Contemporary Design from Local Collections

When I walked into “Going Dutch: Contemporary Design from Local Collections” at the Cincinnati Art Museum, I was overwhelmed—by the volume of words covering all four walls of the diminutive gallery—and under-whelmed by the number of objects on view—19. Given that ratio, I thought the words better be good.

The exhibition showcases products from the Dutch design collective called Droog (“dry” in Dutch), drawn mostly from local collectors—I’d love to meet those folks. The introductory wall text gave a succinct history and description of Droog’s design philosophy. Founded in 1993 by design historian Renny Ramakers and educator Gijs Bakker, Droog is “not a formal group, nor is it a style. It is an entity that identifies new designs of a certain design mentality and then produces, distributes, and promotes these designs under the Droog name… [It was] developed in reaction to the impersonality of Modernism and the excess of Post-Modern design… [It is] design pared down to its most basic aspect: a concept.”

I left the rest of the words unread and turned my attention to the objects, starting with the oldest: Gerrit Rietveld’s High-backed Armchair, 1923 or 1924. The longish label identified it as “an antecedent to the contemporary work in this exhibition.” It is based on his iconic Red [and] Blue Chair, 1918 (Although originally painted in black, gray, and white, the signature colors of the De Stijl movement, in 1923, after Rietveld had met Piet Mondrian, the chair was repainted in his signature colors of black, red, blue, and yellow.). This chair is far more inviting that its hard-edged predecessor. Instead of harsh planks, the High-backed Armchair‘s legs and crossbars look like broom handles. The seat and back are gently curved to accommodate a human body—far more ergonomic than its inspiration—and the arms have rounded edges, reminding (an important element in Droog design) me of high-school desks. Also, the chair’s ebonized wood shows the wear by human hands, arms, torso. Perhaps this is considered a proto-Droog object since—as the introduction notes—it shows how a material “triggers sensory experiences that spark memories of fresh sensations.”

It took just this one correlation of object to text to understand the curatorial mandate: to illustrate tenets of the Droog philosphy with concrete examples. (How do you say “didactic”?)


Tejo Remy’s You Can’t Lay Down Your Memories Chest of Drawers, about 2000, sparked a specific memory for me, having seen the original 1993 piece, in appropriately enough, Rotterdam. It was revelatory then, and it’s revelatory now. A hodge-podge of drawers—the fronts of scavenged drawers inserted into wood “sleeves”—are stacked willy-nilly and held together with a mover’s strap, thus freeing them from the constraints of a traditional chest of drawers. The piece demonstrates perfectly the Droog concept of designers rethinking “the history and use of objects, materials, methods, and ideas to create products that redefine the familiar.” It also represents an object “that blur[s] the lines between art and design…” since it is signed by the designer and numbered—#014—like an edition.

Marcel Wanders’ 1997 Egg Vases were designed for Rosenthal, the German ceramics firm with a reputation of collaborating with “innovative artists, designers, and craftsmen,” per the label. They are fully functional white porcelain vases with bodies of sensuous ovoid bulges. The label explains Wanders’ design process: hard-boiled eggs stuffed in condoms to create the form. Ah-ha—eggs + condoms = sex, fertility (they do remind me of the voluptuous Venus of Willendorf), and birth control. The Egg Vases exemplify Droog’s interest in metaphor and social commentary. The vases are “elegant and subtle enough to take center stage at any dinner table,” but evidently not enough for Rosenthal to manufacture them; they were eventually produced by Wanders’ own firm, Moooi (a variation of beautiful in Dutch).

The Tree Trunk Bench, 1999, by Jurgen Bey, is a wry comment on park benches. Three very traditional dining chair backs, cast in bronze, have been inserted at regular intervals in an approximately 10′ tree trunk. It’s an example of “open design (design that requires the owner’s actions to complete).” It is sold as a kit with three bronze chair backs and drill bit, log not included.

Having satisfied my visual appetite, I read the other walls: cogent comments by designers, design historians, and curators strung together—nicely. Despite my initial reaction, it was a good move to provide a verbal framework to see these objects since they are as much cerebral and conceptual as physical and functional.

– Karen S. Chambers

In Dutch: Contemporary Design from Local Collections on view through April 10th at Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Dr., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, 513-721-2995.

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