Tiffany Again Illuminates the Carnegie Mansion

Tiffany’s glass vases against De Forest’s stenciled walls of the Teak Room

If you’d like to experience a few moments surrounded by the splendors of the Gilded Age in America, climb the staircase inside the Carnegie Mansion (Cooper Hewitt) and enter another world. As a tribute to the mansion’s second-floor renovation, Cooper Hewitt mined its own collection and borrowed key pieces as part of the installation, Passion for the Exotic: Louis Comfort Tiffany and Lockwood de Forest, closing March 26.

You’ll find yourself in a quiet mystical room that served as the Carnegie family library when it was first designed in 1902 by Lockwood de Forest, a superstar of the Aesthetic movement. The Smithsonian has brought the room back to its original glory, carved teak, stenciled walls, and all.

Paying tribute to Mr. Carnegie’s passion for all things Tiffany, the curators have brought out their lamps, lit them up, and borrowed a magnificent turtleback Tiffany chandelier that is close to original. The effect of low light emanating through all the iridescent glass and illuminating the walls and built-in cabinet is unusually magical.

Painted bronze and blown glass Turtleback glass chandelier by Tiffany Studios, 1910

The design triumph is even more interesting when you think that at the time, 92 percent of New Yorkers did not even have electricity. So, this installation is not only beautiful, but stands as a 1902 example of cutting-edge technology and avant-garde design.

Take a look at our Flickr album, showing the objects in the room, and explore each one and its provenance on a special page on the Cooper Hewitt website.

So, how did this seemingly perfect collaboration interior embellishment, light, and the exotic happen? De Forest and Tiffany, who began working together in the 1880s, both shared a passion for the intricate designs of the Middle East and India. Each globetrotter had seen Indian interiors firsthand and felt their American design practices would benefit from exotic infusions.

Electrified Dragonfly Lamp designed by Clara Driscoll, who led the Women’s Glass Cutting Department

Tiffany and de Forest once were business partners, but after that dissolved, they kept working together on a project-by-project basis. De Forest brokered a deal with a workshop in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, to manufacture decorative teak wood and brass panels that he designed for his own and Tiffany’s interior-design clients.

So the installation at the Cooper Hewitt is your chance to experience the magic of one of America’s great design collaborations.

To give the room a unique aesthetic glow, De Forest stenciled the wall in yellow lacquer to create an illusion that he associated with Indian screens. The teak details, inspired by Indian design, and the built-in cabinet inside Mr. Carnegie’s room came from the Gujarat workshop.

The Teak Room is currently the most complete De Forest interior still in existence in the site for which it was created. Seeing this work, lit by the glow of the Tiffany lamps and decorated with other Tiffany decorative objects, is a must.

Japanese-inspired Tiffany desk set, 1910-1920.

And when you climb the grant staircase to the second floor, you can also take advantage of the interactive display at the top of the stairs, which is loaded with history about the mansion and photos showing the original interiors.

If you want to soak in more of Tiffany’s prowess, watch Ben Macklowe’s Cooper Hewitt livestream on the master’s background, influences, technology, and business and find out what happened to the Tiffany-designed rooms at the White House:

Sixties Bus and Jag Pulling Out of MoMA

1967 bus by Mason Williams and Max Yavno with designer autographs from MoMA’s 1968 Word and Image show, with Joshua Light Snow’s 1967 Liquid Loops

Big alert to baby boomers: Only a little time left to catch MoMA’s big Sixties bus that’s parked on the fourth floor in a room filled with psychedelic posters and a Fillmore-style rock show light extravaganza. It’s all part of the crowd-pleaser of a show that’s been in residence for about a year – From the Collection: 1960-1969, closing March 19.

The curators cleared out the floor and organized their permanent collection year by year, taking you through every movement, ism, and trend in contemporary art of the Sixties, from Rauchenberg’s combines from his downtown loft, to Christo’s wraps, to Warhol’s Pop, the psychedelic revolution in poster and cover art, and the rise of women taking on the art establishment (go, Eva Hesse and Lynda Benglis!). Except for the room with the Beatles and the bus, it’s like vintage Artforum come to life.

Wall of 1967 psychedelic posters publicizing East and West coast rock bands

MoMA called upon six of its departments to assemble the look, touch, and feel of the decade, from scrappy mix-it-up works to minimal plastic design and flat-out revolts to the museum world.

The first room features an sleek Jaguar roadster from the design department, the first commercially produced car to resemble racers. It’s a reminder that aerodynamic lines of 1961 swinging London were a harbringer of things to come as imaginations and images turned to space, rockets, and the future as the years of the Sixties ticked by.

See shots of some of our favorites in a chronological gallery walk in our Flickr album. The decade begins with Bubble wrap (thanks again, design department!) and concludes with NASA Apollo photographs.

The aforementioned bus is actually a flat 1967 display that MoMA kept in its warehouse that was designed by Mason Williams and Max Yavno MoMA’s 1968 poster show Word and Image. It’s covered with autographs of Milton Glaser and other famous designers whose work was featured in the original show.

Jaguar’s aerodynamic 1961 E-Type Roadster sharing space with a Lee Bonticou work

For the rest of the weekend, the bus serves as kind of a boomer hangout. The Avedon Beatles (distributed in magazines worldwide to promote their Sgt. Pepper transition) and other iconic rock images are in the room.

Other hang-outs for different populations include the cushion-cubes near the video monitors showing analog reel-to-reel videos from the years when Portapak video cameras were born (remember when video cameras weren’t on your phone?) an cool art hounds entranced by all four walls of Mr. Rosenquist’s mind-blowing F-111 masterwork. It’s installed just as Mr. Castelli did way back when.

Hear what James Rosenquist was thinking in 1964 as he created his iconic wraparound painting, F-111. Thank you, MoMA!

 

Revolution Inside MoMA

1915-1917 Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich

1915-1917 Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich

The Museum of Modern Art has pulled 260 paintings, films, magazines, books, drawing, porcelain, posters, and paraphernalia from its collection to take us back 100 years and tell the story of one of the most astonishing artistic and political breakthroughs of the 20th century in A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde, closing March 12.

While Picasso and company were breaking boundaries in Paris, the Russians exited the war years by overthrowing their monarchy, getting rid of classical style, inventing non-objective picture making, and creating forms of revolutionary works that could reach the masses.

Lyubov Popova’s 1917-1919 print showing Cubo-Suprematist style

Lyubov Popova’s 1917-1919 print with Cubo-Suprematist style

Creativity, artistic manifestos, photo mash-ups, new cinematic forms, and philosophical inventions poured forth like an avalanche between 1913 and 1923.

The curators at MoMA have organized the show chronologically to try to give context to the players and the “isms” that were being invented and then upended by the next new thing – Rayonism, Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism.

The artists truly believed that abstraction and upheaval from classic style would usher in the utopia envisioned by the fall of the Czar, hence the profusion of experimentation in theater, film, photography, cinema, books, textiles, household goods, and publishing.

Easel painting was a no-no. Manifestos, how-to-do-it manuals, and Suprematist road shows were the norm. Due to MoMA’s dedicated collecting in this almost-forgotten period, all of the art, tools, passions, and beliefs are brought to life in the show.

1928 magazine covers by Rodchenko for New LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts

Rodchenko’s 1928 magazine covers for New LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts

MoMA allows gallery goers to peek inside two of its most notable books in its Russian collection through digital touchscreens – Malevich’s 1920 portfolio of Suprematist drawings and El Lissitzky’s 1922 illustrated children’s book Of Two Squares.

El Lissitsky’s unbound prints from his historic Proun manifesto are mounted across the wall of the fourth gallery, allowing close examination of the masterful lithographer.

The latter galleries focus on 1920s Cubo-Futurist theater costumes and stage sets, breakthrough cinema techniques (with three films screening simultaneously in an immersion room), mass-market publications, and posters advertising films and sporting extravaganzas. See examples of all on Flickr.

El Lissitzky 1923 litho honoring the 1920 restaging of the Cubo-Futurist opera “Victory Over the Sun”

El Lissitzky 1923 litho honoring the 1920 restaging of the famed Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun

Everywhere you look, Rodchenko’s innovative typography, photographs, and layouts are jumping out, demanding attention. Among the more unusual surprises are Rodchenko’s branding for the state airline and the modernist  layouts in the 1925 Kino-Pravda films used to tell the public the status of Lenin’s vital signs during his final days.

The innovations created by this group of artist-revolutionaries would soon be undone by the Stalin’s preference for social realism. But although he stamped out Russian modernism in his day, the white-on-white Malevich, El Lissitsky’s fourth dimension, Vertov’s lightening fast film edits, and Rodchenko’s tilting letters still pack the punch on MoMA’s white walls nearly 100 years after they were created.

Take a look at some of our favorite pieces on Flickr, and watch a brief orientation to the show by MoMA curator Sarah Suzuki.

Mark Leckey Mixes It Up at MoMA PS1

Mark Leckey’s 2013 Felix the Cat, a tribute to TV’s first celebrity.

Mark Leckey’s 2013 Felix the Cat, a tribute to TV’s first celebrity.

It’s the last weekend to take a walk through the output of the creative mind of an award-winning British artist MoMA PS1, which has dedicated its top two floors of the schoolhouse to Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers. Film assemblages, appropriated pop images, and funky juxtapositions are served up to everyone plucky enough to climb the stairs and peek around corners.

Visitors take an eclectic journey through a labyrinth of video galleries, movie rooms, and installations. The highlight is his 1999 breakthrough film about UK trance-dance culture, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, using found footage.

Several small rooms include meditations on RCA’s first TV transmission in 1928 using a Felix the Cat. For added punch, Leckey adds his own inflatable oversize Felix to the gallery.

Mark Leckey’s 2001-2001 Sound System sculptures, which communicate all on their own

Mark Leckey’s 2001-2001 Sound System sculptures, which communicate all on their own

The intimate viewing experience is punctuated by large-scale installations of provocative work that asks visitors to reconsider their experience of everyday objects.

One major room contains towers of low-range, mid-range and high-range frequency speakers that emit tweets and signs, programmed to converse. Their range of sounds make one recollect times in Leckey’s early career, when he used his speaker-towers in showdowns with other large, inert behemoths, such as gigantic quarry rocks or Henry Moore sculptures. Visitors slow down to get close to the structures and wait for them to speak.

Installation view of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (Machine), with costume, Lego ship, copy of a 1959 Soviet space dog suit

Installation view of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (Machine), with costume, Lego ship, copy of a 1959 Soviet space dog suit

Other large-scale installations are from Leckey’s recent project to “collect” interesting art and artifacts inside his computer, assemble them into virtual installations, and then reproduce it all in 3D. Leckey’s multi-part project, The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, is depicted in the Flickr album here. The objects are carefully placed but it takes a (literal) scorecard in the gallery to discern what you’re seeing – a copy of a work by another young artist, an engineering model, or fantastical emanation of Leckey’s own mind.

The two ends of a mysterious, dark gallery with fluorescent painted figures are anchored by archeological fragments of the mythological past, except that the fragments are 3D-printed copies.

Traversing one floor, sounds emanate from Leckey’s 2010 green room/shrine. Enter to find a large fluorescent fixture above, a quiet crowd just taking it all in, and the focal point — a talking Samsung smart refrigerator that steals the show. The refrigerator holds court, surrounded by fantasy videos of itself hurtling through time and the cosmos.

Check out Leckey’s 2010 video of the GreenScreenRefrigerator to hear what’s inside the mind of his smart appliance and contemplate a future dominated by the Internet of Things.

All in the Details: The Met’s Fashion Masterworks

French 1790s tailcoat with ombré silk satin stripes, typical of young men’s post-revolutionary fashion

French 1790s tailcoat with ombré silk satin stripes, typical of young men’s post-revolutionary fashion

When the Met unpacks masterpieces from its costume collection and talks about its acquisition strategy of late, it pays to take a very close look.

To celebrate 70 years of the Costume Institute, the Met has showcased its recent acquisitions in Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion, beginning with the 18th century when fashion-forward meant exquisite textiles, weaving, embroidery, and tailoring. In those days, all the rich textiles were loomed by hand.

The crisp, clean dresses and dressing gowns on display are in superb condition, showcasing the skill taken in the smallest jacquard, sheen, stripe, set-in sleeve, and pannier. See what we mean as we zero in on the fine details in our Flickr album.

Look closely and you’ll see the 18th-century silk gown embellished with three types of silver thread to maximize its glitter power by candlelight. Enjoy the dazzling stripes of post-Revolutionary menswear and gender-referenced ladies’ jackets.

Poiret’s 1911 kimono-inspired draped silk damask opera coat embellished with silk cord

Poiret’s 1911 kimono-inspired draped silk damask opera coat embellished with silk cord

The 19th-century was all about the rise of the designer label, even though ready-to-wear was rearing its head by the turn of the century. The Met showcases a gem acquired from the Brooklyn Museum collection in 2009, a butterfly gown by Worth, the first designer who truly became a household name. Check out the handwork on those butterflies.

In 1903, Poiret began a two-year stint at Worth, but recognized that as he saw well-heeled clients in crinolines, bustles, and coronation-worthy garb, a new revolution in style was percolating.

In record time, Poiret founded his own fashion house, offering women more ease and artistry as they adopted a more liberated, 20th-century lifestyle. Poiret’s 1911 opera coat shows his unique combination of luxurious fabrics, the column-shape kimono look, and bold artisan knotting for women looking for a fashion-forward twist.

Azzedine Alaia’s 1994 slinky, downy knit dress next to its inspiration, “La Sirene” (1951-52) by legend Charles James

Azzedine Alaia’s 1994 slinky, downy knit dress next to its inspiration, La Sirene (1951-52) by Charles James

Nearby, Madame Vionnet’s transparent Twenties frock with Futurist embroidery still looks right today.

Throughout the show, closing this weekind, the Met pairs contemporary looks with the more classic and iconic styles that inspired them –  Galliano with 1780s French dandies, the 2015 House of Dior with the original “New Look,” and Alaia next to Charles James. How does Mr. James do it? A close look at the pairings reveals new takes on pleating, finely turned collars, custom-created textile, and engineering marvels.

Look at Balenciaga’s perfectly cut minimal silk gazar dress that billows out as one enters a room. Or Thom Browne’s masterful appliques on men’s and ladies’ looks from last year. Or Sarah Burton’s fool-the-eye butterfly dress for McQueen. The wings are really feathers.

Sarah Burton’s 2011 McQueen dress uses feathers cut, dyed, and painted to resemble butterfly wings

Sarah Burton’s 2011 McQueen dress uses feathers cut, dyed, and painted to resemble butterfly wings

Many stunning recent works were donated by designers to honor the retirement of legendary Met curator Harold Koda, who turned over the reins of the Costume Institute to Andrew Bolton. What a tribute!

Donatella donated a reproduction of her brother’s iconic safety-pin dress. Comme des Garcons donated a mind-bending crochet-and-lace frock by Rei Kawakubo.

Visit the exhibition site to see the gallery installations, check out the Flickr album for details, and join assistant curator Jessica Regan in a brief video overview of this exquisite show.

Dreamlands Immersion at The Whitney

1970 video recreation of Oskar Schlemmer’s groundbreaking 1922 Triadic Ballet at the Bauhaus

1970 video recreation of Oskar Schlemmer’s groundbreaking 1922 Triadic Ballet at the Bauhaus

As soon as you walk into the Whitney’s show, Dreamlands: Immersive Art and Cinema, 1905-2016, you are face-to-face with a giant screen on which stylized robotic dancers perform what seems like a space-age, mechanized dance.People are lounging on giant foam blocks, watching the colorful piece unfold. But most of the visitors are unaware that the seeds of this startlingly modern performance, shot in 1970 for German television, is a recreation of an innovative, theater-dance piece that’s 95 years old — The Triadic Ballet that Bauhaus director Oskar Schlemmer created in 1922.

2012 recreation of Fischinger’s 1926 three-screen abstract movie Ramlichtkunst

2012 recreation of Fischinger’s 1926 three-screen abstract movie Ramlichtkunst

There’s a lot of history-tripping in this exciting retrospective, which closes this weekend. Everything in the show is pulled from the Whitney’s own collection – a rare chance to experience hard-to-display movies, slide shows, and interactive experiences. Take a look in our Flickr album to glimpse some of our favorites.

To see it all, you twist and turn through labyrinths, enter through darkened curtains, and explore mysterious giant boxes positioned throughout the 18,000 square-foot space.

Sometimes you’re wading through mountains of discarded 16mm film from the Sixties by Jud Yalkut. Sometimes you’re watching others whirl in the dark to activate light patterns on the walls and ceiling. Sometimes you’re staring into a wall-size projection of the mushroom cloud in Bruce Conner’s Crossroads montage.

Still from Porter’s 1905 film of a real-life electrified dreamland Coney Island at Night

Still from Porter’s 1905 film of a real-life electrified dreamland Coney Island at Night

At every juncture, there’s something new, exciting, provocative, and challenging. The big surprise is that the pieces are from the entire span of the 20th century, beginning with Edison’s double whammy – the invention of the electric light bulb and motion-picture camera – as presented in the 1905 film he commissioned, Coney Island at Night.

In addition to Triadic Ballet, 1920s Germany is also represented by a colorful three-screen abstract movie installation by Oskar Fischinger, who was later hired by Disney to create some of the initial concept art for Fantasia, the animated concert-movie extravaganza that is also represented in the show.

Vanderbeek’s 1963 Movie Mural screens flashing with abstract and pop images

Vanderbeek’s 1963 Movie Mural screens flashing with abstract and pop images

Stan Vanderbeek’s roomful of projectors represents the Sixties, displaying a cacophony of simultaneous pop-culture images and abstract films on a crazy array of mismatched screens.

Bringing the collection up to date, visitors stop for selfies in front of the neon-flanked exterior of “Easternsports”, an immersive, candy-colored 2014 installation by Philadelphia artists Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson. Just sit and smell the oranges as robotic actors go through their potty-mouthed paces in the four-screen room.

Peek into Easternsports via The Whitney’s look-about YouTube video. Move the arrows on the upper left navigator to look around and find the skateboarder crossing all the screens.

Steyerl’s 2015 immersion room showing Factory of the Sun, where avatars mimic YouTube dancers

Steyerl’s 2015 immersion room showing Factory of the Sun, where avatars mimic YouTube dancers

 

Enter a futuristic lounge to watch Hito Steyerl’s 2015 “Factory of the Sun,” a fake newscast-documentary about workers who are forced to dance to generate sunlight. The mysterious, high-energy saga has everything from anarchists at the World Bank to YouTube sensations inspiring Japanese avatars.

The giant video is a challenging and provocative burst of energy to end your Dreamlands odyssey and nice bookend to the Triadic Ballet rebooting next door.

Hamilton Still Onstage at NYPL in Digital Form

Hamilton’s 42nd Street show

Hamilton’s 42nd Street show

Hamilton’s had quite a year, and he has taken his final bow at the New York Public Library’s show Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Statesman, and Scoundrel at year end. But don’t worry — the NYPL is providing most of its Hamilton treasure trove online.

Throughout the holiday season, crowds jammed into the tiny first-floor gallery, pouring over Hamilton’s books, records, letters, and inspirations as they worked their way through the various facets of the founding father’s sometimes upside-down life.

Pulling from the NYPL’s divisions for maps, rare books, and picture collections, the curators did a fantastic job of retelling Ham’s story from the non-hip-hop perspective.

What was he thinking? NYPL highlights the core of Hamilton’s Reynolds pamphlet

What was he thinking? NYPL highlights the core of Hamilton’s Reynolds pamphlet

But if you hanker to read the full Reynolds pamphlet or leaf through Ham’s draft of the General’s farewell address, click here to experience the full majesty of the NYPL’s page-turning digital collection. Click on each image to explore the details of the engravings and zero in on the handwriting. It’s a unique chance to get up close and personal with Hamilton, like a backstage pass to everyone’s must-see show.

Download the exhibition brochure and walk through the NYPL’s fantastic digital archive of their Hamilton papers. Here is our Flickr album of some of our favorite sights in the beautifully staged first-floor showcase to this revolutionary Broadway superstar.

Politics gets ugly in 1804

Politics gets ugly in 1804

Antonio Lopez: When Fashion Danced Off the Page

Antonio's 1986 Vanity illustration of Tina and Mick Jagger

Antonio’s 1986 illustration of Tina and Mick Jagger for Vanity

Music, fashion, and art were never mixed up so deliciously as when Antonio was working in the studio, surrounded by breakdancers, supermodels, street accessories, and couture. Glimpse the pulsing lines and beat at El Museo del Barrio’s celebratory exhibition Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion through this weekend.

With his partner, Juan Ramos, the dynamic duo changed the way the fashion industry thought about drawing, line, color and style, infusing the typically staid haute couture with ethnic twists, flair, and celebrity in a way no one before had dared. Pencil or conte crayon in hand, Antonio broke down barriers and walls, infusing the New York and Parisian fashion worlds with lively banter, music, and beauty that only a savvy, streetwise Puerto Rican New Yorker could.

The show is a tribute to the 360-degree life that produced the America’s greatest fashion illustrator during the Mod- and disco-infused Sixties and Seventies.

Dynamic 1973-74 pencil drawing for Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine

Dynamic 1973-74 pencil drawing for Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine

The early work from the Seventies is tight, controlled, and more-or-less a jigsaw puzzle of drafting mastery. Witness the Gentleman’s Quarterly illustrations mixing menswear, muscle, and motorcycles, which were considered too racy for the day. Futurist angles, pointed pencils, and lavish details will blow you away.

Around the same time, American master Charles James took note of this FIT wunderkind, asking Antonio to document his entire archive of sumptuous gowns and daywear. Although this ten-year collaboration is not featured in the Fifth Avenue show, look here to see the digital library of Antonio’s work for James, now in the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

As the style cauldrons of Fiorucci, Max’s Kansas City, and Studio 54 amped up, Antonio and Juan began curating their entourage of uptown and downtown style divas, which included legends Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall, and Grace Jones.

Photo of Antonio surrounded by "Antonio's girls" in the 1980s Installation views of “Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion” El Museo del Barrio New York, New York June 14 – November 27, 2016

Antonio’s Girls surround him in the 1980s

The message: live and draw large. Subjects for illustrated fashion spreads were styled, posed, and recorded in Antonio’s hand, all to a pulsing beat. To get everyone in the mood, innovative street dance crews were given free rein to spin, pop, and twirl during the sessions.

No wonder that Antonio’s mature work leaps off the page, lines swirling, accessories flying. Publications like Vogue, The New York Times, and Warhol’s Interview just had to have it, and published his drawings over and over.

In the age of Snapchat and Instagram, it’s hard to over-emphasize how revolutionary Antonio’s vision was at the time. His two-dimensional visualizations left fashion photography in the dust. As Ms. Missoni once said, “He transformed the clothes.” Take a look at the Flickr feed.

A 1983 pencil and gouache drawing of totally glorified Maria Snyder

A 1983 pencil and gouache drawing of totally glorified Maria Snyder. Collection: Narciso Rodriquez

El Museo is distributing copies of the Interview magazine issue that Antonio and Juan edited. Pick it up as you peruse the serious sampling of celebrity-infused work in the show – Tina Chow, Karl Lagerfeld, Billy Idol, and Tina, to name a few. To give exhibition goers a feel for the pizzazz in Antonio’s work and life, there are videos of break dancers in his studio and a great video of him working from a live model as part of a drawing demo for students at his alma mater, FIT.

Too bad that Valentin de Boulogne (Caravaggio’s follower, currently on view at the Met, who also styled and staged models) lived 350 years too early to enjoy this joyful, breakneck, vibrant 20th-century beautiful-people scene with subjects jumping out of the picture frame.

It’s hard to underestimate the influence Antonio had on the cultural beat of New York in the Seventies and Eighties. It was all about the mix – high art, pop art, high fashion, street style, and ethnic culture.

Take a look at Antonio’s 1983 workshop at Pasedena’s ArtCenter College of Design, and see the master at work creating, staging, and transforming what he sees and feels with gestures as large as Pollack’s:

FIT Matches Uniformity with Nonconformity

Detail from British Royal Rifle Corps “Mess Dress” Jacket (1900), a possible inspiration for Ralph Lauren

Detail from British Royal Rifle Corps “Mess Dress” Jacket (1900), a possible inspiration for Ralph Lauren?

Whether you pass a flight attendant in the airport, see an EMS pro at work on the street, watch a referee on TV, or place an order with the counterperson at your favorite fast-food chain, you may not immediately see the individual who is wearing the uniform. You just perceive that a professional is at work.

But how does the uniform design create your perception? And who designed the uniform? What signal does it send?

Conversely, how do designers take inspiration from uniforms and design looks that make us think that the wearer is a rule-breaker, a nonconformist, or chic, stylish person?

The Museum at FIT provides the answers on its website and in its first-floor show Uniformity through November 19, an illuminating tribute to history and fashion that shows how conformity and troubled times can serve as springboards for creativity, expression, and whimsy in the larger cultural landscape.

Michael Kors camouflage (2013)

Michael Kors camouflage (2013)

The introductory video features Thom Browne explaining how he took inspiration from executive and schoolboy uniforms for his groundbreaking Milan show in 2009.

The show then unfolds by juxtaposing high fashion with uniforms from FIT’s collection, organized into neat themes – military, domestic, sport, work, and school. Here’s our Flickr album of our favorites from these themes.

Right up front, the curators provide a visual backstory to the evolution of the US/European military uniforms with two galleries and an iPad that show what British and US soldiers wore over the last 240 years. The experience makes you think about who put the navy into Navy (it was adopted in 1802) and shows that ladies and kids wearing “sailor suits” is a 100-plus-year tradition in fashion.

Mainbocher’s well-cut 1942 uniform for the U.S. Navy W.A.V.E.S. (1942) and Chanel’s chic military-inspired ensemble (1960)

Mainbocher’s well-cut 1942 U.S. Navy W.A.V.E.S. uniform and Chanel’s chic military-inspired ensemble (1960)

Although the 21st-century gown by Galliano and the in-you-face statement by Kors demonstrates how transgressive camouflage can look on the runway, Claire McCardell’s little boxy 1947 jacket reminds us how Ike’s WWII U.S. Army Air Corps look kept going for nearly a decade as an icon in the booming US ready-to-wear sportswear market. Both guys and gals had to sport that neat, pulled together look atop their rompers, sport shorts, and khakis.

The hot pink Fiorucci jumpsuit that telegraphed hipness in NYC disco fashion in the Seventies is right at home next to the 1970s Coast Guard flight suit in fire-resistant orange synthetic. As these two electric pieces fight for attention, the curators leaves us to ponder their genesis in the 1940s olive wool Air Force flight suit.

A nearby juxtaposition switches to uniforms as muted, minimalist understatement – the soothing side-by-side designs for worn by WWI and WWII nurses with the barely-there Nineties work coat adopted by the seamstresses and magic-makers at Martin Margiela’s deconstructivist atelier.

1993 Vivienne Westwood baseball cap

1993 Vivienne Westwood baseball cap

Gernreich channels schoolgirls, Vivienne Westwood mimics logo-branded baseball caps, and Ungaro reinterprets collegiate-sports jerseys right across from vintage Princeton blazers from the Twenties and Forties.

The creative takes on all the different types of uniforms screams whimsy and fun for the fashion forward.

One of the show’s highlights, however, is a philosophical look back by the designer who made so many of America’s most familiar uniforms happen — Avis, TWA, FedEx, and McDonalds. Listen as FIT sits down with Stan Herman to talk about his work, life, and the uniforms he created and wore:

Stuart Davis: Way Before Pollack and Warhol

Little Giant Still Life (1950), which predates Pop Art. Collection: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Little Giant Still Life (1950), which predates Pop Art. Collection: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Jazzy colors and Pop Art fun are run amok in the joyful Americana tribute Stuart Davis: In Full Swing at the Whitney Museum of American Art through this weekend. The Whitney curators have 75 of his best, extending back to the Edison lightbulb years, but mostly from Davis’s post-1950s output.

You’d never know from the flat-out modernity that this Whitney favorite had his start in the Armory Show era in New York at a time when The Eight (Ash Can School) still ruled. In fact, at 21, he was the youngest painter to exhibit in the Armory Show, encouraged by his teacher, Robert Henri, who impressed him with the need to depict everyday life in his art.

1924 painting of electric bulb and package. Collection: Dallas Museum of Art

Electric Bulb (1924) with package. Collection: Dallas Museum of Art

But the exposure to the European avant-garde was profound. As you walk through the gallery, you see and feel his exhilaration about how the European upstarts were shaking things up.

Picasso and Matisse inspired Davis to start depicting everyday objects with a flattened, multiview twist. He used packages of Lucky Strikes, Edison lighbulbs, and eggbeaters instead of absinthe glasses, interpreting them on funnily upturned tabletops.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded the Whitney in 1931, was a fan. She included his work in a group show in 1915, welcomed him into the Whitney Club in 1918 (alongside Edward Hopper and Mr. Prendergast) and facilitated the talented Davis’s sojourn to Paris ten years later.

When he returned to New York, he repaid Gertrude in paintings – just the beginning of The Whitney’s portfolio of his work. Captivated by the magic of movies, the birth of radio, and air travel, technology seemed to be transforming America.

 House and Street (1931) with two simultaneous views of Lower Manhattan.

House and Street (1931) with two simultaneous views of Lower Manhattan.

He went on to experiment with simultaneous city views, jamming the Third Avenue El into corners of lower Manhattan where it really didn’t belong. All was fair in the jazzy, roaring New York Twenties.

Stuart struggled financially through the Depression, but not artistically. Inspired by improvisational riffs in jazz, he created canvases using line as music, twisting real objects and landscapes into primary-color layerings that remained flat as a pancake.

Twisting and turning ribbons of color pre-dated Mr. Pollack’s all-over style by at least a decade. The centerpiece of the show is an all-over mural, “Swing Landscape”, that twists Gloucester fishing schooner masts into a kind of “Broadway Boogie-Woogie”. This flat-style masterpiece was way too energetic for the WPA Art Project, which declined to hang it in the subsidized Williamsburg apartment complex for which it was intended. Thankfully, it’s in the place of honor here.

Swing Landscape (1938), a mural commission for the WPA Federal Art Project. Collection: Indiana University

Swing Landscape (1938), a mural commission for the WPA Federal Art Project. Collection: Indiana University

When he saw Matisse’s big-size cut-outs in 1949, Davis was inspired return to his roots. He focused on unexciting, everyday objects but added brand names and super-sized everything. Way before Warhol, Davis was doing improvisations with Champion sparkplugs and matchbook covers, toying with color, gray, and repetition.

Did Davis pave the way for Pollack’s all-over approach and totally branded pop-art masters of the late 20th century? Take a walk through the Whitney, admire the output of one of Gertrude’s favorites, and decide for yourself.

The Paris Bit (1959), a retro Twenties Leger riff. Collection: The Whitney

The Paris Bit (1959), Davis’s retro Twenties Leger riff. Collection: The Whitney

Check out some of our favorites on our Flicker album.

See the show at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., running November 20 through March 5, 2017.

Hear the curators talk about different works in the exhibition on the Whitney’s “Watch and Listen” section of the exhibition page.