A Designed Life: Modernism as Propaganda

Published: Nov 26, 2018

(A designed Life art exhibit sign)

Based on a decade of extensive archival research in Europe and the USA by curator Margaret Re, associate professor of graphic design, A Designed Life: Contemporary American Textiles, Wallpapers, and Containers & Packaging, 1951 – 1954 is a design history-focused exhibition on view at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC) through December 8, 2018. The exhibition will travel to the Center for Architecture in Sarasota, Florida in 2019.

The focus of Re’s research for the exhibition and a forthcoming book was three little-known traveling Department of State-sponsored art exhibits used “to connect consumer choice with political choice as well as the reception of European audiences to such cultural diplomacy in the post WWII years,” according to Re. The exhibits were part of a broader effort to promote American culture through art, which also included exhibits of Abstract Expressionist painting.

Some scholarship exists chronicling the outcome of these exhibitions, however, Re notes, “design exhibitions sent abroad that presented examples of consumer goods billed as readily available to American citizens are largely undocumented, especially those coordinated by the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of State.

American Goods on Display

A Designed Life (ADL) re-imagines, re-creates, and interprets three Cold War-era traveling displays of American-designed and manufactured goods commissioned by the U.S. Department of State that were circulated within West Germany in the early 1950s. ADL considers how the Department of State used “Contemporary American Textiles,” designed by Florence Knoll; “Contemporary American Wallpapers,” designed by Tom Lee; and “Containers and Packaging,” designed by Will Burtin, as part of a propaganda campaign to showcase the lifestyle choices, built environment, and affluence of the United States in order to promote the growth of democratic government in a divided Germany.

Each exhibit showcased the work of American and American émigré designers and manufacturers, many we now associate with modernism. Representative designers include Noémi Raymond and D.D. and Leslie Tillett (textiles); Ilonka Karasz and Ray Komei (wallpapers); and Walter Landor and Morton Goldsholl (containers and packaging). ADL also includes a stunning selection of Marshall Plan lithograph posters from the George C. Marshall Museum.

The exhibition and a forthcoming book (distribution via D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc) have been made possible through support from the National Endowment for the Arts, ArtWorks, the Maryland State Arts Council, Baltimore County, The Coby Foundation, Ltd. and Knoll.

A gallery walk and meet-up with members the Society for History & Graphics is scheduled for Wednesday, November 28, 7 p.m. at the CADVC. Margaret Re will be available to discuss the objects on view and the research that lead to this installation.

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Photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC Magazine

Modernism Rediscovered (PRINT Magazine, October 29, 2018)
Steven Heller interview with Margaret Re

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