If your ears have ever perked up at the mere sight of your favorite album cover, or if you’ve spent hours choosing a stereo system that looks as good as it sounds, you already appreciate how the intimate relationship between design and music influences our understanding of sound. “Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye,” now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, explores that relationship in a compact but engaging exhibition that takes you from the wax cylinders of the bygone days of phonographs, to the classic LP’s of the 1960s, right up to the modern audio equipment we use today.
Walking into the intimate exhibition space, the dense array of speakers sitting low off the ground and the walls of posters (not to mention the Mod Italian D’Urbino and Lomazzi bubble chair) gives the sense that you’re hanging out in the living room of the coolest audiophile ever. As you start to settle in however, the museum guides you through design in music that goes back to the early 1900s, when inventions like the phonograph, radio, and early synthesizer broke the boundaries of what music could be and where it could go, inspiring designers to look to mediums like sheet music, lithograph posters, and theater programs (make sure to look for Austrian’s Carl Otto Czeschka and Peter Altenberg’s cover for the nightclub Kabarett Fledermaus in 1907—the swirling mandala-like design wouldn’t be out of place in an enviable textile print today).
I was especially excited to see influential Dada-ist Kurt Schwitters make an appearance with his 1922 lithograph collaboration with Theo van Doesburg, “Little Dada Evening,” and a 1920 “Fugue” from Han Richter, inspired as a counterpoint to Bach. Their contributions further illustrate that music, and even avant-garde art, helped usher in a revolutionary new world of sound.
The ’30s to ’60s saw major strides in musical electronics, from radios to speakers. The selection on display at MoMA isn’t huge, but it covers the hits: a snazzy blue “Sled” radio designed by Walter Dorwen Teague, Jacob Jensen’s early minimalist designs for Bang & Olufsen, and Dieter Rams’ elegant loudspeaker for Braun, all pleasingly set against colorful posters for radio shows and music companies from the era.
And of course, there’s the vinyl, one of the most iconic and recognizable marriages of design and music, and certainly the most attainable (while British designer Michael Rabinowitz’s pre-space age silver radio, also on display, would make a great addition to my home, I don’t think even my best eBay efforts are enough to make that happen). It’s a good, if somewhat predicable selection—Cream, The Who, Frank Sinatra, the Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk, among others—that ran the gamut from DIY (The Clash) to high art (Patti Smith’s Robert Mapplethorpe cover). The real draw from this era though are the posters—acid-drenched, color-saturated, and surreal adverts for album and concerts for Jefferson Airplane, Muddy Waters, The Mindbenders, and Jimi Hendrix, just to name a few.
Psychedulic renderings of cultural icons The Beatles and Bob Dylan (courtesy of Richard Avedon and Milton Glaser, respectively), also make an appearance. But the biggest treats from this vivid section are the posters designed by two polish artists: Jan Młodozeniec’s mini-skirted illustration for Ken Loach’s 1967 film Poor Cow (the soundtrack for which featured the likes of Donovan and The Rolling Stones), and Jan Lenica’s poster for Warsaw’s production of avant-garde opera “Wozzeck” stood out even amongst the brightest colors. Design fans will also appreciate the influential typography of Paula Scher’s campaign poster for the 1995 New York’s Public Theater, a hallmark of “new wave” design.
Finally, we move into the recent past, where technology gets smaller and design revels in elegant simplicity. Here’s where minimalism shines—album art for Brian Eno, Robert Wilson sketches for Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and a selection of Daniel Liebeskind’s prints for Chamber Works: Architectural Meditations on Themes from Heraclitus are all as hauntingly restrained as the works for which they were created. As for equipment, we take a moment to consider the boombox and cassette deck before moving on to Harman Kardon’s transparent speakers, Naoto Fukusawa’s wall-mounted CD player for Muji, and even the humble first-generation iPod—and I have to admit, there’s something satisfying about finishing an exhibition with an item I had in my pocket the whole time.
Overall “Making Music Modern” is a useful overview, though by no means a comprehensive analysis. It’s a fun show, full of color and curiosity and reminders of how powerful a catalyst music is for design. Next time you’re browsing album covers of new releases on Spotify, installing sleek bluetooth speakers at home, or even thumbing through vinyl at a record store, it’ll be easy to picture everything that came before, and even more fun to think about what might be next.