Weed pots by Doyle Lane were exhibited in the 1969 show, Objects: USA.

Photographer: Joe Kramm, courtesy of R & Company

In the late 1960s, a New York art dealer named Lee Nordness came to S.C. Johnson & Son with an idea: He would organize a show on American craft, and the company, which had a history of sponsoring showcases for American art, would pay for it. As a sweetener, part of the sponsorship entailed S.C. Johnson buying every object in the exhibition, which it could then donate to museums of its choosing. 

The company agreed, and in 1969, Objects: USA opened at the Smithsonian Institution with pieces crafted by about 250 people.

It subsequently traveled to 33 venues, canonizing at least two generations of artists, designers, and craftspeople,  including George Nakashima, Sheila Hicks, Wendell Castle, and Anni Albers.

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Wendell Castle’s Tongue is a fiberglass-reinforced plastic table made in 1969.

Photographer: Joe Kramm, courtesy of R & Company

“Not every artist in that show became famous in their field, and not every person who was famous at the time was included in the show,” says Bruce Pepich, the executive director and curator of collections at the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin. “But you can say that [the show’s] curators hit 90% of the key figures working in their fields at the time, and 90% of the people [in the show] became well-known as teachers or exhibiting artists.”

Fifty years later (and—thanks to Covid-19 delays—five months behind schedule) a new exhibition, Objects: USA 2020 is about to open in the design gallery R & Company in New York’s TriBeCa.

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An exhibition view of the 1969 Objects: USA show.

Source: R & Company

The show includes works by 50 makers from the original exhibition and 50 contemporary craftspeople. The latter group was chosen by a group that includes Glenn Adamson, the former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; Abby Bangser, the founder of the art and design fair Object & Thing; and Evan Snyderman, a co-founder of R & Company.

“We were looking for specific relationships between the new 50 and the old 50,” Adamson says. Organizers tried to find parallels among mediums (wood, ceramic, textile, and so forth), a range of ages and geographic locations, and ethnic diversity.

“The original show was, for its time, strikingly diverse and also gender balanced,” Adamson says, “but we were also very aware that craft survey exhibitions, up until very recently, have been overwhelmingly White. So we wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case for this show.”

Most of all, organizers say, the exhibition is an effort to pass the proverbial torch and anoint a new group of American design stars. “The opportunity here is to identify and document and to build on this idea of American studio craft,” says R & Company’s Snyderman. 

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Brent Kington, a metalworker, made this Weathervane in forged iron for the original show. 

Photographer: Joe Kramm, courtesy of Moderne Gallery

Passing the Torch

Every dealer worth any salt is always trying to do the same thing: make artists famous.

But the imprimatur of the first Objects: USA, combined with the number of contributors to this exhibition and its accompanying coffee table book (multiple galleries, artists, collectors and estates lent art for the historical section, and 14 galleries consigned art for the show), means that R & Company’s exhibition, which will run through July, has a better-than average likelihood of making that fame a reality.

“It’s a good kind of king- and queen-making opportunity,” says Pepich, whose museum held an exhibition in 2019, Objects Redux, which included pieces from the original show.

Adamson, who was the only non-commercial participant in the show’s organization, agrees. “Ours is more explicitly connected to the market than the first one,” he says. “But I don’t think [R & Company] saw it as a selling show, it’s more of a positioning show. What you could say is it’s a bit of a longer game than most [selling exhibitions].”

The Backstory

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A view of the original Objects: USA show.

Source: R & Company

The original Objects: USA was both product of, and response to, the dominant themes of craft and design in the 1960s. America was experiencing a boom in what is now called DIY, fueled in large part by the hippie movement and a backlash against 1950s conservatism.

It was a “broad report of work produced in the 1960s—an important reference and documentation made in a significant decade,” said Paul Smith, one of the original show’s curators, in a 2019 interview on the occasion of Objects Redux. “That era was moved by young people, communal living, and the arts—many new ideas were generated.”

The dominant design trends at that time were coming from Europe, or from industrial designers like Charles and Ray Eames who created objects meant to be mass-produced.