Eighties exhibit at home with housewares

In the 1980s, one company made it possible for everyday people to display works by renowned architects — on their own kitchen tables.

“The Architect’s Table: Swid Powell and Postmodern Design,” currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, features pieces from the collection of Swid Powell — a company founded in 1982 by Nan Swid and Addie Powell that produced innovative housewares designed by several of the foremost architects of the time.

The exhibit includes works by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Robert Venturi, among others.

The Swid Powell pieces were mass-produced and available for purchase at large stores like Bloomingdale’s, as well as specialty design shops, said John Stuart Gordon, the exhibit’s curator.

“The prices were such that everyone who had an interest in progressive architecture could afford to buy them,” he said in an e-mail. “Even if you could not afford a house by Robert A.M. Stern or Venturi Scott Brown, you could still afford one of their designs.”

The Swid Powell collection, which is permanently housed at Yale, also includes the works of several Yale professors and alumni. Pieces by Yale School of Architecture dean Robert Stern, architecture professor Peter Eisenman and Stanley Tigerman ’60 ARC ’61 are on display.

“The Architect’s Table” presents a diverse array of housewares, from a deliberately slanted “Recycling Candlestick” by Michael Rotondi that encourages a lit candle to drip, to a set of silver-plated salt-and-pepper shakers by Robert Haussmann that evoke the forms of Mickey Mouse ears and grain silos.

The exhibit also includes examples of both Swid Powell’s best-selling designs — such as Gwathmey-Siegel’s “Tuxedo” pattern plates and Richard Meier’s silver candlesticks — and lesser-known works, like a place setting by then-emerging architect Zaha Hadid.

The works in the Swid Powell exhibit provide an example of the ways architects’ designs can extend beyond buildings, Yale School of Architecture professor Emanuel Petit said.

“Both the design of furniture and of tableware seemed the logical extension of an architect’s vision into the objects that would occupy the spaces he or she designed,” he said.

Yet while modern architects seemed fixated on the design of chairs, postmodern architects preferred tableware, Petit said.

“It allowed them to populate the ‘tabula rasa’ of a table surface with the quasi-urbanity of their witty objects,” he said.

Gordon said the parallels between contemporary culture and the times of Swid Powell give the collection interest and relevance.

“The 1980s were, in many ways, similar to the present day, with an influx of wealth, the growth of cities, conspicuous consumption and interest in architects,” he said. “Swid Powell, with its roster of glamorous architect-designers, urban edge and exuberant designs perfectly matched the spirit of the day, leading to its success then and continued popularity now.”

The 1980s were also an ideal time for investigation of small design, since architectural offices were no longer expanding as they had in the 1960s and 1970s, Edward S. Cooke, an American Decorative Arts professor said.

Since the Swid Powell collection contains a wide range of materials — from actual objects and prototypes to sketches, correspondence, and promotional materials — it may appeal to students in a variety of fields, said Gordon.

Lisa Sun ’10 said the exhibit’s inclusion of advertisements encourages students to question the relationships between consumption and “high art.”

“The Architect’s Table: Swid Powell and Postmodern Design” is on display on the third floor of the gallery through Jan. 6.

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