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The last century constitutes one of the greatest periods of accomplishment in the history of western design. Remarkable as this may be, there is little evidence of it to be found in American institutions.

The Norwest collection of Modernism serves as an interesting commentary on modern design in this country. That a collection of important works could be assembled in such a short period says more about design awareness in the United States than it does about collecting prowess. The decorative and applied arts have always been subordinated to the fine arts in American museums: acquisition funds, gallery space, exhibitions and curator salaries have become available begrudgingly at best (1). For 20th-century design, the situation is especially unresolved. There are only a handful of American museums "unlike European counterparts" that have even begun to think seriously about the formation of comprehensive applied arts collections. This predicament is particularly incongruous when we consider how many museums now have large departments devoted to 20th-century painting and sculpture, let alone art centers devoted exclusively to contemporary art. Only thirty years ago these same encyclopedic museums refused to collect works by living artists as a matter of policy. Similar initiatives for the serious study and enjoyment of contemporary design have yet to follow.

These issues reflect a lack of knowledge, if not implied resistance to design in our society. The Federal government (unlike in Europe and Japan) has yet to consider the design industry to be part of our national identity or even a critical factor in our economy. This, despite the recent and painful lessons learned in the automobile and high-tech electronics industries, both totally revolutionized by the superior design of the Japanese. The Scandinavians, British, French, Italians and Germans have long demonstrated serious commitments to design as a matter of national policy and identity.

Within the art market itself the applied arts are considered less valuable than the fine arts. A design object may be purchased for only a fraction of the cost of a painting, drawing or sculpture by artists of comparable merit. Because monetary values are indicative of what a capitalist society considers important, the message is transmitted to museums in both overt and indirect ways. The issue of the unique, hand-made object vs. the machine-aided (or worse, machine-made), mass-produced object is no better resolved for most museums than it was at the turn of the century, a situation further complicated by the role of crafts in public collections. Moreover, it is difficult, if not impossible, to study the applied arts at the graduate level within art history departments at many of our major universities though these same departments have large faculties in 20th-century architecture, painting, sculpture and photography. Today's curator of decorative arts has necessarily been schooled in programs deeply rooted in historic styles and values rather than in applied or industrial design thus they lack a thorough knowledge of the seminal 20th-century art movements which played a crucial role in the development of design. Even architectural history is most often taught as a study of facades or plans; interiors and furnishings are rarely addressed though many architects design their structures as total ensembles. Here again, the Japanese have excelled where Americans lag behind. Such value judgments shape our culture and are not easily changed. It is just such a climate that initiated the first corporate collection devoted entirely to Modernism.

In 1985, architect Cesar Pelli was selected to design Norwest Center, a 57-story office tower in downtown Minneapolis with Gerald Hines Interests as co-partner; Norwest Center formally opened in January l989. Community art museum advisors, CEO Lloyd Johnson, Cesar Pelli, and good timing had much to do with establishing a fully coordinated arts program. The concept of the program was to acquire a core collection comprised of late 19th- to mid 20th-century decorative and applied arts, and paperworks.

Preliminary thoughts about a possible gallery in the new building's ground-floor concourse along with commisioned site-specific pieces were dismissed early on when it became apparent space was severely limited. The grand lobby concourse, Pelli's respectful incorporation of architectural elements (chandeliers, wall sconces and balustrades salvaged from Norwest's previous Art Deco building) were the sources of inspiration for a pedestrian, boulevard d'art. A series of five elevator cores divide a promenade where sixteen specially-designed vitrines with extruded bronze doors are symmetrically aligned along two corridors(2). In these cases art works from the collection are presented as part of a coordinated exhibition program expressly for the public in one of the city's busiest thoroughfares. In 1992, five additional vitrines were added to the skyway level, an elevated passageway linking buildings throughout the heart of the city. And last year, initiated by employees themselves, eight more vitrines were installed in an adjacent building.

The term Modernism has been adopted by the art community in recent years to describe a diverse range of architecture, decorative, applied and graphic arts created between l880 and l940, from the emergence of the English Arts and Crafts Movement to the outbreak of World War II. The period is elastic, some preferring to include The Aesthetic Movement (l860-80) as well; others have extended the dates to include the '50s. The term commonly applies to those forward-looking architects, designers and craftsmen who managed to escape, historicism, the tyranny of previous historical styles. Centuries of servitude to revivalist design in form and decoration were forever liberated by ground-breaking visions. A new, international design vocabulary emerged and the tenets of Modernism continue to inform much of today's art, design and architecture.

The principal movements commonly associated with the decorative and applied arts within this 60-year period and represented in the Norwest collection are:

• British Arts and Crafts (1880-1910)

• American Arts and Crafts (1900-1915)

• European Art Nouveau (1880-1905)

• American Art Nouveau (1890-1910)

• Wiener Werkstatte (l903-1933)

• De Stijl (1917-1928)

• Bauhaus (1919-1933)

• European Art Deco (1920-1940)

• American Art Deco (1920-1940)

Significant works representing the most salient components of these styles as well as innovative, one-of-a-kind objects have been acquired. The works are exhibited on a rotating basis, installed in a special gallery and selected office floors when not on view in the vitrines. The collection's emphasis is on three-dimensional works (metalwork, glassware, ceramics and furniture) by artists, designers, artisans and architects identified with the six classic movements. Paperworks, particularly posters (for their exemplary graphic design) have been acquired for the shallow vitrines as well as gallery and office spaces.

Today, the collection numbers approximately 400 works, divided almost equally between objects and paperworks. It is a relatively small body of works, even by corporate standards, yet there is a considerable range of media, from William Morris wallpaper sheets dating as early as the l870s to a 1935 futuristic Buck Rogers football; from a collection of Art Moderne pipes to a fully operational bank by Louis Sullivan.

When the program was conceived, the vitrines provided the principal impetus and rationale for the collection. The idea of giving over four customer dining rooms to one of the major styles, the installation of floor-to-ceiling vitrines as architectural elements on the third and fourth floors, and the addition of a C-shaped, fourth-floor gallery grew out of the collection almost naturally while working with Studios, an interior design firm in San Francisco. They were a major creative force in extending the art program into the interiors.

In December, 1994 the entire customer dining area including the four private dining-room suites were closed as a cost-cutting measure, including a suite of furniture designed by Josef Hoffmann in l9l3-l4 for Ferdinand Hodler's Geneva apartment. It was sold to a private collection and will reside in a Viennese home designed by Koloman Moser. Funds realized from the sale of the suite was subsequently applied to other key works produced by artist-designers of the Wiener Werkstätte.

The first and most important acquisition for the collection was acquired by Norwest in 1982 long before the arts program existed, but it too served as an early inspiration for the collection. The Owatonna Bank (formerly the Security State Bank) by Louis Sullivan is an hour's drive from Minneapolis. The first of eight rural bank commissions Sullivan was to receive in the late stages of his career, between 1906 and 1919, it resulted from a serendipitous partnership between architect, patron (Carl K. Bennett), a banker in Owatonna, and chief draftsman (George Grant Elmslie). Today, Sullivan is recognized as one of America's preeminent architects, a genius in balancing geometric form with organic ornament.

Deceptively simple from the outside, the exterior embellishments only hint at what lies within. A single arched vestibule invites one through a solid, unitary form into a large banking room bathed in natural light, resplendent with floral ornamentation. The stained glass windows emit a pervasive glow heightened further by the color harmonies of the terra-cotta decorations. Sullivan proudly and fondly referred to his giant jewel box as a color symphony. The building provides interesting links to the collection as well. The terra-cotta work designed by George Elmslie was executed by William Gates who designed the architectonic Teco vase in the collection. In 1989, Norwest acquired its second Sullivan bank, this one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It too has been restored and is now fully operational.

The exhibitions presented in Norwest Center are an important component of the arts program. Since the opening of Norwest Center in l989 six exhibitions have been presented, all based on themes related to Modernism, and all comprised of works from the collection. The vitrines offer an opportunity to present tightly-knit visual essays, often with only a single work in each vitrtine. The collection is broad enough to accommodate exhibitions examining aspects of a particular style, media, or the work of a single artist-designer. Works from private collections, other corporations and museums will be included in future shows. A willingness to continually lend works for major exhibitions world-wide is sure to facilitate reciprocal agreements.

Exhibition brochures and annotated labels supplement each exhibition. In addition, special noon-hour slide-talks by guest lecturers are presented for employees on related design topics such as architecture and fashion. Other cooperative programs such as graduate-study have been initiated; this fall an international symposium will be offered in conjunction with the forthcoming Vienna Moderne exhibition. Plans are now underway to circulate a large portion of the collection to Japan. A collection handbook is also in the works. That good design can have a dramatic effect on corporations and their longevity is a lesson not easily learned in our culture. Yet, to be competitive in tomorrow's marketplace it would behoove us to understand better how superior design translates into efficiency, quality service and profit.


David Ryan
Director, Arts Program, Norwest Corporation
Adjunct Curator of Design, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts


1. The role of design in American museums has been very well articulated in Modern Design in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1890-1990, by R. Craig Miller from which these points have been taken. The book was published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1990, and is still widely available. (Back)

2. Another important feature to the Norwest collection is the manner in which Cesar Pelli's building, the appointed elements and the vitrines are all carefully integrated. Building and collection have, in fact, become one. In many corporate collections the art works have been applied to inherited spaces like so many decals pasted to the wall. Today, a growing number of artists and architects are working in genuine partnerships on site-specific commissions just as Pelli and Siah Armajani did with the skyway bridge which connects Norwest Center to an adjoining building.(Back)


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