Aluminum in 20th-century Design

New Orleans Museum of Art | On view starting April 23, 2021

By New Orleans Museum of Art

Tatum Stapler (1949 design, patented 1954) by Wilson-Jones CompanyNew Orleans Museum of Art

Atomic #13

When chemists first successfully extracted aluminum from the earth in the 1850s, the raw element was as precious as gold. Today we take the metal for granted, though it allows for nearly every facet of modern life through its use in architecture, industry, airplanes, cars, and appliances. Silvery gray aluminum, atomic number 13 on the periodic table of the elements, has a unique set of physical properties. 

Delta (2014) by Dan AlleyNew Orleans Museum of Art

Aluminum is incredibly lightweight, yet strong. It is resistant to corrosion, can be recycled, and can be pressed paper thin, as you'll find in an inexpensive roll of kitchen foil.

Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust, but it does not exist in isolation. Natural aluminum is tightly locked with other elements in compounds as rocks, clays, and gemstones.

From its discover until today, artists and designers have increasingly turned to aluminum to make products and explore ideas, like this poured aluminum "Delta" sculpture made in 2014 by New Orleans artist Dan Alley.

Opera Glasses (c. 1890) by UnidentifiedNew Orleans Museum of Art

Early Aluminum

In the 1850s chemists first isolated aluminum in a laboratory setting. In 1853 Parisian Henri Sainte-Claire Deville described aluminum's properties--silvery white, ductile, acid resistant, and remarkably lightweight. In the decades after its "discovery," aluminum was a rare and expensive material limited to use in small scale luxury goods. An apocryphal story is that in the 1860s Napoleon III reserved aluminum cutlery for favored guests while others made do with gold. A verifiable story is that when the Washington Monument was completed in 1884, a 9-inch pyramid of expensive Aluminum capped its top.

"Indian Series" Vase (1883-c.1890) by J. & L. Lobmeyr GlassworksNew Orleans Museum of Art

Before aluminum was adopted for technological applications, many of the first to experiment with the new metal were jewelry-makers and silversmiths.

As early as 1870, the Austrian glasshouse Lobmeyr experimented using early aluminum as a precious ornament in places that would more often see gold.

Lobmeyr's designer, Moritz Knab, strikingly used the new the silvery metal as fused decoration against black glass.

Clock (circa 1878) by Howell & James, Lewis F. DayLos Angeles County Museum of Art

London jewelers Howell James & Co used aluminum for the face of this "Aesthetic Movement" 1878 clock.

Pair of Spectacles and Case (c. 1900) by UnidentifiedNew Orleans Museum of Art

This American eyeglass case was made around 1900, a nod to the material moving into more modest utilitarian wares.

Bentwood Armchair, designed for the “Postsparkasse” in Vienna (1906) by Otto WagnerLeopold Museum

Strips of aluminum protect the arms and cap the legs on this Otto Wagner design made by Thonet. Wagner introduced two new elements--aluminum and bent wood--into this functional 1906 design for a bank board room.

Aluminum Co. Of America (1939-06) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Industrial Production - ALCOA

Industrial developments in 1886 changed the trajectory for aluminum. American Charles M. Hall and French scientist Paul Héroult simultaneously discovered a process for using electricity to extract the pure element from mined material. This “Hall-Héroult Process” of smelting (heating ore to extract a base metal) led to profitable aluminum production, and increased potential uses for the metal through lower costs and greater quantity. Soon after the developing the new process, Hall became one of the founders of Pittsburgh's Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) in 1888. 

Stratford Compote (c. 1934) by Aluminium Company of America (ALCOA)New Orleans Museum of Art

This display bowl was made in Pittsburgh by ALCOA, the only significant aluminum producer in the United States before World War II.

ALCOA’s near-monopoly status gave the company incredible influence in the development of the aluminum industry, expanding into aerospace, automobiles, architecture, and use within the home.

In 1934, ALCOA hired industrial designer Lurelle Guild for a new line of aluminum "Art Deco" giftware aimed at a fashionable, high-end market. Ironically, the efforts reflected the metal's earliest years as a luxury good.

Aluminum Co. Of America (1936) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

These photographs were taken at ALCOA in the 1930s by Margaret Bourke-White. In addition to covering war zones as the first woman photographer to work for LIFE Magazine, Bourke-White made many visits to the Pittsburgh capital of the aluminum industry.

Aluminum Co. Of America (1936) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Bourke-White’s photographs follow aluminum production from its mining to the final stamping of consumer-ready products.

Aluminum Co. Of America (1939) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Her sharp photographs are tightly focused on telling details of the process and the people involved.

Aluminum Co. Of America (1939) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Bourke-White's compositions at ALCOA offered meditations on the patterns of modern industrial life.

World Of Aluminum by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

In 1956 ALCOA instigated their “FORECAST” marketing program to commission design leaders to experiment with new styles and new concepts aluminum.

World Of Aluminum by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

Aluminum products and applications were highlighted by the company in magazine advertisements and their own “World of Aluminum” showroom.

World Of Aluminum by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

World Of Aluminum by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

By Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

Into the Home

Aluminum was well established in American kitchens through cookware that was touted as a sanitary improvement to cast iron and copper pots, but the mid-twentieth century saw aluminum moving into homes in every way imaginable. A 1955 advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post featured aluminum kitchen gadgets, outboard motors, toys, golf caddies, folding chairs, cameras, shovels, fishing gear, vacuums, ladders and more, all made of “light, lasting, lustrous Alcoa aluminum.” Inexpensive, mass-produced aluminum products were a key part of the Post-World-War-II American consumerism blitz. 

"Saturn" Punch Service (c. 1935) by Russel WrightNew Orleans Museum of Art

Russel Wright and his market-savvy wife Mary Einstein Wright introduced a line of spun aluminum products manufactured within their NYC apartment during the Great Depression.

Aluminum allowed for a modest price point, and could generate Modern, simple geometric forms like this spherical "Saturn" punch service.”

Mary Wright invented creative marketing around the Wright’s aluminum products, suggesting entertainment ideas like "tidbit stands" for "midnight snacks."

Teakettle (1936) by Wagner Manufacturing CompanyNew Orleans Museum of Art

In the early 1930s Ohio manufacturer Wagner introduced their patented “Magnalite,” an alloy (mix) of aluminum with nickel.

They contracted John Gordon Rideout, one of the first American industrial designers, to bring a Modern look to the aluminum products. Rideout gave this 1936 kettle Art Deco styling with the “streamlined” look of a locomotive.

However eye-catching, this teakettle shows a focus on aesthetics over function; the kettle’s lid may only be removed by using a screwdriver to first detach the handle.

"Maximilian" Lounge Chair (designed 1958) by John VeseyNew Orleans Museum of Art

New York City designer John Vesey's 1958 lounge chair uses aluminum to update a centuries old chair type.

The side profile of this chair is a “Campeche” type, an X-profile shape with roots in ancient Rome.

The updated Campeche chair was included in the ALCOA’s first volume of Design Forecast in 1959.

World Of Aluminum by Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

Ubiquity brings Experimentation

From its isolation in the nineteenth century until today, Aluminum has become more ubiquitous. Soda cans, folding chairs, food wrap, as well as grand architecture and space travel are among its wide usage. Artists have also experimented with the metal. It can be woven into fabric, used to test the strength limits of design, and has become a stable medium for large scale outdoor sculpture.

[Entrance to Charity Hospital] (1933)New Orleans Museum of Art

The main entrance to New Orleans’ Charity Hospital had an aluminum grille designed by sculptor Enrique Alférez. The ornament was titled “Louisianans at Work and Play.”

LIFE Photo Collection

The lightweight but strong qualities of Aluminum make the material integral to flight ever since the Wright Brothers used an aluminum crankcase to power their first biplane in 1903. This is the DC-3 Airplane (Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc), the first airliner to operate commercially carrying passengers.

"Aero-art" Service Cart for Douglas DC3 Aircraft (designed 1938) by Frantz IndustriesNew Orleans Museum of Art

This aluminum beverage cart was designed in 1935 for passenger service onboard the DC-3 Airplane. It is made out of aluminum, of course.

Structural Study for Maker Chair (Mesh) (2014) by Joris LaarmanNew Orleans Museum of Art

Dutch designer Joris Laarman is known for pioneering applications of digital technologies. This aluminum version of his Maker Chair (Mesh) was a material study for the chair that the Laarman Labs eventually released in Magnesium.

chairONE (2003) by Konstantin Grcic (German, born 1965); Magis, manufacturer (Italian, founded 1976)The Art Institute of Chicago

This chair by superstar designer Konstantin Grcic resulted from many experimentations with die-cast and extruded aluminum. He thoughtfully made the form to marry its manufacturing process with comfort and use.

Benglis Wing (1970) by Lynda BenglisNew Orleans Museum of Art

Thanks to its strength and light weight, aluminum is used extensively in sculpture. The horizontal thrust of the aluminum "Wing" by Lynda Benglis at NOMA stretches the capability of the metal.

LOVE (red outside violet inside) (1966-1997) by Robert IndianaNew Orleans Museum of Art

The outdoor park at NOMA’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden includes many aluminum sculptures, including Claes Oldenburg "Corridor Pin, Blue," Lin Emery "Wave," Robert Indiana "LOVE, Red, Blue" George Rodrigue's blue dog "We Stand Together," and Frank Stella's "Alu Truss" star.

Credits: Story

This presentation highlights works of art included in the New Orleans Museum of Art exhibition, “Atomic Number 13: Aluminum in 20th-Century Design.”

The exhibition was presented from April 23, 2021 in the Museum’s Elise M. Besthoff Charitable Foundation Gallery, curated by Mel Buchanan (RosaMary Curator of Decorative Arts & Design).

Research thanks to:
Sarah Nichols, Aluminum by Design (Carnegie Museum of Art, 2000), distributed by Harry Abrams, publisher.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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