First Look: Contemporary Design Galleries at the IMA

Museum director Charles Venable takes IM on a tour of the recently unveiled collection and its new look at the form and function of household objects.

The IMA’s new Contemporary Design Galleries have the largest collection of modern design in the United States, boasting hundreds of pieces from three different eras—modernism, postmodernism, and expressionism—as well as many from the past three decades.

When you enter the gallery, a 1,000-square-foot exhibit takes you through a crash course on 20th century design from 1945 to 1980, with sharply angled chairs and gently curving coffee tables. A few steps beyond that is the main exhibit. Indiana’s own Michael Graves is well represented, with his “Glimcher” dinning table and “Ellington” lounge chair. But the designer and architect is not included just because he is a hometown boy. His work echoes the movement of household design away from modernism and into postmodernism, characterized by a rejection of the emphasis on “pure form,” the sleek, minimalist shapes we typically picture when we think “modern.” Postmodernism uses every conceivable shape and color on the palette. The IMA’s noted former curator of design arts R. Craig Miller gathered most of the pieces in the collection.

“America played a huge role in the postmodern movement after 1980,” says museum director Charles Venable, and the exhibit lets it show. “Architects [especially] rebelled against this kind of very streamlined, much more austere style with very little decoration. Here you see pattern and color; it’s whimsy and kind of funny,” he says.  

True to Venable’s remarks, you can hardly help but be amused by some of the pieces. Here, a chest of drawers, Tejo Remy’s “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memories,” is not quite as simple as it may seem. The common bedroom item has been disassembled, rebuilt, and strapped back together. “If you take the belt off, the drawers all come apart and you can assemble it any way you want,” says Venable. “It is very interactive and personal.”

“There is so much here to delight your eye,” he says. “You can walk around, smile, and say, ‘Gosh, I love that,’ or, ‘Who in the world would ever buy that?’”

Some of the most notable items in the gallery can also be found in your closet at home or in your shoulder bag. Modern gadgets like iPads, iPhones, and even a Dyson vacuum are displayed throughout; when walking through, it’s tempting to pull out your own iPhone and compare. The exhibit allows you to find yourself in it. “I am actually here,” says Venable “My stuff is in here.” Having household items in the gallery really drives home the point that design is in everything we use, and when you are picking out a phone or shelves to buy for yourself, you are the curator.

Although the gallery space is organized by design periods, it is hardly in order. “It is not a linear trail you go on,” says Venable. “It is not IKEA … It is sort of like going through an extraordinary candy shop, where there are a thousand things to choose from, where you get to use your eyes and your mind to pick out the things you like.”

Even the room itself could fall into the modernist section of the exhibit. The IMA commissioned architect Edward Larrabee Barnes to build additions onto the museum, the Contemporary Design Gallery included. (Next time you drive through IUPUI’s campus, take a look at the library: Barnes designed that, too.] “[It] is a very clean, simple space that we modified from high ceilings,” says Venable of the $1.2 million retrofit. “We needed to bring the scale down a bit. Most, if not all, of the objects are domestic in scale.”

The IMA, like most large, encyclopedic museums, displays objects made by top craftsmen and designers for domestic use. But while a lot of museums stick to finery like 18th century candlesticks and luxe furniture, the IMA is bringing that trend up to date by accommodating more popular, consumer products. In one stroll, you might laugh or cringe at some of the clunky shapes—or get ideas for altering your remodeling plans at home.

Photos by Michael Schrader