August 22, 2011

At the Shelburne Museum: Hand Tools and Machines

"Form ever follows function" wrote Louis Sullivan in 1896, and the phrase became a modernist credo. When looking at this display of early irons, with the elegance of their repeating curves, it seems clear to me that good designers of any period paid close attention to function and also took great care in the crafting of a beautiful object.

At the Shelburne Museum's Shaker Shed were a large collection of hand tools and household objects: rulers and planes, lamps, saws and stoves, utensils and wooden bowls, plates and dippers. Every piece seemed to have been made with an eye toward its use and also its form, which is why we still find these things so appealing: each is worth spending time with, noticing how one shape contrasts or flows into another, how some are severe, some humorous.

Not all of the tools at the museum had the severe simplicity of the hand tools above. This scale at the General Store is embellished with curves and curlicues – a no-no in modernism – that make this workaday instrument into something more lighthearted. It certainly would be fun to see a design like this at my local supermarket.

A much more serious tool was in a case along with other medical equipment. While I was photographing this, a young boy came along and with great surprise said "I didn't know they actually had these!" For those of us brought up on Captain Hook, false limbs like this hook or a pegleg, seems only the stuff of fantasy.

In the Print Shop were many old presses, like this Cottrell Flatbed Cylinder Press from 1871. It was in use until 1971 at a small newspaper in Hardwick, Vermont. I love the repeating circular brass forms, which I'm sure also had their function.

Less beautiful, but so interesting, is this linotype machine, a Mergenthaler Linotype, Model 8, made in 1914. This modest machine revolutionized the printing industry, eliminating the need for typesetting.

The last two images come from the engine deck of the Ticonderoga, a paddlewheel steamship built in 1906 and moved to the museum in 1955 from Lake Champlain. It was dark and mysterious down there, not least of all because I didn't understand what the dials and pumps and holes and rivets and beams were for. But they were marvelous, the curves of the gauges above like surprised faces, like Munch's The Scream actually.

This was a gorgeous space which reminded me of looking into a Anish Kapoor or Richard Serra sculpture. The combination of straight and angled walls, topped with a curve, the projecting rivets and sunken holes, the dramatic light, make a atrong statement that transforms a working structure into something close to art.

Previous blog posts from the Shelburne Museum:
At the Shelburne Museum: Abstraction in the Decorative Arts
At the Shelburne Museum: Daily Life

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