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Midwest Design Show - Holy Toledo

I'm a design junkie, which is to say that I can get as excited about a paper clip as I can about a skyscraper. That is why I was charmed and intrigued by the new show at the Toledo Museum of Art titled "The Alliance of Art and Industry: Toledo Designs for a Modern America" (March 24 to June 16). The exhibit is certainly a booster for the small Ohio city: It demonstrates the high quality of the industrial design commissioned by enlightened Midwestern companies a few generations back, forcing those of us who think that good design can only be born on one of the coasts to think again. Some of the mid-century's most outstanding talents--Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague, Harold Van Doren--turned out remarkable work for Midwestern institutions like Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass and (yes) the Toledo Museum of Art. 

Like all modern design from that era, the Toledo style is clean, streamlined, without adornment. That's obvious from looking at the glasses Libbey commissioned in the '30s from Donald Deskey (of Radio City Music Hall fame) to spur sales during the Depression. The one called 370 pattern (1936), with a band cinching the waist, is as magnificent now as it was in 1941, when it was sold at Walgreens, two for five cents! The show also has a few moments of recognition, when you notice something you've seen all your life but never really thought much about. The shapely drinking glass always associated with Coca-Cola? That's the Safe Edge Bell Fountain pattern (1928), also commissioned by Libbey Glass. 

Of course, many other designs came out of Toledo: Maytag washing machines, graphic packaging for Champion sparkplugs, the Skippy-Racer scooter. One of my favorites is a vision for a futuristic kitchen that looks remarkably familiar. In 1942, H. Creston Doner devised the Kitchen of Tomorrow for National Geographic: a joined kitchen and dining room with a glass-fronted refrigerator (like a Traulsen), glass-fronted cabinets (think IKEA) and a storage wagon for plates that could be wheeled to the table. Today many of these designs seem utterly contemporary, even forward-thinking. As a design geek, it makes me wonder: When will we envision something for tomorrow that doesn't look like yesterday? (Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe St.; 419-255-8000.)
--Dana Cowin 

Published March 2002
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