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Friedman Benda Gallery’s current exhibition “The Garden in the Machine: Organic Design 1930 to the Present” is curated by Jennifer Olshin and James Zemaitis. The show’s title is an homage to The Machine in the Garden (1964), Leo Marx’s seminal treatise on pastoralism and industry in the American landscape.
On view through February 13, the show explores tensions between the schools of Modernism and Craft. The furniture and objects included illustrate the evolution of the term “organic” in design over the course of the last century. Beginning in the 1930s with machine-made masterworks by the “pioneers of modernism” including Gerald Summers and Marcel Breuer, the show concludes with contemporary design by Ron Arad, Marc Newson, and Joris Laarman. The objects survey the balance between nature and industry throughout the 20th and 21st century, from the more literal evocation of natural form in the modernist bent ply of Breuer to present day interpretations of “organic” notions using experimental materials and production methods relevant to our times.
Prior to being reclaimed by current common language to refer to nutrition, the term “organic” had a long history in the field of design: first synonymous with “harmony” in the didactic exhibitions organized by Eliot Noyes and Edgar Kauffmann at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s—1950s, and later as natural living matter as epitomized in the writings on woodworking by George Nakashima and Wendell Castle, during the studio furniture movement of the 1960s—1980s. In both movements, organic design was fervently embraced as an essential ingredient to the respective design identity.
The heart of the exhibition at Friedman Benda is an imaginary mid-century fusion of the conflicting ideologies of MoMA and the American Craft Council, where the plywood and steel of Jean Prouvé and the biomorphic laminated cabinetry of Wendell Castle are juxtaposed in the same space.
Although “The Garden in the Machine” does not purport to be as comprehensive or academically focused as a traditional museum exhibition, it presents in one space a spectrum of modern decorative arts that have not yet been seen together in New York.