," she said. "That you are surrounded by art 'every day' but that also something that is functional, like a chair or a light, some designers ... are treating it like it's fine art."
The exhibition catalog says organizers began with 1985 because that's about when the postmodern design group Memphis dissolved, marked a turning point in European design. The exhibit ends with 2005, which is when the European Union started expanding dramatically.
The pieces that fit under the post-modernist movement include:
Groove and Long Neck" bottle by Hella Jongerius. She tapes porcelain and glass, two materials that won't fuse. Buchanan said she used the piece's label to explain that and help the museum-goer get to the next level.
"Then it becomes like, 'That's kind of beautiful. It's these two things that don't unite but all you have to do is put a tape on it and ta da!'"
- Joris Laarman created the "Bone" lounge chair using research on how mass and the shape of bones evolve according to functional requirements. It has a structural base of white resin that resembles roots or bones.
- In "Garland Hanging Light," Tord Boontje cuts out small flowers from sheets of metal that can be wrapped it around a light bulb. It's widely available, including in the museum's exhibition store.
Under the modernism movement:
- Ron Arad's "This Mortal Coil" bookcase is welded steel shaped in a swirl that is held in tension. This is more about form than function, Buchanan said. The plastic version of this is available commercially and will be sold in the exhibition store.
- Marc Newson's "Dish Doctor" dish rack falls under biomorphic design. The bright orange rack with green nipple-like dividers was designed for the Italian manufacturer Magis.
"You can look at it with the idea it is just injecting a little bit of fun into your everyday life, like why not have an orange dish rack. If that makes you happy ... it's a way to improve life," Buchanan said.
Alberto Alessi, president of the Italian design firm Alessi, will speak Nov. 18 at the museum about the role his family's business has played in bringing creative and functional design to the world market.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum organized the show that started at the Indianapolis museum but ends in Milwaukee.
Buchanan said she hopes people who don't have design training see the show and leave thinking twice about why they like or don't like a particular object.
"I hope that they saw something they were familiar with and I hope they saw something that was entirely new and maybe they hadn't even thought about being part of design before," she said.