Published: September 11, 2007
“The Architect’s Table: Swid Powell and Postmodern Design,” a special exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery highlighting postmodern housewares design by architects, is set to run September 25⁊anuary 6.
The exhibition celebrates the Swid Powell collection and records, now housed at the Yale University Art Gallery. The company, founded in 1982 by Nan Swid and Addie Powell, produced innovative housewares designed by the foremost architects of the time, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Stephen Holl, Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, Stanley Tigerman and Robert Venturi, among others. Its blend of architecture, fashion and decorative arts made it arguably the most important American design undertaking of the 1980s.
Through meticulous research and marketing, Swid Powell helped architect-designers transform their ideas into finished objects. The company made progressive architecture accessible to a wider audience, introducing a generation of consumers to high-quality, well-designed tablewares. The marketing of Swid Powell was crucial to its success: novel advertising campaigns, bold graphics and the role of famous architects helped solidify the prestige of the brand. Within the architectural community, Swid Powell had a lasting impact as its efforts inspired many architects to reevaluate their own relationships to decoration and fostered a trend of architect-designed housewares that continues to this day.
“The Architect’s Table” features a selection of objects and archival materials from the collection’s holdings of more than 1,200 prototypes, realized products, sketches and design drawings. Examples of best-selling designs, including Gwathmey-Siegel’s “Tuxedo” pattern plates and Richard Meier’s silver candlesticks, complement lesser-known works, like a place setting by then-emerging architect Zaha Hadid. Numerous prototypes explore the design process, as seen in a series of coffee pots by Robert Venturi, each with a different proposed decorative scheme. The exhibition also includes original advertising images and brochures, as well as examples of architect-designed furniture from the gallery’s permanent collection.
“The Architect’s Table” is divided into six sections that underscore the breadth of Swid Powell’s activities. The first section explores the design process through sketches and prototypes, including a model for a water pitcher by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass and a proposed design for a tea set by woodworker Wendell Castle. Stanley Tigerman’s designs for Swid Powell, which blend wit and fantasy with postmodern architectural theory, are the focus of the second section. Included is an important tea set that recreates in porcelain a complex of buildings he constructed in Michigan.
In 1990, Swid Powell commissioned the “Architect’s Collection,” a sumptuous group of designs that form the third section. Produced at a time when popular interest in Swid Powell was beginning to falter, these unique, often impractical objects were bold statements of architectural ideals intended to capture public attention for the company and architects. The fourth section focuses on the work of Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl and Michael Rotondi. In the early 1980s, these young architects were more famous for their writings than for their buildings, and these objects can be understood as three-dimensional manifestations of their abstract theories.
The fifth section looks beyond architecture to works designed by painters and sculptors, including a plate emblazoned with a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. The importance of artists and architects within contemporary society surfaces in Swid Powell’s advertising, which focused as much on the personalities behind the products as on the products themselves.
The final section celebrates the myriad architects and designs that made Swid Powell famous. Emulating a table set for a dinner party, it brings together many of Swid Powell’s most iconic objects in a lively conversation about design, architecture and style in 1980s America.
In related programming, John Stuart Gordon will present an exhibition talk for the public on Wednesday, September 26, at 12:20 pm. A master class, “Design by Architects,” will be given in three sessions by Gordon on Thursdays, September 20 and 27, and October 18, at 5:30 pm. The series will investigate the role of architect as designer from the mid-Twentieth Century through today. The fee is $30 for members; $45 for nonmembers; free for students with valid ID. Enrollment is limited to 12 participants. To register, call 203-432-525.
Yale University Art Gallery is at the corner of Chapel and York Streets. For information, www.artgallery.yale.edu or 203-432-0600.
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