In 1958, drinking icy gulps of your favorite flavor of Kool-Aid from a spun-aluminum cup was a rite of passage for American kids. The brightly colored, sweating, chilly container added its own sweetly metallic taste to the ambrosia of the packaged, synthetic fruit drink, giving it a flavor unparalleled in culinary history. Even though we knew it was “unnatural,” to some kids it tasted better from that aluminum cup than from glass or an alternative unbreakable product — the rubbery tasting, usually dirty-looking, plastic cup.
Plastic, another revolutionary product of the insidious alchemy of modern science, has been the subject of cultural criticism (not to mention rock and roll songs) for decades. Its identity has been attacked for its malleable, easily reproducible quality that seemed to cheapen our lives. The word plastic itself became, for a while, a metaphor for the unstable, insecure, disposable elements of our existence.
On the other hand, aluminum, that lightweight metal, has had a slightly different fate, escaping popular criticism even though it shares some of plastic’s characteristics. This summer, Cranbrook Museum of Art is featuring the “other” 20th century revolutionary product in “Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets,” a traveling exhibition curated by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Far from attacking the “plastic” qualities of this versatile metal, this multidimensional exhibition, sponsored by Alcoa (aka Aluminum Company of America), celebrates its revolutionary influence on 20th century life. Aluminum has had a significant impact on every aspect of modern culture, from the simplest features of home appliances to how modern buildings are constructed and look. Its lightness and strength have greatly influenced the design of aircraft and automobiles. The metal has determined the look and feel of home decoration, has been influential in fashion and, not insignificantly, furniture and artistic production.
Even more than plastic, aluminum is synonymous with modernity. While, like copper and iron (materials of industrial culture), it is “natural” and comes from the earth, it’s impossible to extract it from the earth without the intervention of modern science and industrial technology.
On a little shelf at the beginning of the exhibition, there’s a chunk of a porous-looking, pinkish-beige rock called bauxite. It took the experimentation of the great British chemist Sir Humphry Davy (in 1807) to find that bauxite contained alumina, an unknown metal. And in 1855 (in a decade often associated with the inception of “modernity,” with the publication of French poet Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil as well as Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto), French chemist Henri Deville found a method of extracting it from the earth. The story of the use of aluminum (the Brits say “al-u-min-i-um”) in everyday life is the story of the 20th century and, not surprisingly, is intimately connected to the evolution of both corporate and social history.
My Aunt Nina used to stand behind the meat counter in her corner grocery store, beside a beautifully cast aluminum, streamlined Hobart lunchmeat slicer, shaving off thin, perfectly calibrated slices of ham or salami. Like so many objects from the age of aluminum, the Hobart slicer (model 410, pictured) and its ability to replicate exact slices of meat stood in stark contrast to the ancient chopping block and the worn wooden floors of her rural store. She was proud of her Hobart. In the exhibition, looking like a streamlined, egg-shaped sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, the Hobart, with its almost-burnished finish, has a transcendent, otherworldly quality.
Likewise, riding across the country by car in the mid-’50s, you might see a car pulling a shiny aluminum trailer that looked more like a sci-fi caterpillar than a trailer-home: The Airstream trailer became synonymous with “midcentury” modern design. The Hobart, the Airstream, as well as Hostess Colorama aluminum cups, were really palpable symbols of a deeper, radical change taking place in American culture. (Interestingly, the Airstream maintained a wooden, cabinlike interior, betraying its futuristic exterior, as if the American tourist wasn’t ready to go completely modern.)
“Aluminum by Design” explores and documents most every use of aluminum, from the earliest commission of inventor Henri Deville by Napoleon III to make special dining ware of this “precious” metal for use only by his most honored guests (the others ate with gold and silver), to its use by the aerospace industry. The last of the 19th and first half of the 20th century saw refinement of the processes of extraction through electric smelting and product development. This meant making every imaginable object out of aluminum — including jewelry, opera glasses, violins, hair combs, playing cards, vacuum cleaners, exercise equipment, decorative vessels of all sorts and sexy kitchen utensils — and the marketing of these new material goods.
Marketing, as an integral component of capitalism, grew up with aluminum and the automobile as a test product for capitalism’s advertising imagination. Like plastic, aluminum was a magical material for testing capitalism’s ability to create and produce alluring products.
Around midcentury, aluminum found its identity as a novel material for producing decorative consumer goods. More importantly it attracted designers, architects and industry. Frank Lloyd Wright used it to make an armchair for his Johnson’s Wax building in Racine, Wis. Cranbrook Art Academy’s faculty designers Ray and Charles Eames used it in furniture design. Without mentioning its name, the great modernist architect, Mies van der Rohe, described aluminum as the material that was needed to revolutionize the building industry. And it’s nearly impossible to build anything today without aluminum being a part of either its framework or infrastructure.
The most interesting feature of the “Aluminum by Design” exhibition is its survey of the metal’s history through some of its most outrageous uses. We’d love to hear a concert or at least a tune played by the aluminum violin. The early compact typewriter is a model of the humor of Rube Goldberg engineering. Buckminster Fuller’s completely aluminum Dymaxion House, while it didn’t catch on, is clearly a model for his later geodesic domes.
In a switch on history, contemporary artist and designer Marc Newson has given the Lockheed Lounge (pictured) the appearance of an unidentifiable early-modern experiment. Its craftsmanship reminds us of aircraft fuselage construction; like the Hobart slicer, its “double blob” form has the morphing, mercurial shape of early modernist sculpture.
The cool surfaces in “Aluminum by Design” are a perfect antidote to a hot summer day. And the weird and wonderful uses and forms that designers and artists have wrangled it into — virtual celebrations of the human imagination — put a great spin on the whole season.
“Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets” is at Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 N. Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; call 877-462-7262) through Aug. 25. Glen Mannisto writes about visual art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]