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Modern in the Past Tense

The New York School of Interior Design recreates the seminal show "What Modern Was" in a new exhibit and discussion

by Karen Day in Design on 19 October 2011

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When the traveling exhibition "Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was" opened in 1991, the accompanying 424-page catalog startled the industry with its declaration that the Modern period was over, and should, from that point, be spoken about in the past tense. Subsequently revered as the bible for mid-century decorative arts, the heavy tome's distinct perspective came from four years of scholarly research of the thirty-year period, led by Rutgers University art history professor Martin Eidelberg and acclaimed curator David A. Hanks.

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In celebration of the volume's 20th anniversary, the New York School of Interior Design is recreating the landmark show in an exhibition dubbed "Modern in the Past Tense." While the original selection showcased designs solely from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' Liliane and David M. Stewart Collection, the updated display will echo the time period with chronologically-arranged photographs of interiors and architectural milestones, as well as furniture from various other private collectors.

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Another groundbreaking moment for the exhibition, in addition to the catalog's bold claim, came when the team of 16 scholars separated the Modern period into five subdivisions. Designs were broken up into International Style Modernism, Biomorphic Modernism, Streamlined Modernism, Postwar Modernism, and Postmodernism. The timeline accompanying "Modern in the Past Tense" will add even more context to these categories, showing the cultural moments that helped to define each one.

The exhibition opens with a panel discussion with "What Modern Was" curators Hanks and Eidelberg, legendary collector Mark McDonald and modernist interior designer Ali Tayar. "Modern in the Past Tense" opens 26 October 2011 and runs through 12 January 2012 at NYSID.

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