This exhibition is drawn from the in-gallery show Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects. Exploring our founder Micky Wolfson’s history of collecting and singular commitment to preserving the material of modern life, A Universe of Things: Aluminum examines The Wolfsonian collection through the lens of a single material, charting the remarkable social and political transformations wrought by this metal.  

Installation view, Universe of Things by Lynton Gardiner, photographer, 2019The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Universe of Things: Aluminum

The history of aluminum is one of change. As the cost of aluminum production dropped at the turn of the 20th century, its use in everything from household goods to armaments exploded. At one point more expensive than gold, in the 20th century aluminum became a key material for modern life, transforming homes, cities, and the built environment itself. Works from The Wolfsonian collection chart that change and show the impact of this versatile material.

Clock (1904) by August Endell (German, 1871-1925)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In dark stained oak with aluminum face and aluminum leaf embellishment, this clock demonstrates early uses of the metal as a precious material that was at times more valuable than gold. Breakthroughs in technology greatly reduced the cost of production and radically changed its usage.

This clock is part of a dining room suite designed by August Endell for the Berlin apartment of prominent lawyer Dr. Arthur Rosenberger. An influential designer, writer, and architect, Endell is best known as a founder of the German Art Nouveau movement, called Jugendstil.

Aluminum Beauty (1919) by Ullman Aluminum Division, Inc.The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

For the manual egg beater, aluminum is a Goldilocks material: iron is too heavy to operate easily, while tin is too light and can bend under the force of rotation. Ullman’s Aluminum Beauty is an icon of domestic design and represents the incursion of a previously expensive metal into homes across the United States and Europe.

Wrestler (1929) by Dudley Vail Talcott (American, 1899-1986) and The Aluminum Company of America, Cleveland FoundryThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Artist Dudley Vaill Talcott played with the relationship between machine, man, and modern life in this sculpture, fabricating the massive robot-like form in aluminum, a material newly popular in the building of skyscrapers.

The Wrestler was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930, followed by an athletics-themed exhibition at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

DB-70 (1931) by Societé Dyle et BacalanThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Made from duralumin—the trade name for a durable aluminum-copper alloy—the DB-70 was the final plane to be produced by Dyle et Bacalan. Aluminum use in airplanes revolutionized the flight industry, as planes became lighter and could travel farther distances.

Balanced Recipes (1933) by Mary Ellis Ames (pseudonym for Melba Acheson; American, 1908–1999)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Part of an elaborate promotional campaign to sell flour, this cookbook—with its interlocking aluminum cover—was advertised as “mistake proof,” protecting its recipes and easily cleanable.

The title page cites Mary Ellis Ames as author but like Betty Crocker, Ames was a corporate invention. Melba Acheson, an advertising agency employee, edited cookbooks, wrote radio copy, and answered questions posed to the eponymous Ames.

Grille (1937) by Albert Speer (German, 1905-81)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This grille—composed of connected aluminum swastikas—was made for the entrance of the German pavilion at the 1937 Paris world’s fair. Nazi architect Albert Speer designed the building as a visual statement of German strength, expressed partly through the use of aluminum. By 1937 Germany’s aluminum production was at an all-time high. The following year it outstripped the United States, becoming the top producer of the metal in the world.

Industry and Agriculture on the Cumberland River (1937) by Dean Cornwell (American, 1892 - 1960)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Aluminum appears front and center in this mural study for the Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee. Artist Dean Cornwell superimposed allegorical figures over a map of the county, and in the final courthouse version had them rendered in aluminum and sheet gold to underscore the enormous importance of the metal’s production for the region’s economy. In this smaller-scale study, gold and silver leaf stand in for the materials.

Streamliner, model 410 (1940) by Egmont H. Arens (American, 1889-1966), Theodore C. Brookhart (American, 1898-1942), and Hobart Manufacturing CompanyThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Designed to be used in a commercial setting, such as a delicatessen or restaurant, the Streamliner meat slicer has a sleek, curved outline that reflects the popularity of streamlining—the use of curves and smooth surfaces in pursuit of “aerodynamism” even for objects that do not move—in industrial design in the 1930s and 40s.

Thermette (1943) by Alva Privett (American, 1908-1974) and Privett Manufacturing Co.The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Aluminum’s conductivity made it the perfect material for Alva Privett’s innovation, born out of a dislike of cold lunches: a hot plate built into the base of a lunch box. The Thermette lunch box features a heating element that can be plugged into a socket during mealtime, allowing for lunches to be heated regardless of location.

Fontana Dam. Power to Win (1944-45) by Alfred Clauss (American, b. Germany, 1906-1998) and Office of Emergency Management, Office of War Information, Domestic Operations Branch Bureau of Special ServicesThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Though far from the front, the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority were an essential part of U.S. military power in the Second World War. The Fontana dam generated hydroelectricity to power factories producing aluminum for armaments. Modernist in design, this poster reflects the government’s official view of these large-scale engineering efforts, linking aluminum production to military victory.

Chair (c.1930) by Robert Mallet-Stevens (French, 1886-1945), attributedThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Attributed to architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, this chair features aluminum interpreted through the lens of modernism. Unconnected to historical chair design, it expresses a break from the past with its low profile, minimalist line, and use of a modern, mass-produced metal material.

Credits: Story

Check out the rest of the exhibition through our four other stories: A Universe of Things: Women’s Work, A Universe of Things: 1939, A Universe of Things: East and West, A Universe of Things: Heroes & Villains.

A Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects is organized by The Wolfsonian–Florida International University. The exhibition is made possible by the Cowles Charitable Trust, Funding Arts Network, Inc., and the Sain Orr Royak Deforest Steadman Foundation.

The Wolfsonian receives ongoing support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners; and the City of Miami Beach, Cultural Affairs Program, Cultural Arts Council.

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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