Folk art: Modern design’s secret pleasure

Editorial Staff

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.It was also in Columbus that the modernist who had the most passionate appreciation for folk art of all had one of his signal triumphs. Alexander Girard was born in New York City but raised near Florence, Italy. As a child, he developed a fascination with nativity scenes, and his interest was encouraged by his parents, who thought it a sign of an artistic temperament. All through his life, from his studies at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, to his move in 1951 to the Herman Miller Furniture Company as a designer of textiles and graphics, and until the end of his days, Girard collected folk figurines, miniature animals, houses, buildings, and other toys. He kept careful records and loved to arrange pieces from his collection into elaborate tableaux (see Fig. 8). In all, he amassed more than a hundred thousand artifacts, which he donated in 1978 to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe (on condition that they build a wing to house the collection).

In his monograph on the Girard Collection, the folklore specialist Henry H. Glassie assays a view in which, through his scenic displays, the designer was trying to make a statement about the brotherhood of mankind: “The human universals of happy play and sociable consumption, and most important, the universal encounter with the unknown, underlie the [presentation of the collection,] within which universals are clothed in cultural particularity.”11 The designer and writer Marilyn Neuhart, who worked for Girard beginning in 1956, says he had a simpler motivation. “Sandro had a great concern for the work of artisans, and wanted to preserve traditions that were disappearing,” she says. “But mainly he just collected for love—he loved the craft, he loved the beauty and the innocence.” As a proselytizer for folk art, Girard, Neuhart says, convinced J. Irwin Miller (1909–2004), for whom he and Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) built a landmark modernist house in Columbus in the mid-1950s, to make folk art a chief element in the decor.12 It was also Girard, Neuhart says, who introduced the Eameses to folk art.

Folk art was a difficult area to discuss for the modernists who appreciated it. On the one hand, modernists were supposed to be forward looking. On the other, they were (in theory if not in practice) democratic. In 1951 Arts and Architecture—the influential magazine that launched the famed Case Study House program—published an admiring article about Simon “Sam” Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles (see Figs. 7a, 7b). Discussing the amazing spires, built by hand from curled steel-reinforcement bars that were covered in cement, then festooned with stones, shells, broken bottles, and bits of colored glass and crockery, the editors focused on Rodia’s technical achievement and not his obvious obsessive compulsion.13 (Today Rodia is called an “outsider artist”—a term no one likes, but for which no one has coined a substitute.) The Eameses took the same tack when speaking about their folk art. They “always discussed objects within the framework of the functionalism that then dominated the discourse of design,” Kirkham wrote. “When I admired a Hopi kachina…Ray stated that its design was clearly related to its function of informing Hopi children about their history and their gods.”14 The reader senses a frustration with the Eameses’ inability to say that they liked it because they liked it.

But design is meant to be serious business. Curiously, one of the most popular mid-twentieth-century designers today is Paul Evans, whose works stemmed not only from a unique personal aesthetic but one that was almost without doubt heavily influenced by folk art. Evans grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, an area with a long and proud artistic heritage. Jeffrey Head, a design historian who is at work on an Evans monograph, notes that the designer studied painting and textile design in his youth, took up metalwork in college, and for a time worked as a metalsmith at Old Sturbridge Village, a “living history museum” in Sturbridge, Massachusetts where costumed crafts-people portray life in an early nineteenth-century New England town. The most highly sought after of Evans’s pieces are his earliest, known as “sculpture front” cabinets (Fig. 3). They feature front panels divided into gridded compartments, which are filled with various roughly shaped metal glyphs—stars, spirals, bulls-eyes, and other runic, or totemic, forms. “Evans left the air of handicraft very apparent in these works, and I don’t think it’s a big leap to say this is because of his exposure to folk art,” Head says. “The pieces look like quilts and were made like quilts. I don’t know if it was conscious or not, but I think it’s there.”

Todd Merrill, a New York vintage design dealer who has handled many Evans pieces, has often heard the comparison to quilts, or to North African house doors. “I understand all that,” he says. “But to me, what makes Evans’s work a sort of folk art is that you have this guy, all alone, doing his thing. And there’s nothing else like it.” When Evans began contract work for the Directional Furniture Company, his furniture first became less intricate, then less idiosyncratic. Perhaps Cahill had it right when he suggested that the most vital tool for the folk artist is the human heart.

1 Pat Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995), p. 145. 
2 Holger Cahill, American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America 1750–1900 (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1932), p. 6.
3 Ibid., pp. 5–6 and 26–27.
4 Ibid., p. 28. 
5  Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Architecture, ed. Stephen Sennott (Fitzroy Darborn, London, 2004), vol. 1, p. 471.
6 Nina Stritzler-Levine, “Three Visions of the Modern Home: Josef Frank, Le Corbusier, and Alvar Aalto,” in  Leon Botstein et al., Josef Frank: Architect and Designer: An Alternative Vision of the Modern Home (Yale University Press, New Haven, for the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, New York, 1996), p. 16.
7 Ibid., p. 22.
8 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Architecture, vol. 1, p. 471. 
9 Botstein et al., Josef Frank, p. 247. 
10 Marika Hausen et al., Eliel Saarinen: Projects 1896–1923, trans. Desmond O’Rourke and Michael Wynne-Ellis (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990), pp. 42–43.
11 Henry H. Glassie, The Spirit of Folk Art: The Girard Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1989), p. 20. 
12 For more on the Irwin Miller House, see Martin Filler, “Indiana modern,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 175, no. 4 (April 2009), pp. 106–111. 
13 See Jules Langsner, “Sam of Watts,” Arts and Architecture, vol. 68 (July 1951), pp. 23–30.
14  Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames, p. 145.