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Faster, Cheaper, Newer, More: Revolutions of 1848
Saturday, June 5, 2004

Brooch Probably England, 1870 - 1880 Gold, Gift of Janet Mavec 2002-9-1, PHOTO: Matt Flynn

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.- Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum presents “Faster, Cheaper, Newer, More: Revolutions of 1848,” an exhibition featuring artifacts from the United States and abroad that explores the rapid political, technological, and social changes which burst forth around the pivotal year 1848. Curated by novelist, design critic and public radio host Kurt Andersen, the exhibition encompasses objects drawn from the holdings of all four Cooper-Hewitt curatorial departments --- Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design; Product Design and Decorative Arts; Wallcoverings; and Textiles --- as well as from the Design Archives at Cooper-Hewitt, and from several collecting departments of other Smithsonian branches.

“Revolutions of 1848” is the first exhibition in the Nancy and Edwin Marks Collection Gallery to use an outside guest curator to mine the Museum’s holdings for display. “We’re excited to have Kurt Andersen curate this exhibition,” said Cooper-Hewitt director Paul Warwick Thompson. “His varied roles as novelist, essayist, design critic and public radio host will help to bring forth new ideas and perspectives on design.”

Andersen will explore several areas of Cooper-Hewitt’s collection where mid-19th  century innovations can be found, including: The Industrial Age (new materials and new manufacturing processes); The Great Exhibition of 1851; Media and the Metropolis (new printing techniques, marketing campaigns, and celebrities); Photography; and, Communications (telegraphy, electricity and utilities).

“The goal is to give just a taste of the extent to which this era was the beginning of our modern – or postmodern - world,” Andersen said. “I really do think we started to live the way we live now, in the years just before and after 1848. In fact, the first use of the word ‘modernity’ appeared in 1849.”

The exhibition surveys the critical time period when the Industrial Revolution was coming into full maturation, along with the emergence of new technologies such as telegraphy and photography, against a backdrop of political tumult and social ferment in Europe and the United States. At this time, modern liberal democracy, socialism and feminism were also sweeping the Western World.

The year 1848 spearheaded what was to be an era of thrilling and terrifying speed (regular train travel began in the late 1830s), advances in communication (the telegraph was invented in the mid-1840s), mass production and media and popular culture as we know it today.

Highlights from Andersen’s Cooper-Hewitt collection choices include a rare 1848 book of drawings and notes for the punch card-operated Jacquard loom, a precursor of modern computers; an 1840s book for printers, designers, and artists on color theory that presages works of minimalist Pop art from the 1960s; a selection of mid-19th century matchsafes, designed for the newly invented phosphorous match; and a mass-produced three-dimensional printed cardboard “peep show” simulating a glimpse inside the modernistic Crystal Palace, home of the first World’s Fair in 1851.

Also included in the exhibition are objects that illustrate use of new materials, such as one of the first steam radiators, made of cast iron and an early chair by Thonet, whose signature bent wood design was made possible by new, state-of-the-art technology.

Among the objects in the installation from other Smithsonian museums are Samuel F.B. Morse’s first camera from the 1840s, a Morse telegraph key from the same time, early daguerreotypes and a sewing machine patent model from 1849.

“Bringing together all these disparate and extraordinary objects from this one extraordinary moment can start to give us in the 21st century a sense of what an exciting and discombobulating time it was in the middle of the 19th century,” said Andersen. “As an era, it is a precursor to the late 1960s and the late 1990s, wrapped up in one,” he added.

The Nancy and Edwin Marks Collection Gallery, located in what was once the music room of the historic Andrew Carnegie Mansion, is the first permanent gallery at Cooper-Hewitt dedicated to exhibiting selections from the 250,000 objects in the Museum’s collection. Featuring up to two installations each year, the Collection Gallery provides curators a space to look at design work from the past through 21st century eyes. The exhibitions will be organized by members of the Museum’s curatorial staff and by outside thinkers and designers from a variety of disciplines. Future guest curators will include Dutch designer Hella Jongerius and Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

 

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