An Exhibition for Modern Living

Posted April 2, 2016

In 1949, Alexander Girard curated An Exhibition for Modern Living at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, a show featuring work by many talented designers, including Charles and Ray Eames.

Ray Eames sketch for An Exhibition for Modern Living_Web

The exhibition featured objects on pedestals and in displays, but to reinforce the theme of the show, which was “living,” Girard invited a few designers to present entire interiors. Charles and Ray had their own exhibition space to decorate, and Ray prepared this colorful sketch of the layout. The black and white photo below shows how the Eames room appeared to visitors. While the exhibition featured many classic works by the design duo, this marked the first time that the Eames La Chaise had ever been on view.

Archival Image of An Exhibition for Modern Living_Web

In an interview about the show published in Pathfinder magazine (oldmagazinearticles.com), Girard provided a series of five guidelines that characterized his selections. “The way to judge any one design, he says, is to ask five questions. If the answers are ‘yes,’ it’s good.”

  1. “Does it look like what it is? Does it express what it is supposed to be doing? (There’s no point in streamlining a pencil sharpener or a cooking pot because neither travels 500 mph through the air.)”
  2. “Is the material chosen in relation to the job to be done? (Aluminum used for a suitcase that it supposed to be lightweight makes sense.)”
  3. “Is it stripped clean of non-essential doo-dads? (It isn’t necessary to stick roses all over a wooden tray;  the tray is beautiful in itself.)”
  4. “Is it economical? (If it’s made of gold could it just as well be made of aluminum?)”
  5. “Is it a nice-looking thing? (This is a matter of taste…very important but hardest to judge.)”

Girard spent a year gathering 6,000 items from which he culled some 2,000 to exhibit. They included kitchen utensils, toys, machines, and lamps, using materials such as plastic, metal, glass, china, wood, straw and clay pottery. Learn more about the objects here.

Gallery