Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Visit: Making Music Modern

Jan Lenica. "Wozzeck," 1964. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

The Museum of Modern Art periodically refreshes its permanent collection design galleries. For the past year, the theme was “Designing Modern Women,” in two phases. I wrote about my disquiet with the expanded definition of “women’s work” in the first of those two installations here. On November 15, the museum opened a brand-new installation, Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye that I can recommend without reservation. I’ve written before about my love of themed collection shows: big museums have so many things that never see the light of a gallery, and I’m always excited to see juxtapositions of big names and never-heard-of-hims or -hers, as well as the layering of different media themes can bring. Music, as it happens, is a particularly rich and broad theme.


We have architecture, in the form of a fabulous sketch by German Expressionist architect Hans Poelzig (usually resigned to the quirky margins), an incredible model of the Sydney Opera House that shows where the roof shapes came from (curator Juliet Kinchin said she thought it had never before been exhibited), and a recent model of Snohetta’s Oslo Opera House.


We have posters galore, from Loie Fuller to the Beatles, psychedelia to Paula Scher. I loved the three huge classical music posters from the 1980s, by Croatian designer Boris Bucan, that meet you at the top of the escalator.


Radios, phonographs, speakers and iPods, including Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot’s “Snow White’s Coffin” SK4/10 for Braun. It’s a lot of things, people, and sounds you wouldn’t usually put together, demonstrating the strengths of MoMA’s collection and also making connections between the past and the present day. Try to go during one of the lunchtime performances of the instruments of the past, and don’t miss the subtle transparent speakers overhead.

Gridded + Starred

Galaxy Wrapping Paper from Norman's Printery

I have a love/hate relationship with Pinterest, but I do love a theme. I’m not posting a Gift Guide, because I’m not a magazine or a style blogger, but I have created boards that are filled with fun things with grids and with stars. Why use galaxy wrapping paper as wrapping paper, for example, when it could be decor? And here’s where to get your “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?” t-shirt.

Open With Care (for Nordic Design)

The success of Birchbox, the monthly beauty sample subscription box, has spawned many emulators. There are subscription boxes for nail polish, for organic snacks, for homemade food and handmade items. What there aren’t many of, Ana Denmark, 32, noticed, was a subscription box for housewares, particularly the clean and simple home goods from Scandinavia that she favors. After checking out dozens of boxes in the name of research, Ms. Denmark launched Skandicrush in August, sending out her first $50 package to subscribers in October. Currently running a one-woman, self-financed business, with inventory stored in her stepson’s bedroom (he’s at college), Ms. Denmark hopes to eventually expand the site into e-commerce, so you can get that butter dish after the box is gone. And she has ideas for some other boxes that don’t involve moisturizers or mixed nuts.

Saving Buildings with Social Media

The gap where the Folk Art Museum used to be, 53rd Street.

In David Macaulay’s illustrated book, “Unbuilding,” published in 1980, a sheikh buys the Empire State Building and has it dismantled, piece by piece, to be reassembled in the Middle East. Macaulay uses this premise—which, when I was seven, seemed like science fiction—to illustrate what goes into unmaking a building: the materials, the methods, the fastenings, the layering. It takes a whole book to take a skyscraper down, and that was part of the point. The slowness of the process, the idea that a building can’t just disappear, was a lesson in itself, and one extraneous to the Empire State Building’s significant particulars. Obviously, post-9/11, the fantasy takes on a different resonance.

Today, we don’t need Macaulay’s detailed illustrations to see buildings being unbuilt. We call it “destructoporn” (since 2007, according to Urban Dictionary) and it comes, unbidden, via digital media. Where did I see that Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art Museum, just thirteen years old, was down to steel and rubble? The art critic Jerry Saltz’s Instagram. How did I follow the destruction of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975), in Chicago, made of poured-in-place concrete that took weeks to demolish last fall? Tweets from the Windy City’s flock of architecture observers. Twitter also brought me the news, in September, of the unbuilding of John Johansen’s Mechanic Theatre (1967), in Baltimore, and a view of the wrecking ball demolishing a hundred-and-twenty-nine-year-old commercial row in Dallas. Unfortunately, except for the copper-bronze façade of the Folk Art Museum, the parts of these buildings aren’t being shipped anywhere except the landfill. No Middle Eastern resurrection to come. Something glassy instead.

Blue is For Blondes

Parents Magazine, July 1970

Recent research on the history of children and color shows that the gender binary (blue is for boys, pink is for girls) is of postwar vintage. Color has been an indicator, in the pint-sized realm, of so many other things. Age, separating the wardrobe of white-dressed infants from the breeched in colored rompers or knickers. Interests, manifested in wallpapers with transportation scenes or Western stampedes. Program, with bright colors in the playroom and soothing hues in the bedroom. Complexion, red for brunettes and blue for blondes. This essay explores a few of those choices, which overlap and interweave rather than advancing toward a color-coded future.

For Saturated Space, I explore the evolution of American children’s colour-space in the 20th century.

“History does change perception.”

In the centre of the first wall of chronology in the new exhibition Michael Graves: Past as Prologue is a little shelf. On that shelf rests a cookie tin decorated to look like his Portland Building (1982). The proportions seem a little off, since the tin is taller than it is wide. In my mind, the Portland Building is a perfect cube, closer to its foreshortened appearance from the sidewalk, and closer to the penciled yellow-trace drawings of facades that were my first introduction to Graves’s work.

In my memory these facade drawings are all squares, made up of triangles and half-rounds, chunky columns and square windows, ideal for transformation into an animated gif of architectural design as an exercise in two-dimensional composition. When Graves took on the Whitney Museum, in 1985, he tried to make Marcel Breuer’s facade into one of those bits, stubbornly stuck in the lower left-hand corner of his pile. But Breuer’s building resists the cookie tin. It would probably tip over. It would look dull on a shelf. While Graves suggests biscotti, Breuer doesn’t seem like a sweet.

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