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In the Material World: Susan Weber

Long before Peggy Guggenheim bought her first Jackson Pollock, the Wittlesbach Dukes of Bavaria were snapping up antiquities. Before Philip Johnson’s Glass House or even modernism, the movement, existed, architecture of the Iranian-Sassanian tradition was revered for its innovative domed constructions. The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (BGC) may not the only place in Manhattan where you can delve deeply into such scholarly subjects, but it is certainly the most influential. Susan Weber founded the center (with $20 million of her then-husband George Soros’s money) in 1993 “to advance the recognition of the decorative arts as one of the primary expressions of human achievement.”

Bard Graduate Center founder and director Susan Weber

Long before it was in vogue to do so, Susan Weber founded $20 million to found The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (BGC), at the time on of the view pillars of decorative arts. Read about how the center has progressed, the continual popularity of mid-century design, and more.

The school has fulfilled its mission by graduating legions of scholars (both masters and doctorate programs are offered) and by holding influential exhibitions, including A.W.N. Pugin: Master of the Gothic Revival, which a New York Times critic called "a cause for jubilation." Major retrospectives like Marimekko (2003) and the recent Knoll Textiles (2011) have also inspired the work of contemporary designers. While Weber can be credited with further legitimizing decorative arts scholarship on the institutional level, she has also does so by example. She holds a Ph.D. form the Royal College of Art in London, where her focus was on the secular furniture and interior design of E.W. Godwin. Like the good scholar that she is, her studies didn’t stop there. Lately she has turned her attention to the American circus and Swedish wooden toys. “My interests lie in the study of objects—not only what they teach us about how we live now,” she says, “but what they tell us about our past.”

Why do you think mid-century modernism had such a long revival in the U.S. and is still going strong after the Wright Gallery's first big Eames show in the 1990s?
Lucia Eames (Charles Eames’s daughter) often attributes the real upsurge of interest in the Eameses to the major MIT Press book (1995) on the Eameses by Professor Pat Kirkham, the distinguished British design historian whom I brought to the BGC in 1996. She always points to the wider revival of interest in modernism as one of the style revivals within postmodernism, as well as to the pioneering work of certain dealers in the 1980s, particularly Mark McDonald, whom the BGC honored this past year.
Is there a mid-century century designer you think has been overlooked?
There are thousands in the USA alone, from Ben Seibel and Freda Diamond to Morton and Millie Goldsholl, and Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman. Other names that spring to mind include Cipe Pineles, the first woman member of the Art Directors Club of New York, Ellen Manderfield, the first woman member of the American Society of industrial designers, and Ann Lowe, the African American designer of the dress worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953. Even if you think about “big” names in their day, there is as yet no major scholarly study of the outstanding designer Alexander Girard.
What is your favorite period, in terms of furnishings?
Art deco. Its genius was in drawing on such disparate sources as neoclassicism and futurism, and elements from antiquity—Egyptian, Aztec, Greco-Roman—to create something that was utterly modern. And then it went global. While French decorator artists may have “invented” art deco, dozens of cultures made it their own. The currently touring exhibition Deco Japan is a shining example.
Can you site one object you own that is perfectly designed?
A pair of tulip cabinets by Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, whose work so deeply influenced the development of French art deco. The proportions, the details, and the exquisite grain of the wood are all hallmarks of Ruhlmann’s cabinetmaking and the perfection he wished to achieve.
Painting, music and literature have commented on wars and influenced political elections. Is there an example of an object with enough power to change or influence society?
The iPhone and iPad. And just think of the power of cell phones in the “Arab Spring.”
Is there an artistic movement in decorative arts that is on the cusp of being rediscovered?
As historians, we prefer to think of “re-assessments.” The 1970s subcultural movements are now beginning to be taken more seriously in terms of their broader material culture. Faculty and students tell me that early twentieth-century historicist “period” design, much maligned by modernists, is on the cusp of being what you might call “rediscovered”, along with “Neo-Baroque” and “Fantasy Modern” design.
What do you think of the explosion of DIY [do it yourself] design and websites like etsy.com?
It is not surprising that, in a period of recession and huge uncertainty about the future, that DIY has begun to play an ever greater part in people’s lives. Issues around sustainability and saving our planet, also feed into the renewed interest in DIY.

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