The Terra Foundation initiative Art Design Chicago has made 2018 an absolutely tremendous year to see, experience, appreciate, and learn about the rich, impactful, complicated histories of art and design in Chicago. November is shaping up to be quite a month for design history in particular.
Three exhibitions will shed new insight into significant aspects of Chicago design history: Chicago Cycles: 150 Years of Bicycle Design and Innovation at the Design Museum of Chicago (through March 3, 2019); Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America at the Chicago History Museum (through Dec. 1, 2019) and African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race at the Chicago Cultural Center (through March 3, 2019). A symposium, “The Designs of African American Life,” will take place in conjunction with the latter on November 2-3.
Another notable symposium/conference, “Chicago Design: Histories and Narratives, Questions and Methods,” will take place November 8-10, 2018 at the Art Institute of Chicago and will bring together numerous scholars and practitioners from Chicago and beyond. Events on all three days are free and open to the public, including what looks to be a fantastic roundtable on “Contemporary Practices and Design History,” on the evening of Nov. 9. Registration is required for some events and encouraged for all.
I will be presenting a paper, “Sculpting Corporate Display: Harry Bertoia and Richard Lippold in 1950s Chicago,” on the morning of Friday, November 9.
In 1958, the Inland Steel building (30 W. Monroe St., Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), clad in its namesake product, became a beacon for postwar industry in Chicago’s downtown Loop. Featured prominently in its glass-clad lobby was a commissioned steel sculpture, Radiant I (1958), by Richard Lippold, which further emphasized the ideals and public image of the company. The next year and a few blocks north, the Zenith Radio Corporation would open a far more architecturally modest if no less celebratory “display salon” at 200 N. Michigan Avenue (Shaw, Metz and Associates), presenting but not selling its cutting-edge televisions and radios. Visible through its own large glass windows and dominating the showroom against a bittersweet backdrop was another commissioned work: Harry Bertoia’s Sculpture Group Symbolizing World’s Communication in the Atomic Age (1959). The pulsing, electronic multipart sculpture was a focal point of the space, and remained on view until the showroom closed in 1979. Both sculptures were neither the only large-scale architectural commissions created by Bertoia or Lippold during their careers nor the first forays into modern art and design by the companies.
Inland Steel, led by Leigh Block, also commissioned and purchased numerous artworks for the upper floors of its new headquarters, including a work by Bertoia. Zenith notably worked with Isamu Noguchi on the now-iconic Radio Nurse (1938) and participated in the Museum of Modern Art design exhibitions during the 1940s and 50s. The commissioned sculptures for Inland Steel and Zenith do however speak to a larger phenomenon, driven largely by private, corporate clients during the postwar period, of integrating art and architecture. In focusing on Bertoia’s Sculpture Group and Lippold’s Radiant I—two of the more high-profile architectural commissions realized in Chicago during the 1950s—this paper examines how and why companies like Inland Steel and Zenith turned to artists to help publicly project positive, humanist corporate images. Certainly, graphic design and print advertisements were also a crucial part of such strategies, but Bertoia and Lippold’s sculptures uniquely, physically straddled private and public spheres—visually arresting pedestrians on the street and postwar consumers as much as asserting a strong corporate presence to employees, executives, and investors. As large-scale commissioned sculpture, they also functioned as more than just visual corporate symbols or optimistic advertisements for their respective patrons. From the choice of materials to how each dynamically operated within architectural space, Bertoia and Lippold took great care to synergize their work with the specific interior design and architecture of the surrounding space. The resultant sculptures both shaped and were shaped by the built environment of downtown Chicago, itself being radically transformed by postwar American industry.