Form from Process

At Carpenter Center until January 14

No one can come into the Carpenter Center exhibition hall, take a quick look around, and walk out. Whether a visitor is attracted by the shape of the hall of Le Corbusier's only building in this country, or the chairs on exhibition, or the manner of their presentation, he will surely find somewhere to start and more to keep him going.

The work of three excellent artists is brought together at the top of the Carpenter ramp; we see a very good designer mediating between two great ones. Exhibition designer Toshiro Katayama ties together the chairs of Michael Thonet with the hall of Le Corbusier, and the product is aptly called "Form from Process."

Thonet (pronounced like sonnet) was a German industrial designer of the nineteenth century whose chairs revolutionized the idea of form in furnishings. Thonet was also concerned with processes of manufacture, so his well-designed furniture was made available to all for the first time at low prices. In this marriage of functionalism and craftsmanship, Thonet anticipated the 20th century precepts of the Bauhaus.

Thonet was popular--one of his bentwood furniture styles sold 30 million copies--and yet he was appreciated by Le Corbusier, who used one of his armchairs in his "Pavilion de l'Esprit Nouveau" in 1925.

In his own lifetime, he received a bronze medal at the first International Exhibition in London (1851), and Prince Metternich tried to persuade him to be cabinet-maker to the Austrian court. Thonet accepted this role part-time, but he was primarily interested in the mass production and distribution of inexpensive chairs of all types--all of them lightweight, and so attractive as to be worthy of a Prince.

Thonet's method of construction, of making a straight piece of wood curve and not break without the steam and pressure techniques now available, is explained in the words-and-pictures history of chairs and their production at the Carpenter exhibit.

We learn that Thonet's factories spread throughout Europe, making large quantities of interchangeable parts capable of quick and easy assembly by semi-skilled workers. His markets penetrated into North and South America.

Such influential furniture design should certainly be displayed at Carpenter Center, which is actively dedicated to education of the eye in all its aspects. But as impressive as Thonet and his chairs are, the greatness of this exhibit depends mostly on the relationship wrought between the industrial designer and Carpenter's architect. This relationship is welded by Toshiro Katayama.

Katayama came to Harvard in 1966 and has since been doing all the graphic and exhibition design at the VAC, as well as starting this year a course of his own on the theory and work-shop of graphic design, Vis Stud 136. He is shy about his command of English but need not be about the excellence of his work. His posters for the Center's lecture series and his exhibition designs in the hall on the third floor mark some of the finest work available in the greater Harvard area.

His recognition by the international journal of graphic design, Graphis, as being in the tradition of Josef Albers and Paul Klee seems hardly to do justice to the originality of the work he is now doing here.

Katayama was trained in Japan, worked as a director of the Nippon Design Center, and later was with the Geigy Corporation's design studios in Basle--there and in his work here he credits as a pervasive influence the Japanese tradition of katachi, the merger of form and shape, the inseparable attention to both form and process which makes him so perfect a designer of the Thonet exhibit.

"Le Corbusier has made in this exhibition hall a beautiful space," Katayama explained. "Thonet chairs have grace and a flowing form of their own; I do not want to kill the spaces but relate them." To do just this Katayama has constructed, out of the left-over panels from the Bauhaus exhibition he designed last year, a series of boxes open on top and on one side. These compartments hold the forty-odd chairs in the show. He painted the panels white, painted one wall of the room red-orange, and closed off a wall of windows with black cloth, a well-designed setting which is inexpensive to put together. On the panels were placed the photographic blow-ups of information on Thonet and the history of the chair.

Katayama said that the heights of the holding vehicle for the chairs were kept low so as not to interfere with the space of the roof area and over-power the chairs. The pattern of lines incised into the cement floor is taken into account and even the accordion walls holding windows and louvres at the back of the room are used to display furniture. All is appropriate and sufficient, no more. Katayama takes van der Rohe's maxim "less is more" as his own--his aim is to parry and eliminate, always saying with the barest essentials more than would be said with much encumbrance and ornament. The beauty of his design is that he leaves the chairs to talk for themselves. In fact, he forces them to do so, by arranging them in groups by kind and occasionally setting off a masterpiece alone, like the bentwood and black-leather rocker that is number 36 (see photo on page three). This chair, an attractive card tells us, was mass-produced in 1860. Now it sits displayed at the end of a long, stark white box against white board and a black wall.

Although Katayama has succeeded in graphically linking an architect to an industrial designer, he himself rejects the separation of artists into such categories as architect, graphic designer, sculptor and painter. He describes himself as a "designer of spaces," using colors and materials which are themselves less important than the spaces he creates and manipulates.

Aside from the conscious and obvious deference Katayama shows to Le Corbusier's building, there are more subtle relationships between the two designers. Katayama's white panel boxes have no curves, only planes and right angles that are contraforms to set off the flows in Thonet's wood. One wonders if Katayama had in mind Le Corbusier's statement that "the right angle is the primordial sign of the ordering and organizing spirit." And just as Carpenter Center has no real front or back--its axis diagonal to Quincy Street and entrance buried in the middle--so too Katayama's exhibition design has no necessary beginning or end but is approachable from all angles.

This is no museum of rooms in a row with an open corridor of door-ways--it is one space in which Katayama's design moves in all directions and shows many good faces. Were his wooden compartments empty--and Katayama never conceived of them without their chairs--it would still be a brilliant creation of light and space in motion.

He allows sufficient space for the exhibition's text and material and compartments for the chairs and creates a flow around the hall that lets the visitor circulate without rushing about as on a Guggenheim Museum ramp.

Nothing less than the total space is Katayama's concern here. He says that the table and chair where the guard sits, even the clock on that table are as much a part of his design as the conscious making of white space in the Thonet poster.

At the opening of "Form from Process," people asked to take the chairs off their platforms and sit on them. This was impossible, for they are antiques on loan from collector John Sailer of Vienna and many museums. Katayama felt the need to solve this seemingly peripheral problem, which is crucial in terms of total space. He placed modern reproductions of the chairs along a wall of the room. Sitting in one of these chairs, a visitor ends his tour with a feeling for the interaction of Thonet, Katayama, and Le Corbusier.TOSHIRO KATAYAMA, graphic designer for the Visual Arts Center, designed the three posters above and arranged the Thonet exhibit.