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American Design 1900 - 1985. Whitney Museum exhibition of 20th-century design highlights an array of modernist trends

The comprehensive exhibition ``High Styles: 20th Century American Design,'' now at the Whitney Museum of American Art here, is fun. It's full of flashes of humor with displays evoking fond memories of furniture, fabrics, graphics, appliances, and decorative accessories from the near past. No single theme threads its way through the 85 years covered by the 300 objects selected for the show. But the exhibit does illustrate the importance of the coming of the automobile and the subsequent vast development of the suburban home, the rise of the industrial designer during the depression years of the 1930s, and the revolutionary effect on furnishings from research during World War II, which brought nylon, plastic, strong new adhesives, and lighter and more mobile furniture.

Advances in engineering, chemistry, metallurgy, and the manufacturing process itself opened up a bright new world in home furnishings, as this exhibition clearly shows.

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``At long last,'' says Lisa Phillips, associate curator at the Whitney, ``good design, contrary to longstanding popular opinion, need not necessarily be imported from Europe.'' There exists, she says, an independent, inherently American design ethic which is more than a mere transplantation or adaptation of European influence.

Miss Phillips organized the show, which is arranged chronologically from 1900 to 1985, in five 15-year periods and one 10-year period. Each segment provides a glimpse of changing American tastes, life styles, popular preferences, and sometimes whimsical fancies.

In American culture, she explains, ``style is a mark of distinction. It suggests intelligence, talent, originality, and glamour. Today it is relentlessly pursued and promoted.'' A positive byproduct, she contends, has been a growing appreciation of and demand for good design.

``Twentieth-century America has seen a succession of modernist, vanguard styles,'' says Phillips, ``from American art nouveau, the arts-and-crafts movement, to art deco, `streamlined modern,' `high-art modern,' and Pop, always with a strong fondness for period and historical revival designs flowing alongside the modernist trends.''

Phillips believes that the show traces the slow development of modernism but also points up those parallel traditional influences in American design. She also points out the vital interrelationship among the fields of domestic architecture, industrial design, and the decorative arts.

Five guests served as curators for the exhibit: David A. Hanks, president of David Hanks Associates, a consulting firm dealing with American and European decorative arts of the 19th and 20th centuries; historian David Gebhard, professor of architectural history and curator of the Architectural Drawing Collection at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Rosemarie Haag Bletter, adjunct associate professor at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts; Esther McCoy, contributing editor of Progress ive Architecture and Architecture magazines; and Martin Filler, editor of House & Garden magazine.

All of the guest curators referred to a ``new patriotism'' abroad in the country and a growing fascination with American fashion and food and what goes into the furnishing of a home.

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Each curator chose objects that indicate the inventiveness distinctive to American design during each period. And each took into consideration the multitude of tastes that were served, as well as the prevailing cultural attitudes of the particular time segment.

Designers represented include such names as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Eero Saarinen, Ward Bennett, George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Russell Wright, Henry Dreyfus, and Robert Venturi.

Although there are gaps in the continuity of the exhibition, it is the first of its kind in its comprehensiveness and scope. It amply illustrates America's design skills, industrial enterprise, and individual craftmanship. Many of the objects at the show, which took three years to plan and assemble, have not been exhibited publicly before.

The streamlined Electrolux vacuum cleaner designed by Walter Dorwin Teague in 1937 is still being manufactured today. The torchier lamp shown was designed in 1932 by Donald Deskey as part of the decoration of Radio City Music Hall. The cut-glass punch bowl made by Libbey in 1898 is grand in both scale and design.

A 1904 vase from the Van Briggle Pottery in Colorado Springs, Colo., is one of the show's regional choices, as is the Greene & Greene library table that was designed in 1907 for a Pasadena, Calif., residence.

Four well-known woodworkers -- Wharton Esherick, Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, and Wendell Castle -- are among the craftsmen represented in the show, along with Peter Voulkos, a potter and ceramic sculptor, and Dale Chihuly, a glassmaker.

Frank Gehry's corrugated cardboard chair was included for its innovative use of material as well as its curvilinear design.

The exhibition, on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum at Madison Avenue and 75th Street, will be shown through Feb. 16, 1986.

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