A Lifestyle on Display: Happiness for Sale

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The setting: Post-WWII Germany. The conflict: The Cold War. In a world exhausted from open warfare and wary of a nuclear exchange, the American government turns to the covert—espionage and sabotage—and the overt—propaganda—as its means of engagement. While spies work their trade in secret, “American Houses” pop up throughout West Germany, sponsored by the US Government and openly promoting the material prosperity of the American capitalist way of life through traveling exhibitions. And in an exhibition opening last night at Center for Architecture Sarasota, elements from three such traveling shows unite to paint a picture of this society, as sold to the world.

Entitled A Designed Life: Contemporary American Textiles, Wallpapers, and Containers & Packaging, 1951–1954, the exhibition contains examples and artifacts—some recreations—from three historical exhibitions, each showcasing the mass-produced wonders that contemporary Americans supposedly were enjoying at the time. Accompanying videos and wall-mounted text provide additional context, artistic, historical and political, as do two short films—Me and Mr. Marshall and Marshall Plan at Work in Western Germany—looping in the adjoining room.

Contemporary American Textiles, originally designed by Florence Knoll (who passed January 25, 2019), comes alive in a walk-through installation, with the fabrics displayed in great panels that form a quick cul-de-sac through design of the time. A nearby table holds swatches of even more examples, which visitors can examine and touch and learn a bit more about. A few are even still available on the market. Compare with the neighboring display from Contemporary American Wallpapers, originally designed by Tom Lee, and revealing a dizzying time for design, full of busy patterns that almost presage the coming psychedelia. A wall-mounted array across the room gives audiences another interactive opportunity, almost like flipping through samples at a throwback hardware store. The final piece of the propagandist’s puzzle—Containers and Packaging by Will Burtin—comes as a photographic recreation of what would have been a full-on consumerist spectacle, showing off products from familiar names like Kleenex and Kotex, General Motors and Juicy Fruit, to bygone businesses like Thor Tools and FoMoCo.

“We are excited for our community to have access to both a historically and culturally significant exhibit,” says David Lowe, CFAS Board Chair. “The design dialogue intermixed with the historical and political significance brings a dynamic mix to the Center.”

Currently on display, A Designed Life runs through April 30. The exhibition is curated by Margaret Re and organized by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Re will lead a Gallery Walk on February 21 at 5:30pm.

Pictured: "American Home Appliances" by Felix Muller, Studio Muller-Blase, 1952. Credit: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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