Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 4, 2022
Kristina Wilson Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021. 264 pp.; 74 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780691208190)

In the past few decades, design history has productively turned toward investigations of gender. Partly as a result of this emphasis, proportionately little attention has been paid to issues of race in the United States. This lacuna has become painfully salient in the wake of the protests sparked across the nation following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in the summer of 2020. Kristina Wilson’s Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design serves as a timely corrective. Integrating themes of race and gender—and noting their intersection with class—Wilson explores the ways in which mid-century modernist design operated to reinscribe the cultural authority of white masculinity.

Having previously focused on US interior design and photography during the interwar period, Wilson’s amply illustrated volume represents a shift in the author’s temporal focus. Her scholarly and engaging text, which addresses an audience familiar with the design of the period, has two main goals. First, Wilson aims to bring to light the manner in which the design of the period unconsciously figured the white male as the ideal consumer while simultaneously controlling the bodies of women and minorities. Second, Wilson suggests that engagements with modernist design by African American consumers might be seen to present counter-histories of modernism, in which style was reinterpreted as a tool of minority self-fashioning.

Wilson’s orientation to design history falls directly within the discipline’s now-dominant framework, what Grace Lees-Maffei identifies as the “Production—Consumption—Mediation Paradigm,” and relies heavily on Diane Harris’s exploration of mid-century American architecture, Little White Houses (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Through engagements with theories of critical race art history, Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body represents an addition to Harris’s text, which was criticized for failing to adequately explore issues of Black consumption. Wilson’s approach is effectively encapsulated in her adaption of Roland Barthes’s term exnomination to signify the unnamed, white male ideal that undergirded mid-century design.

The first two of Wilson’s four chapters draw on a range of sources including domestic advice manuals, magazines, advertisements, and promotional catalogs that mediated the objects under investigation. The final two chapters focus more intently on formal analyses of the objects themselves. Chapter 1, “The Body in Control,” adopts a comparative approach, examining advice manuals on the design and organization of the modern home. Wilson describes how these texts prioritize the comfort of the white male body by a reliance on both women’s labor and a sense of racial superiority. The language in these manuals reveals explicit and more insidious forms of misogyny, subtly shaming the female body and confining its movements. In terms of race, the author argues (as she does throughout the book) that modernism’s emphasis on cleanliness implicitly signified whiteness. This argument is best exemplified in Wilson’s analysis of a draft of Mary and Russel Wright’s Guide to Easier Living. Modernism’s simplification of household tasks is not only shown to liberate the white authors from the drudgery of domestic labor but also from their dependence on the non-white body of their housemaid Dorcas, whose services are no longer required: modernism “is also about simplifying who is in the house” (58). Wilson also identifies dissenting voices. The Black architect Paul R. Williams’s equivocal discussion of architectural style—which disregards the relationship between façade and interior—is interpreted by Wilson as a metaphorical assertion of a distinction between skin color and character. Only when such voices are brought into the conversation, Wilson argues, does the “ex-nominated” nature of whiteness become apparent.

Wilson’s second chapter, ​​“‘Modern Design? You Bet!,’” turns to another print-based mediation of modernism: the magazine. Her most persuasive case for a counter-narrative appears in her discussion of Ebony’s emphasis on the embodied labor of successful Black artists, such as the manual work involved in the production of Add Bates’s furniture. At a time when segregation was still the law in many states, Wilson argues, tying artistic freedom to bodily expression was imbricated in the politics of Black agency—as opposed to the portrayals of the abstracted intellectualism of artists such as Ray Eames in Life magazine.

Wilson also explores magazines’ advertisements, identifying, for example, Schlitz Beer’s “parallel” strategy, in which two almost identical images were used to promote the same product, with one exception: the figures were depicted with white skin in Life and Black skin in Ebony. Because both advertisements were printed simultaneously, Wilson argues that neither can be regarded as the original, and as such, this represents an “intriguing moment of consumer equality” (105). I have to differ with Wilson here, because not only is the artist’s signature removed in the Ebony version, as she notes, but the image is printed in black and white, signaling its secondary status relative to Life’s full-color reproduction. Moreover, on the basis of Wilson’s own foundational assumption of “ex-nomination," the default image would have been broadly recognized as that of the white couple. It is difficult not to read such an image, in which the original white figures have been rendered with Black skin, as what Eric Lott might regard as a clear-cut instance of racial Blackface.

Wilson’s point that some of Ebony’s advertisements presented an independent Black identity, however, is made clear in her excellent examination of a mise-en-abyme advertisement for Ballantine Beer in which a Black couple are shown holding the very copy of Ebony in which their own image appears, and that readers also hold in their hands. Wilson emphatically demonstrates how this image communicates the clear counter-narrative of a Black community that requires no external approval. This example supports her contention that the Black community re-narrativized modernist design as an emblem of elite living as opposed to the aspirational class connotations that it carried among white consumers.

Wilson’s third chapter, “Like a Girl in a Bikini Suit and Other Stories”—which appeared in shorter format in the Journal of Design History in 2015—emphasizes the role of the producer. A formal analysis of the output of the Herman Miller furniture company, as well as an examination of its promotional materials, reveals an unconscious assumption of white superiority. As in Abstract Expressionist painting, the firm’s designs privileged the ideal of white masculinity at the expense of a racialized or gendered specificity. Turning to the biomorphic furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, for example, Wilson argues—through an ingenious comparison with the couple’s World War II leg splints—that their designs were intended to accommodate only a very specific type of body: that of white men. In the context of segregation, such expressions of bodily control can be seen as evidence of the design’s ex-nominated whiteness. Similarly, in Herman Miller’s catalogs, the display of non-Western artifacts in otherwise modernist spaces legitimated the default assertion of whiteness while simultaneously implying control over those cultures—akin to the white modernist artist who can absorb “primitive” influences yet retain his position of mastery.

Wilson’s final chapter, “‘The Quick Appraising Glance,’” focuses on the modernist accessories that populated postwar homes. Wilson explores how objects such as the ceramic trinkets produced by the Associated American Artists (AAA) or the etiquette of hanging art were intimately bound up in communicating the personality of the owner within a specific social network. Her reading of the AAA’s Ubangi pitcher is particularly effective. The deep red jug, which featured an “unusually large, dramatic lip,” derived its name from popular references to the central African practice of female lip extensions, underscoring the delimitation of women of color to positions of domestic service while simultaneously functioning as an abstracted form of racial caricature (189).

Wilson also examines how domestic displays of art functioned to present an “impeccably ordered identity” for social consumption (162). This argument dovetails with the author’s analysis of the display of African artifacts in the pages of Life, where they were understood as representations of a contained exotic other that served to reassert modernism’s whiteness. Ebony, however, occasionally recognized these works as the product of a living culture, enabling readers to conceive of modernism as a style associated with a broader, diasporic Black community. In spite of the seeming paucity of such examples, Wilson suggests that this can be seen to present a legitimate counter-history, one that accorded these objects a cultural recognition that white consumers were reluctant to grant.

Although some of Wilson’s examples fail to live up to the standard of her more virtuosic readings, Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body emphatically succeeds in the difficult task of unearthing hitherto concealed biases that undergirded the design of the period. Relying on Harris’s model while incorporating criticisms of it, Wilson takes advantage of the tools of critical race art history to bring to light the role played by domestic design in subtly perpetuating racism and misogyny, while recognizing the agency of those who identified these problems contemporaneously and sought to reimagine the style. Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body can serve as a fruitful model for much of the urgent work that remains to be carried out in the field of design history.

Shane Morrissy
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Culture, Duke University