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Pittsburgh’s Role as a Design Powerhouse at Midcentury

Having spent most of my life in New York with a 14-year stint in Los Angeles, I assumed that the most impactful aspects of our art and cultural history took place on the coasts. It wasn’t that I saw the country like that famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover where everything between the two coasts is telescoped. The middle was there for me; I simply assumed that what happened there was of regional, as opposed to national or international, significance. (This is called New York provincialism.)

Carnegie Museum of Art currently has three exhibitions on view that demonstrate just how wrong I was. Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk examines the work of Muller-Munk, a German émigré who moved to New York in the 1920s where he worked for Tiffany and then set up his own very successful studio. Spurred on by the Depression and concomitant lack of demand for fine silver, he began to design products in other metals, among them, the famed Normandie pitcher, named in honor of the transatlantic luxury ocean liner. In 1935, he moved to Pittsburgh to teach in the country’s first degree-granting industrial design department at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and subsequently set up a successful studio in the city. There he created objects that defined life in the United States at midcentury: Westinghouse refrigerators, the Waring waterfall blender, Lady Schick razors, and even Wayne gas pumps, to name just a few. He also had a hand in the Unisphere, symbol of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. For those of us who can remember some part of the time in which Muller-Munk worked (1920s–1960s), the exhibition is a trip down memory lane; for everyone, this show highlights an engrossing piece of design history that was previously unknown, in part because it took place away from the coasts.

Russel Wright, American Modern tableware for Steubenville Pottery Company, 1937, manufactured 1939, Collection of Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk, Photo: Tom Little
Russel Wright, American Modern tableware for Steubenville Pottery Company, 1937, manufactured 1939, Collection of Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk. (Tom Little/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Silver to Steel is accompanied by a small gem of an exhibition called Hot Metal Modern, which focuses on innovative design objects that you probably didn’t know were produced in and around Pittsburgh. Highlights include dishes by Russel Wright and Eva Zeisel, as well as aluminum side tables created by Isamu Noguchi for Alcoa. The exhibition also illuminates the importance of Kaufmann’s, Pittsburgh’s storied department store, in supporting and disseminating modern design.

Installation view of HACLab Pittsburgh, The Heinz Architectural Center
Installation view of HACLab Pittsburgh: Imaging the Modern, The Heinz Architectural Center.

HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern, the first of a series of experimental projects in our Heinz Architectural Center, examines Pittsburgh’s central role in the push for urban renewal during the postwar period. Between the 1930s and ’70s, major figures involved in the debates that raged around this issue visited the city, among them Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, representing polar extremes in those contentious battles. Created by the Boston architectural firm over,under, HACLab investigates a number of projects that heralded the “Pittsburgh Renaissance,” including Gateway Center and the Civic Arena, which predated similar efforts in other urban centers.

HACLab is an unconventional museum venue. During the fall semester it hosted a studio, with students from the CMU School of Architecture working in the galleries during public hours to develop contemporary design proposals for Allegheny Center on Pittsburgh’s North Side, a major focus of the exhibition. This spring, a series of Salons, sites for discussion, will take place in those galleries; the first of these free public events kicks off on February 18.

CMOA’s current offerings demonstrate the vitality of Pittsburgh design at midcentury, and its impact on national trends. Don’t miss them!

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.