Intelligent design, teapot design: the Block's "Design in the Age of Darwin"

    Christopher Dresser, Teapot and Creamer, 1880, James Dixon & Sons, silver plate and ebony. Collection of Crab Tree Farm. Photograph by James Prinz.

    “Design in the Age of Darwin” is no visual dazzler. On the surface, looking at patterns similar to your grandmother’s bathroom wallpaper can only be so enthralling: floral tapestries hang like windows into repetitive, geometrically-perfect jungles. Furniture, kitchenware, blueprints and building fragments occupy most of the space.

    But there’s plenty to ponder here. Featuring the work of four English designers and two American architects, the exhibit establishes a relationship between the changing world of design and the theory of evolution. “Design in the Age of Darwin” focuses on the period following 1859, when Darwin published his theory of natural selection, On the Origin of Species.

    The exact meaning of the relationship feels a little muddled, though. Design and Darwin seem to connect on two levels, which the exhibit write-ups don’t clearly spell out. On a thematic level, we see natural patterns on everything from facades to fabrics: idealized tulips and silent birds fill a bedroom exhibit by British designer C.F.A. Voysey.

    Christopher Dresser, Vase (also known as Goat Vase), ca. 1893, Ault Pottery, earthenware. Collection of Crab Tree Farm. Photograph by James Prinz.

    Intriguingly, the comparison is also drawn out on a theoretical level, as scientists wondered, from where does life get its many forms? From God? Or do these forms arise from adaptation to given conditions, as Darwin suggested? The architecture community simultaneously asked, from where should a building get its form?

    Modern architecture answered. “Form ever follows function,” said Louis Sullivan, an American architect who many have dubbed the movement’s father. His purpose-driven (although still slightly ornamental) designs for the Chicago Stock Exchange are on view in the exhibit across from striking chairs and other items designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

    Wright, a former student of Sullivan, and possibly the most influential American architect of the century, developed what he called “organic” architecture by incorporating a building’s environment and purpose into its design. For instance, Wright would not build a desert house and a forest house out of the same materials. He practiced evolution for the inanimate.

    But the relationship between design theory and Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution was mostly a case of parallel thinking, not of cause-and-effect. Architects and designers were generally unaffected by the debate consuming the biology world. Christopher Dresser, a British designer, was an exception: he was also a botanist.

    While Dresser may not be the most important figure represented in the exhibit, his work is the most compelling. Dresser’s immediate experience with nature enriched his designs, and he displayed the widest range of aesthetic tendencies, embracing combinations of the simple and the complex, the planned and the unpredictable, the perfect and the flawed.

    In a set of ceramic containers, an oriental lion tops a jar etched with wave-like rivulets, while goat necks stretch from a vase’s lower and upper portions — yet serve no structural purpose. These containers show Dresser’s ornamental talent. His smoothly-contoured glass works are pleasing for their simplicity of shape and their random imperfections. In the walls of a pitcher, scattered schools of bubbles swim through translucent sage and swirls of rose. Dresser could not have planned these subtle, uncontrollable, natural effects.

    Nearby sit Dresser’s streamlined silver kitchen creations. These are modern without being austere, perhaps because the curves are straightforward yet gentle, and there are no empty angles. A teapot is composed of a reflective sphere with a straight ebony handle, four little legs, a little spout and another, smaller sphere on top for opening the lid. Each element serves a purpose.

    Dresser’s teapot and Wright’s building seem to be adapted for their particular tasks as though they were Darwinian animals. Dresser said he wanted his designs to possess a “fitness” and “adaptation to purpose.” You’d think someone of these aesthetics would have belonged to Darwin’s school of thought, but Dresser firmly believed that all living things were created by God.

    Unlike Dresser, British writer and designer William Morris favored the theory that creatures evolve over time. Is it a coincidence that Morris’s patterns generally appear less repetitive, more varied in shape and more complex than Dresser’s?

    In a plate from Dresser’s “Studies in Design,” images of rabbits run along a straight line. Really, it’s just one rabbit, in one position, over and over. This was Dresser’s idea of a species through time: perfect, unchanging. As the new Block exhibit demonstrates, albeit a bit vaguely, the art of design is another story.


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