The art of war

Ryan Wenzel

Models of naval ships from World War II, a brightly colored children’s toy chest and a drawing of a cherry-red trailer truck. These aren’t objects you would expect to see in an art museum — much less together in one exhibit.

But these creations and others have found a home in the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition “1945: Creativity and Crisis, Chicago Architecture and Design of the World War II Era,” which opened May 7. The exhibit examines the artistic ingenuity born from the military demands of war and the post-war dream for prosperity — and how these breakthroughs changed Chicago forever.

While the rest of the United States and the world also experienced a burst of creativity during this era, developments in architecture and design in Chicago were unique, says Martha Thorne, associate curator and acting department head of the architecture department at the AIC. “Chicago does reflect what was going on in the rest of the United States, but it was also kind of special here,” she says. “We were fortunate in the Midwest. It was a place where a lot of industry was located. It was a focal point for industrial designers.”

The exhibit is arranged chronologically and divided into two parts — one focuses on the chaotic wartime years leading up to 1945 and the other examines the period of peace and prosperity that followed. The transition is marked by a dark circular chamber with a strobe light and a photograph of a mushroom cloud.

“It’s a chamber that represents the atomic bomb,” Thorne says. “If you peek into that chamber, that’s 1945 right there — in the middle of the exhibition.”

The half of “1945” focusing on the war includes Hugh Ferris’ sketches of the the airport and highway “of the future” and models of “U.S.S. Sable Training Center” and the LST-1138, a ship built by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Co. in Seneca, Ill.

Much of the exhibit focuses on the work of world-renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who came to Chicago from Germany in 1937. The exhibit showcases several of his pencil and charcoal drawings, including his plans for the steel and glass buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he was head of the architecture department.

“Mies is an important figure because he is the person who most developed the International Style,” Thorne says. “He’s so important here in Chicago because he touched so many different people and influenced so many different people and really created a school. There are so many people who followed his teachings.”

Another dominant theme of “1945” is post-war housing. One section of the exhibit displays entries in the Chicago Tribune’s 1945 “Chicagoland Prizes House Competition,” which had the world’s greatest architects submit original home designs for the chance to win one of 24 prizes of $1,000. The winning designs originally were put on display at the AIC, and many of them were built on the northwest side of Chicago.

“The subject of the house and home is really popular,” Thorne says. “At that time there wasn’t a lot of home building going on, so they couldn’t be showing new buildings coming out because that wasn’t happening due to the resources being diverted to the war. It was a way to give a more optimistic tone to the era.”

But what’s a home without appliances and furniture to fill it with? The exhibit also shows visitors that common household objects can be art. One wall displays architect and department store Montgomery Ward designer Richard Ten Eyck’s colorful sketches of kitchen appliances, television stands and Kenmore fans. Another area is devoted to Henry P. Glass, an Austrian concentration camp survivor who designed toy chests and wardrobes for Swingline, a popular brand of children’s furniture.

But other designs in “1945” aren’t as functional and even border on the surreal. A collage-like conceptualization by Daniel Brenner places a wood-paneled theater arts complex inside a drab, metallic urban factory, and George Edson Danforth’s minimalistic expansion of van der Rohe’s “Museum for a Small City” shows a vast, white interior space with only a sculpture and a mural inside.

The exhibit was conceived three years ago by former AIC architecture curator John Zukowsky, who was highly interested in technology. Thorne says she initially didn’t know if “1945” would interest the museum’s patrons, but she says the final product is both engaging and relevant.

“Architectural exhibitions are always really hard — harder than painting or sculpture exhibitions in making a connection with the visitor,” Thorne says. “This is more successful than I had thought in the beginning. There are a lot of images that relate to people’s everyday lives.”

“1945: Creativity and Crisis, Chicago Architecture and Design of the World War II Era” will run until January 8, 2006. The Art Institute of Chicago is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The recommended donation is $12 for adults and $7 for children, students and seniors. Tuesdays are free.

Medill sophomore Ryan Wenzel is the PLAY deputy editor. He can be reached at [email protected].