Folk art: Modern design's secret pleasure

August 2009 | The Eames House in Pacific Palisades, California, is one of the icons of mid-twentieth-century modernism. Set in a grove of eucalyptus trees, the building comprises two simple rectilinear volumes—one a living space, the other a working studio—framed in steel with walls formed of a grid of clear glass casement windows peppered with colorful painted wooden panels (Fig.2). The architecture is the essence of structural purity and functionality, enlivened by bright but unassuming ornament.

The interiors that Charles and Ray Eames chose to live with evince an altogether different aesthetic. The rooms contain several examples of their modernist furnishings made of molded plywood, metal, and fiberglass, but these pieces do not dominate the decor. The character of the rooms comes from the handwoven Navajo, Chinese, and Berber rugs that cover the floors, and the carved ebony stools from Africa and other tribal artifacts. A conversation area off the living room—a sort of inglenook—features banquettes covered in pillows made of sari cloth and ethnic blankets and display shelves laden with carefully arranged pieces of folk craft: Hopi kachina dolls, Micronesian beadwork, pieces of Japanese pottery, fetishes, and all manner of hand-tooled trinkets, from baubles to buttons (see Fig. 1).

Conventional wisdom would not have things this way. The modernist mind is supposed to cultivate system and order; the machine-made and streamlined; rational planning and engineering. Certainly folk art could be endearing and of interest from the standpoint of cultural anthropology, but more often than not it was dismissed as crude, clumsy, and primitive. “At the height of modernism’s hegemony,” historian Pat Kirkham wrote in her 1995 study of the Eameses, it amounted to a sort of apostasy to “admit simply liking the look of something, especially an object that could be classified as non-industrial, decorative, and trivial.”1 Yet many of the greatest figures in modernist design and architecture were deeply engaged with folk art, on levels ranging from the respectful and intellectual to the avidly celebratory.

The problems for the strict modernist are that there is no school of folk art, no theory of folk art, no patronage system—private or industrial. There is not even a universally acceptable definition of the term folk art (though, for that matter, neither is there one for art itself). Holger Cahill (1887–1960), the historian and museum curator who was one of the greatest scholars of American folk art, defined it, as he wrote in the catalogue to a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, as “the expression of the common people, made by them and intended for their use and enjoyment.”2 He argued that the unselfconsciousness of the folk artist made a powerful impact on early twentieth-century American modernist painters, yet his thesis—since he defines folk art as emerging from a craft tradition—would thus also apply to the design arts.3 But his most trenchant comment is that folk artists “tried to set down not so much what they saw as what they knew and what they felt.”4 In other words, folk art comes from the head and the heart.

Should modernist design grow from the same dual sources? One who thought so was the Austrian-born architect Josef Frank. At a time when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and other purists were promoting pared-down functionalism, Frank argued that tubular metal chairs and hard edges did not offer the warmth and comfort that foster the psychological well-being of the common person.5 “Every human needs a certain degree of sentimentality to feel free,”6 he said—although he was often derided by functionalists as “feminine” and “middle class” in his views.7

With the rise of anti-Semitism in Vienna, Frank, a Jew, moved in 1933 to Sweden, his wife’s native land. There he began work for the Stockholm design company Svenskt Tenn,8 and his output in subsequent years demonstrates the finesse with which he imbued modernist applied arts with a folk spirit. He built the clean-lined wooden chairs that we associate with Scandinavian modern design, and he could modernize a windsor chair form and add a homely, comforting detail like a fringed-leather back pad (see Fig. 5). Frank’s textile designs in particular reveal his love of folk aesthetics. His pattern Gröna Fägler (Green Birds) of 1943 to 1944, for example, is a variation on the classic tree of life motif often seen in folk art (see Fig. 6).9

Eliel Saarinen began his architectural career in the late nineteenth century as an adherent of the Finnish national romanticist school of design. His early interiors are loaded with carved details of gnomes, trolls, elves, and dragons drawn from Scandinavian lore.10 With each passing year of his career, however, he seemed to slough off layers of ornamentation. While one of his masterworks—the Helsinki Central Railway Station, designed in 1904—seems positively stripped of decoration compared to designs of a decade before, the colossuses who guard the main entrance to the terminal are clearly the descendants of the giants of Nordic lore (see Fig. 4). You can even recognize the vestiges of folk art’s influence on one of Saarinen’s last great works, the austere First Christian Church of Columbus, Indiana, built in 1942. There is an air of country craftsmanship in the asymmetrically arranged panels on the main doors, and the most striking piece of ornamentation in the sanctuary is an enormous tapestry, made by Saarinen’s wife, Loja (1879–1968), depicting the Sermon on the Mount.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All