At the Cooper Hewitt’s Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets, you’ll need a utility van to accommodate object lust. No. 13 on the periodic table, “Al” is so ubiquitous we no longer really see it. But the show, organized by Sarah Nichols of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, takes us back to a time before aluminum foil, when design was enlisted to sell the new, lightweight “miracle” material. If we covet the skeletal chaise by Marcel Breuer, the streamlined office seat by Gio Ponti, and the chain-paneled mini-dress by Paco Rabanne, that was just the point. After two world wars fueled production, aluminum found a market through goods streamlined to convince consumers that this metal meant progress. Aluminum proved the test material of the new institutions of mass culture: advertising and the media.
To see aluminum with new eyes, the show reestablishes our visual innocence by taking us through its discovery. Those little globules in the treasure chest in the first room demonstrate how precious but lumpy the material was before electrolytic processes made it commercially extractable in the 1880s. Beautifully wrought Victorian cuff links and earrings feature the new material, so rare that it was set in gold. Prince Ferdinand of Denmark paraded around in a shiny aluminum helmet Mars would have envied. But a huge winged statue of Eros from Piccadilly Circus shows how miscast the metal was in traditional styles. In the second room, we begin to see pots and pans that are bold and graceful in their simplicity. The beauty that emerges is a smooth one, of Platonic shapes and plain, continuous surfaces brought to a sheen.
This is no wimp material, however, suited only to the kitchen. A photo mural shows the cavernous aluminum frame of a blimp, next to a Brancusi-esque propeller from a plane that flew in the Normandy invasion. More recently, spirited new chairs by Ron Arad, Frank Gehry, and Marc Newsom give new life to the material. The installation itself exhibits a fresh, Andy Warhol-Martha Stewart take: Morris Sato Studio glue-gunned hundreds of soda cans into an undulating sun screen in the museum’s conservatory.