Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson Edited by David A. Hanks, Essays by Donald Albrecht, Barry Bergdoll, David A. Hanks and Julie Kinchin.
Excerpt from Chapter 1: Introduction
Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson focuses on a pivotal yet little-known aspect of the evolution of American design: the collaboration between Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Philip Johnson, the museum’s first curator of architecture, to become ambassadors of modernism to North America. Their agenda was inspired by the Bauhaus school of art and design at Dessau—its merging of architecture with fine and applied arts and its proposition of a radical new aesthetic that was rational, functional, machine-made, and ahistorical. MoMA, founded in 1929 in New York City, represented their vision in its multidepartmental structure as well as its exhibition program. The story includes experiments with modernism in the Barr and Johnson apartments—testing ideas that informed MoMA’s influential exhibitions Modern Architecture, Machine Art, and Bauhaus: 1919–1928, as well as the Useful Objects exhibition series. The first exhibition to explore the role of Barr and Johnson’s personal and professional collaborations, Partners in Design focuses on the period between 1929 and 1949. The show and the catalogue essays trace a path of influence from the Bauhaus in Dessau to MoMA in New York City to other museums around the country and into the mainstream.
Barr and Johnson were fully committed to exploring modernism in both their personal and professional lives. Barr, with his great academic mind, was the leader and mentor, and Johnson, with his intelligence and taste, was the protégé and soon a leader in his own right. During the depths of the Depression, the two visionaries created a cult of industrial, abstract beauty, using the museum, as well as their own homes, to try out new design ideas.
In a brochure describing the motivation and mission of MoMA, which came to be known as his “1929 Plan,” Barr argued that while the great cities of Europe had institutions for modern art—such as Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and Tate Gallery in London—New York had none.
Regarding the future evolution of the museum, Barr envisioned departments of design, architecture, photography, furniture, stage design, typography, and film, but the board of trustees pared it down to less ambitious goals for the brochure to be distributed to the public: “In time the Museum would expand beyond the limits of painting and sculpture in order to include departments devoted to drawings, prints and other phases of modern art.” There was, however, no lack of ambition in the plan as a whole: “It is not unreasonable to suppose that within ten years, New York . . . could achieve perhaps the greatest modern museum in the world.”
It was only natural that Barr and Johnson’s exploration of modernism would extend to the design of their residences. In 1930 Alfred and his wife, Margaret (Marga) Barr, moved into an apartment in the Southgate complex on East 52nd Street, directly above the apartment Johnson rented. This neighborly proximity allowed them to spend much of their free time visiting one another, in continual discussion about architecture, particularly as they were planning the Modern Architecture exhibition. Similar to their approach at MoMA, Barr and Johnson considered their homes as laboratories for trying new ideas, where they could collaborate on experiments with contemporary concepts of design and decoration and share their aesthetic views and professional expertise.