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Sense and Design
December 29, 2005


Jewelry by Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder, Pin, n.d., Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1968.7.1

Designer Michael Rock of 2x4 on Dutch design:

I don’t consider Dutch Design to be design generated in the Netherlands. I consider Dutch Design a kind of work, or an attitude about work, or even a brand of work, that could theoretically occur anywhere at anytime.

(Courtesy of Design Observer.) That's a point that speaks to me. Saying what precisely makes Dutch design Dutch, even identifying just a few key attributes, is probably impossibly challenging—yet Rock knows it when he sees it and can say so with complete confidence. To some extent we all operate with a general framework of traits of Western societies: French taste, German ingenuity, American enthusiasm, and so forth.

Whether these holistic perceptions amount to anything more specific than je ne sais quoi, it's fun to page through the American design annals for answers. A watershed in 20th century American material culture came in the man of Alexander Calder and his airborn biomorphic stabiles and mobiles, which have had an enormous influence not merely on sculpture but on American design. When I look at objects designed by Calder, I see something principally American. It's a quality that's peripheral to the work and hard to verbalize—a something I can't quite suss out. As in the way that scents are so intensely associated with memories, yet that connection can't be described, only experienced.

What will be interesting is the degree to which these essential qualities—American-ness or what have you—remain identifiable as design draws less from modernist and national sources and more from the postmodernist and globalized. I believe they must persist, if only because we're hard wired to detect them.

But maybe you think I'm all wrong about Calder as the beating heart of American material culture—I'm sure a lot of people have their own strong associations with objects in fashion, sculpture, and design.


Posted by Kriston on December 29, 2005 in American Art Everywhere


Comments

I want to comment primarily on Rock's comments about Dutch art not necessarily reigning from the region. Having a certain sentiment that reflects what we understand as Dutch art he has a valid point. These types of issues classifying art throughout documented history have been difficult. We often categorize based on broad concepts and this has both served its purpose as well as made us narrow in placing a piece of work in a category, whether the work fits or not.

Let me preface my next comments by admitting that I'm stating only what's been my understanding and I look forward to having it corrected it it's inaccurate.

We rely on the overarching general stereotypes that created such a category as Dutch art and these are based on stylistic difference that had roots in the Netherlands. Like many regions influenced by a variety of social, political and religious factors, there is/was a uniqueness of Dutch style molded by each of these aspects and many others that gave birth to a creative uniqueness. In writing I'm thinking of Renaissance developments and works of the 17th and 18th century. There are distinctive and intangible qualities to a region that are not so much defining but extraordinary. That qualities of one type of art disseminate and evolve and are adapted by artists from other regions is undoubtedly true. But rather than call it "Dutch" I think it gets us back to the issue of choosing categories by which to classify art. Perhaps it's a nuance of Dutch art, but if not derivative of the region, is it not influenced by its own molding of characteristics?

Perhaps it calls for better taxonomy of art classification. I'm not entirely sure.

One of the qualities of Calder that's saliently American for me is a willful naivety -- the straightforward and un-"ironic" use of dopey blobs in simple colors, as if to dare you to find them unsophisticated.


P.S. ...came in the man of Alexander Calder...

The gratuitous use of "man" for "person" is perfect reverse PC!

One of the sadder aspects of the rise of the European Union was the disappearance of Dutch currency when the Netherlands embraced the Euro. I always loved the great design of the Dutch bills and coins. The Euro (and the dollar and the pound and the...) don't even come close.

One of the sadder aspects of the rise of the European Union was the disappearance of Dutch currency when the Netherlands embraced the Euro. I always loved the great design of the Dutch bills and coins. The Euro (and the dollar and the pound and the...) don't even come close.

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