We tend to overlook the everyday objects in our lives. Coffee pots. Casserole dishes. Coffee cups. It’s a shame, because all of them have stories to tell. The NGV’s new exhibition A Modern Life takes these seemingly pedestrian household items and asks us to look at them in a new light.
Comprised of tableware spanning from the 1930s to the 1980s, the exhibition takes the quotidian and puts it on display. But these items are far from ordinary – each one an example of considered design and form.
The exhibition is made possible due to a large donation of pieces from Melbourne collector John Hinds. The collection is a mixture of predominantly Scandinavian, English, German and Japanese design.
As you walk through the exhibition, each cabinet jostles for your attention. One is filled with oven-safe dishes, each of them brightly coloured and adorned with cheerful patterns; another houses a collection of beautiful but ostensibly unfunctional coffee pots – tall and heavy, with their handles low.
From a utilitarian yet elegant stainless-steel milk jug to a pot playfully printed with pictures of carrots, each item here has a distinct personality. Most of them are so evocative of their era you can pretty much guess the decade of origin without consulting the accompanying sign. The collection doesn’t just speak to the aesthetic tastes of past decades; it reflects important turning points in history.
“Those objects, unprepossessing in one sense as they appear are very important indicators of changes in society,” explains Amanda Dunsmore, NGV’s senior curator of International Decorative Arts & Antiquities.
In the wake of World War One, for example, the structure of society shifted, with a major change being that servants became less commonplace.
“Where there’s no one to do all that extra maintenance, washing up, polishing of the silver, all of that now falls to members of the household, i.e. women,” says Dunsmore. But “the role of women is rapidly changing through these early decades of the 20th century”, she acknowledges, referring to women moving out of the home and into the professional workplace.
The most prominent example of that change is perhaps the so-called oven-to- tablewares items, which emerged at a time when dishes became oven-safe to cut down the work of transferring between multiple platters during meal preparation and plating.
Evolution of colour and form also speaks to an item’s country of origin – there are dark, earthy tea services from British manufactures that refer to a medieval heritage, and porcelain coffee cups that embody the lightness and optimism of post-second world war Germany.
A dinner set by American industrial designer Russel Wright allowed buyers to mix and match yellow, cream and baby blue items to create a combination that best suited their tastes. You’ll see modern ceramics by Eva Striker Zeisel (considered one of the most important ceramic designers of the 20th century), which were part of America’s casual dining revolution. Closer to home, the brightly coloured Bessemer plastic plates made by Nylex reflect a time when picnics and outdoor dining rose in popularity.
Plates? Jugs? Trays? Tableware, yes. Quotidian sculpture, also.
A Modern Life is on at NGV until January 2019.