John Stuart Gordon, Yale University Art Gallery
Please note that these lectures are a double-feature, at 1:00 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., on SATURDAY. This program, which is co-sponsored by the Victorian Alliance, is given in memory of Michael Weller. Michael Weller was a founder and dedicated supporter of the American Decorative Arts Forum. His acute, aesthetic sensibilities were shaped by the historical context of the panoply of silver objects he treasured. The program is free to VASF members.
Michael Graves (American, 1934–2015), designer Swid Powell (American, founded 1982), retailer The Big Dripper Coffeepot and Filter, 1987 Porcelain, red-brown and blue-green enamel, gilding Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Lindsay S. Suter, M. Arch. 1991, 2001.46.1a-c
“The age of architect-designed objects is upon us,” declared the Chicago Tribune in 1985, and no companies better embodied this trend in housewares than the Italian manufacturer Alessi and the American firm Swid Powell. Their products transformed the kitchen counter and the dining table into miniaturized cityscapes populated by kettles, dishes and other items which emulated the look, and embodied the theories, of Postmodern architecture. Their highbrow, yet accessible, housewares encapsulated the era’s desire for eye-catching prestige objects, its infatuation with architects and its recalibration of what constituted good taste. John Stuart Gordon’s presentation will focus on glass, ceramics and metalwork by Alessi and Swid Powell — drawing upon unpublished material from the Swid Powell Archives — augmented by designs from other companies, including Dansk, Mikasa and Rosenthal. Decorative arts drew upon the entire range of Postmodern architecture: the classically-inspired work of Robert A.M. Stern; the iconoclasm of Ettore Sottsass; the irreverence of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown; the deconstructivism of Zaha Hadid; and the theoretical explorations of Steven Holl. This emerging generation of architects questioned the dominance of postwar modernism, and their housewares challenged expectations of how objects should appear and function.
The Postmodern tabletop reflected contemporary culture and politics. The economic prosperity of the early 1980s ushered in a return to formal entertaining and housewares became highly-coveted, aspirational possessions. Within the context of Reaganomics, the role of some housewares acquired a social consciousness as designers grappled with how to address sustainability and socioeconomic inequality. Designers, as always, also responded to food fashions, including the widespread popularity of espresso drinks. This burst of unprecedented creativity transformed the look of American decorative arts and introduced ideas which continue to define the landscape, or tabletop, of contemporary design. Following his graduation from Vassar College, John Stuart Gordon pursued his passion for the historical context of decorative arts on a global stage. He earned a master’s degree from the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts and then a doctorate from Boston University’s program in American and New England studies. He has served as a curatorial intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a cataloguing and research intern at Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) and a guest curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. He has served the Yale University Art Gallery since 2006 in progressively more responsible curatorial positions, and he has been the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts since 2013.
John Stuart Gordon’s publications include A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery, 1920–1950 (2011). His contributions to The Magazine Antiques are “At Home in Modernism: The John C. Waddell Collection of American Design” (May/June 2012) and “Lurelle Guild: The Historical Modernist” (March/April 2011). Dr. Gordon previously spoke to the Forum in 2013 about “Going Modern: American Design in the 1920s” and addressed us again in January 2015 with “Gone Modern: American Design in the 1930s and 1940s.”