On March 5, 1934, an exhibition entitled Machine Art opened at the Museum of Modern Art, which was then just five years old.
Unlike the paintings of post-impressionist masters like Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh that the museum displayed during its first years of existence, Machine Art found beauty and aesthetic value in a different sort of object. Rather than paintings and sculptures, its displays were filled with common household objects like furniture, fans, pots, and ladles, trappings of industry like springs, insulators, and car pistons, and even scientific instruments like microscopes, slide rules, and beakers–all made by machines, but designed by humans.
A series of photos of the exhibition, dug out of MoMA’s archives, offer a fascinating look at the influential show. Curated by the architect Philip Johnson, the museum’s first Architecture and Design curator, Machine Art put machine-produced design on the same pedestal previously occupied only by fine artists. “Everybody hated us deeply for being anti-art,” Johnson later said.
Even though the museum at the time was housed inside a 19th-century brownstone, Johnson covered the walls and ceilings in order to give the old, three-story house an appearance that matched his more modern vision, with white walls, clean lines, and industrial features, according to Jennifer Pricola’s history of the show. The objects on display were an ode to the product design of a fully industrialized American economy, Pricola writes–quoting advertiser Ernest Elmo Calkins, who in 1929 wrote that, “In applying art to machines [Americans] are on our own ground. Machines are native with us, and the effort to beautify them has created a new field of artistic endeavor, as witness the skyscraper, the motor car, the phonograph, and the radio.”
But it wasn’t just the objects themselves or the forward-thinking exhibition design that made Machine Art so monumental in the history of product design, Pricola explains: Johnson actually included the names of the designers as well as the manufacturer and the price in the exhibition’s listings. It wasn’t an easy task; Johnson later noted that “we tried to find objects that were designed by names, and there hardly were any names.”
Designers were no longer cogs in the manufacturing process, but bonafide artists with real-world impact who deserved to be named. Ultimately, the exhibition served as an advertisement for a new kind of art emerging from America’s economy–now known as design. The rest, as they say, is history.