Displaying a gas pump in an art museum seems almost as incongruous as exhibiting an Old Master in a gas station.
Yet there the gas pump stood, in a stark white exhibition hall of London's venerable Victoria and Albert Museum, a corridor or two away from Constable paintings, Raphael drawings, and medieval church art. Beside the pump, gleaming under the museum lights, were other equally strange objets d'art: a Saab car, an IBM Selectric typewriter, a row of Boeing 707 seats.
The occasion? An unusual display of manufactured objects, the work of 14 industrial designers. Through drawings, models, and prototypes, ''Art and Industry: A Century of Design in the Products We Use'' offered a fascinating look at progressing technology and its liberating effect on the shape and scale of products.
''Everything has been designed,'' a black and white poster proclaimed, setting forth the exhibition's premise. ''Whether a dinner service, a telephone or an aeroplane interior, the appearance of manufactured objects is not inevitable. These are the designers who made the decisions.'' These are the designers, too, who almost single-handedly created a corporate identity for their respective clients--Eliot Noyes for IBM and Mobil, Harley Earl for General Motors, Sixten Sason for Saab, Walter Dorwin Teague for Boeing.
The exhibit neatly measures one aspect of the revolution of modern art. When Prince Albert organized his beloved industrial exhibitions over a century and a quarter ago, neither he nor anybody else thought art and technology--beauty and utility--had anything in common. Now patrons walk into the museum partly funded by Albert's science and industry exhibitions and find no difficulty treating as art the objects they have just been passing on the street.
The exhibit also marks the opening of the Boilerhouse Project, a national gallery for industrial design. Billed as the first venture of its kind, the Boilerhouse has been described by its founder, Terence Conran, as ''a place to study the design of mass-produced products, the things we surround ourselves with and which influence the quality of our lives.''
In addition to four design exhibitions a year, the project will offer study and research facilities for designers, managers, and students. Funding comes from another new Conran venture, the Conran Foundation, an educational charity established to stimulate corporate and public interest in design.
What keeps the Boilerhouse Project from resembling a high-class trade fair is its emphasis on the design process--how an object comes to look the way it does. Objects are shown not in isolation but in the whole context of getting a product onto the market.
One striking display, for example, traces the ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation of a palm-size tape recorder. Models show how minor design changes turned a functional but uninspired Toshiba unit into a sleek black IBM executive recorder, selected for the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
The project takes its name from its subterranean location, once ''a pretty awful looking group of boiler rooms,'' according to spokeswoman Mary Mullin. In exchange for rent-free space, the Conran Foundation converted the Victoria and Albert's 5,000-square-foot boilerhouse yard into a modern exhibition hall. After five years the project will move to permanent quarters elsewhere, and the gallery will revert to the museum.
In a modest way the Boilerhouse Project confirms a prediction made by the late Norman Bel Geddes, the pioneering American industrial designer, whose work is included in the exhibit. ''Art in the coming generations,'' he once said, ''will have less to do with frames, pedestals, museums, books, and concert halls and more to do with people and their life.'' As technology changes the global landscape, interest in good design becomes imperative, not only for manufacturers competing in the marketplace, but also for consumers who must live with the results of corporate decisions.
The second exhibition, running through June 3, traces the develoment of Japan's Sony Corporation from 1945 to the present. Future exhibits will focus on Dieter Rams, an award-winning designer for Braun of West Germany; computer-aided design; cameras; car styling; and aircraft.