Friday, April 3, 2009

Greetings House of Slappy readers! Andrea asked me to guest-blog today about the symposium I participated in last weekend at the Blanton. The museum convened a group of local modernism experts in various fields -- and they were specifically looking for folks like entrepreneurs, not academics -- to discuss the general topic of "living cool," in conjunction with the Blanton's ongoing Birth of the Cool exhibition (and if you haven't seen it yet, check it out post-haste!). My fellow panelists were Annette Carlotti, the curator of the exhibit; Kevin Alter, head honcho of Alterstudio (and winner of too many architectural design awards to count) and associate dean of UT's architecture school; Jeanne-Claire Van Ryzin, the Statesman's longtime arts critic; Michael Nestor, manager of the stunning new Hotel St. Cecilia; Gail Chovan, the owner of local boutiques Blackmail and Vivid; and Carl McQueary, a major mid-century design collector and one of the state's leading experts on Texas modernist art.

The Birth of the Cool exhibit has a somewhat limited focus, the explosion of innovative architecture, furniture design, art and music in Southern California between 1949 and 1962; our own discussion was not so limited. In fact, a big chunk of it was devoted to what the exhibit was lacking (a question posed by the curator herself). Gail aptly pointed out that fashion played a major role in '60s "coolness" in general, particularly starting with the advent of Mary Quant's miniskirt design in 1964 (which started in London but leapt across the Atlantic almost immediately), but is entirely excluded from the exhibit. (This was undoubtedly because Southern California has never been a fashion-industry center like New York, Paris or London.)

We also discussed fashion in the context of the numerous iconic Julius Shulman photos incorporated into the show, in particular his heavily staged shots of the Case Study houses in the L.A. area, Lautner's notorious Chemosphere, and of course Palm Springs's legendary Kaufmann House. The women in these shots are generally depicted as subservient, perfectly manicured housewives in prim, long skirts, a topic we all noted seems exceedingly sexist in the context of today (but admittedly was the cultural norm at the time). I questioned whether Shulman's depictions of these women in these particular homes were accurate, since it's a logical deduction that the owners of avant-garde architecture didn't exactly adhere to standard cultural norms, and thus their female residents were perhaps far more progressive than the '50s-era American woman in general. Most of us also agreed that the scope of the exhibit forced the exclusion of far too much "coolness": there was plenty of it going on during the era outside of Southern California, most particularly the emergence of the Beats in New York, and we thought 1962 was too arbitrary a date to end on, given the cultural explosions of the mid- and late-'60s (derived from Vietnam to the Civil Rights Act to the Kennedy assassination and on and on).

From there we segued into a discussion about the ever-increasing price of modernism, and the fact that the types of architecture and furniture design developed in the '50s -- originally designed to be mass-produced and affordably priced -- aren't any longer so today. (In effect, design once within reach, well, isn't, at least for most.) I was lobbed a query about the merits of IKEA, and whether it's an adequate substitute for the types of modern design that the average consumer can no longer afford. My answer was no: IKEA furniture may not look bad, but it's cheap for a reason. Shoddy construction using the cheapest possible materials, e.g. particleboard; manufacturing (not necessarily at IKEA, but certainly other purveyors of inexpensive furniture) in countries with highly questionable labor practices and environmental standards; etc. Sure, that West Elm etagere might be cute, but would you want it knowing it was produced by 15-year-olds working for 50 cents an hour and made from wood clear-cut from pristine forests? (Disclaimer: this is only a hypothetical example. I do not have any personal knowledge of how or where West Elm produces its products.)

Michael from the St. Cecilia talked about the wonderful conviviality the hotel strives to foster amongst their artistically oriented guests, but again, the topic returned to money: the St. Cecilia is far and away the most expensive hotel in Austin, so this convivial artistic vibe is limited as the privilege of a rather select few. (I can't throw stones in glass houses here: I readily admit that I run a design gallery that sells vintage furniture mostly in the four-figure range and in some cases five. However, nearly everything I sell is investment-grade in the true sense, e.g. an asset that can be sold down the road most likely for a profit. Even in today's terrible economic climate, prices for high-quality 20th-century design -- both at retail and at auction -- remain as strong as ever, with only a few exceptions.)

Finally, we talked about how -- and whether -- the exhibit relates to Austin. We all know Austin is totally cool, but back in the '50s it was still a sleepy college town, and while UT's art department fomented a prodigious amount of excellent modernist art (much of which is regrettably underappreciated today), Austin never had architects on the scale of Neutra or Lautner or furniture designers like the Eameses. We have some excellent examples of mid-century architecture, but frankly not that many, and too many of them are in danger of being demolished (top of that list being the former American National Bank building at 6th and Colorado, which was the first significant modernist building in Austin, with interiors originally designed by Florence Knoll, and which still contains an epic, 100-foot-wide Seymour Fogel mural in its lobby).

Still, we certainly had music, then and now! While the apex of Austin music didn't really hit until the '70s and the debut of venues like the legendary Armadillo, music has played a considerable role in the "coolness" of both Southern California and Austin for decades, a topic we discussed as well. While the name "Birth of the Cool" comes from the title of a Miles Davis album, there are myriad forms of music -- from the '50s through the '70s -- that could conceivably fall into the category of "cool," from artists as diverse as Stevie Ray to, yes, arguably even the likes of the Beach Boys.

On that note, I'll end, and thanks again to Andrea for allowing me the privilege of guest-blogging!

No comments: