Gio Ponti, Desk, about 1953. Walnut, marble, copper, and plastic; 49¼ x 50¼ x 19½ in. Manufactured by Giordano Chiesa, Milan, Italy. Denver Art Museum: Gift of the James Plaut Family Collection, 1994.1151.

Architecture and Design

Gio Ponti, Desk, about 1953. Walnut, marble, copper, and plastic; 49¼ x 50¼ x 19½ in. Manufactured by Giordano Chiesa, Milan, Italy. Denver Art Museum: Gift of the James Plaut Family Collection, 1994.1151.

Collection Highlights

Samuel Gragg

Side Chair

On August 31, 1808, Boston furniture maker Samuel Gragg received a patent for what he named an “elastic” chair. A startling innovation in its day, Gragg’s chair stretched the boundaries of bending wood. Single strips of wood were bent under steam pressure and then held or clamped against specially shaped forms to construct the chair’s continuous seat and back. Additional slats filled in the seat and followed the same sinuous curve. The flexible or “elastic” nature of these thin strips of wood provides the chair with a degree of movement not found in chairs constructed with traditional joinery techniques.

Gragg wanted his chairs to flex, but he also needed them to be sufficiently strong to hold the sitter’s weight. To solve this problem, he created the chair’s compound-curve design; that is, the seat and the back curve in two different directions. This sophisticated solution distributes the weight of the sitter more evenly across the entire frame of the chair. 

Samuel Gragg, Side Chair, about 1808. Painted wood (ash, oak, maple, and beechwood); 33½ × 15¼ × 14¼ in. Manufactured by shop of Samuel Gragg, Furniture Warehouse, Boston. Denver Art Museum: The Harry I. Smookler Memorial Endowment Fund, 1988.13.

Thomas E. Warren

Centripetal Spring Side Chair

By the mid-1800s, U.S. furniture makers developed new designs that took advantage of machine manufacturing techniques. The American Chair Company was primarily a maker of railway-car seating that had spring-based devices designed to absorb shocks during high-speed movement. Thomas E. Warren’s centripetal spring chair was one of the company’s earliest household products. Praised for its innovative spring mechanism at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Warren’s design swiveled and turned in the manner of a modern desk chair.

With the rise of the American steel industry in the 1840s, cast iron and steel began to appear in furniture. Eight C-shaped lengths of compressed steel form Warren’s patented “centripetal” spring which, combined with a central turning mechanism, allows the seat to move in any direction as the sitter’s weight shifts. Although made of ornately molded cast iron and undecorated sheet steel, all of the chair’s surfaces that come into contact with the sitter are upholstered.

Thomas E. Warren, Centripetal Spring Side Chair, about 1849. Painted cast iron, painted steel, wood, and original upholstery; 21½ × 18⅞ × 20½ in. Manufactured by American Chair Company, Troy, New York. Denver Art Museum: Funds from DAM Yankees, 1989.91.

Gorham Manufacturing Company

Ice Bowl and Spoon

Ice Bowl and Spoon, about 1870. Sterling silver; 6½ × 10½ in. Manufactured by Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island. Denver Art Museum: Funds from 1989 Collectors' Choice, 1990.3A–B.

Ruskin Pottery

Vase

In 1898, Edward Richard Taylor (1838–1912) and his youngest son, William Howson Taylor (1876–1935), established Ruskin Pottery near Birmingham, England. The Taylors named the pottery after writer and critic John Ruskin, whose ideals of quality and beauty they sought to embody in their work.

The production of Ruskin Pottery was based on hand-thrown and hand-turned ceramic bodies finished in one of four primary glazes: soufflé, luster, crystalline/matte, and high-fired flambé. Ruskin Pottery produced over 400 different ceramic forms, each of which could be finished in any of the four glazes, all of which came in many different colors. With so many variables, Ruskin rarely produced two identical pieces.

Produced primarily from 1898 to 1914, soufflé glazes were Ruskin Pottery’s earliest technique. Soufflé glazes were sprayed onto biscuit (single-fired) wares, which were fired again after glazing. The spray application produced streaks or mottled effects. William Howson Taylor described the finishes as “suggestive of the rich hues seen in rock pools at low tide.”

Vase, 1911. Porcellaneous stoneware with soufflé glaze; 9 x 4 in. Manufactured by Ruskin Pottery, West Smethwick, England. Denver Art Museum: Gift of the Collection of Carl Patterson, 2015.350.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

MR Side Chair

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, MR Side Chair, 1927–28. Chrome-plated tubular steel and canvas upholstery; 30½ x 28 x 18½ in. Manufactured by Gebrüder Thonet, Austria. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore R. Gamble Jr., 1991.829.

Charles Eames, Ray Eames

Eames Storage Unit (ESU), 400 series

The Eames Storage Unit (ESU) is a lightweight system of freestanding modular cabinets that was initially promoted as an economical solution to the changing storage needs of American families after World War II. Although modular furniture was not new in 1950, the ESU was an example of husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames’s continual efforts to design and manufacture reasonably priced household furniture using industrial production techniques.

Constructed of plywood, enameled Masonite, and steel framing, the ESUs were available in single and double widths. The 100 series was one unit high, the 200 series two units high, and the 400 series, seen here, was four units high. The series also included desks. The standardized components were entirely interchangeable and could be easily combined into numerous configurations by the consumer, whether in living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, or anywhere else. Expressing the couple’s playful approach, the ESU turned furniture into a creative plaything—a kind of Tinkertoy for adults. 

Charles and Ray Eames, Eames Storage Unit (ESU), 400 series, about 1949. Enameled steel, birch plywood, lacquered plywood, enameled Masonite, fiberglass, and rubber; 59 × 27 × 17 in. Manufactured by Herman Miller, Zeeland, Michigan. Denver Art Museum: Funds, by exchange, from Mr. and Mrs. John C. Mitchell II, Calvina Morse Vaupel in memory of Calvin Henry Morse, Mrs. George Cranmer, Charles E. Stanton, Charles Bayly Jr. Collection, Mrs. Claude Boettcher, Dr. Charles F. Shollenberger, Mr. Ronald S. Kane, Frances Charsky, Dorothy Retallack, Mrs. Alfred B. Bell, Charles William Brand, Doris W. Pritchard, Mrs. F. H. Douglas, Mrs. Calista Struby Rees, and Jane Garnsey O'Donnell, 2017.208. © Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com). Photograph © Denver Art Museum

Gio Ponti

Desk

Mr. and Mrs. James S. Plaut, friends of Gio Ponti, commissioned this custom desk design around 1953. The desk has lighting integrated into the underside of the upper portion. The desk is representative of Ponti's furniture designs from the 1950s.

Gio Ponti, Desk, about 1953. Walnut, marble, copper, and plastic; 49¼ x 50¼ x 19½ in. Manufactured by Giordano Chiesa, Milan, Italy. Denver Art Museum: Gift of the James Plaut Family Collection, 1994.1151. 

John Sorbie

Waiting for Godot

John Sorbie, Waiting for Godot, 1968. Offset lithograph; 22 x 17 in. Denver Art Museum: Gift from Julie Roche, Amy Sorbie, and Judy Sorbie-Dunn, 1999.264.

Ettore Sottsass

Mobile Giallo Chest of Drawers

Ettore Sottsass, Mobile Giallo Chest of Drawers, 1988. Burled maple, briar, ebonized oak veneer, and gilding; 57½ × 52 × 18⅛ in. Manufactured by Design Gallery Milano, Italy. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Dr. Michael Sze, 2007.32.

Faye Toogood

Roly Poly Chair (Raw)

Faye Toogood’s Roly Poly series draws influence from her experiences with pregnancy and motherhood. She initially sculpted small models of the collection in clay, then worked with a boat manufacturer to cast the final pieces in fiberglass—an immensely versatile material chosen for its sculptural qualities and variety of surface textures. The chair’s soft edges, wide legs, and rounded forms are reminiscent of children’s toys. “I realized that it was inappropriate for me in my own home to design furniture with sharp corners,” according to Toogood. “Everything had to be rounded; everything had to be ‘fall-off-able’ and safe.”

Faye Toogood, Roly Poly Chair (Raw), 2014. Fiberglass; 23⅛ x 23 x 33¼ in. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Design Council of the Denver Art Museum, 2014.158. © Faye Toogood.

Joris Laarman

Microstructures Adaptation Chair (Long Cell) Prototype

Joris Laarman’s Microstructures series of chairs investigates the potential of emerging technologies on the future of design. Laarman engineered each chair from the level of its smallest component unit, or cell, imitating the way nature creates the most efficient structures possible. Combining parametric design, which generates forms depending on the behavior of a computer algorithm in response to a set of assigned parameters, with 3-D printing, Laarman formed complex, functional, and highly poetic furniture in different materials. According to the designer, “the complexity that you get with these generative parametric design tools is, most of the time, too complicated for industrial machines to fabricate. Digital fabrication allows us to create much more complicated objects.”

The Adaptation chair’s plantlike structure appears to rise organically to serve its various needs. The chair is composed of vertical cells that start at the bottom like legs and eventually develop into branches, like a tree, to minimize any structural stress. The branches subdivide even further to form and support the chair’s seat structure. Each component, while highly intricate, is essential to the whole. The final form is made of 3-D-printed polyamide parts that are assembled and coated with copper to give it structural strength and an aesthetic allure.

Joris Laarman, Microstructures Adaptation Chair (Long Cell) Prototype, 2014. 3D printed polyamide and copper; 28⅜ × 27½ × 30¼ in. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Design Council of the Denver Art Museum, 2015.263. © Joris Laarman

Edgar Orlaineta

Katsina Tetañaya

Edgar Orlaineta, Katsina Tetañaya, 2017. Blown glass; 31⅔ x 11¾ in. Manufactured by Nouvel Studio, Mexico City. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Carl Patterson and by exchange from Dorothy Retallack, 2017.65A-D.

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Browse objects from the architecture and design collection in our online collection.

Department History

Architecture and design have found a welcoming environment at the Denver Art Museum since its earliest years. Furniture and architectural drawings rubbed elbows with paintings and sculpture during the early 1900s in the first Artists’ Club annuals. Visitors to Chappell House and the Carnegie Library galleries in the 1920s could view exhibitions featuring early American furniture, colonial silver, and architectural drawings. By 1930, former museum director Cyril Kay-Scott stressed the need to acquire not only painting and sculpture, but also what was then characterized as applied art: objects designed with both aesthetics and function in mind.

In 1990, then-director Lewis Sharp officially founded the department of Architecture, Design and Graphics and named R. Craig Miller its first curator. The department was established with the mandate to collect, exhibit, and educate in the disciplines of architecture and design. Recognizing that Denver was a relatively new urban center in the American West, Miller made a major commitment to the post–World War II era, and, in particular, to contemporary design.

Miller established clear, but ambitious collecting goals in an area in which few American museums were actively involved and launched into a coordinated acquisition and exhibition program. Masterworks: Italian Design, 1960-1994 (1994) was the first comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Italian design in the United States in two decades, and was the first major exhibition organized by Miller for the new department. U.S. Design 1975-2000 (2002) was the culmination of Miller’s five year effort and one of the first by an American museum to demonstrate the United States’ contribution to international design during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Upon Miller’s departure in 2007, Darrin Alfred arrived bringing with him broad interests and a history of working with collections. Alfred has expanded the department’s commitment to collecting and exhibiting postwar American graphic design. The same year Alfred arrived, the department acquired the AIGA Design Archives, one of the largest and most comprehensive holdings of contemporary American communication design in the world. Alfred’s first curatorial project at the museum was The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area, 1965-71. This major exhibition showcased more than 250 experimental and visually stunning examples from the department’s newly acquired collection of posters promoting dance concerts and other “happenings” that were iconic symbols of the youth culture of the 1960s and 70s.

Most recently, Alfred has conceived and developed the museum’s new design galleries, nearly 10,000 square-feet of new and renovated space within the Martin Building’s original footprint. The inaugural installation will feature more than 400 objects spanning two exhibitions: By Design: Stories and Ideas Behind Objects and Gio Ponti: Designer of a Thousand Talents.

Publications

Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America. Edited by Monica Obniski and Darrin Alfred; with essays by Darrin Alfred, Amy Auscherman, Steven Heller, Pat Kirkham, Alexandra Lange, and Monica Obniski. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum, 2018.

European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century. R. Craig Miller, Penny Sparke, Catherine McDermott. London: Merrell in association with the Denver Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2009.

US Design 1975–2000. R. Craig Miller, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, et al. New York: Prestel Verlag in association with the Denver Art Museum, 2001.

Masterworks: Italian Design, 1960–1994. R. Craig Miller. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1996.

Screen print spelling out the word racism in stylized black and red lettering

James Victore, Racism, 1993. Screen print. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA, 2007.2528.2.

AIGA Design Archives

Founded in 1914 as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA is now known simply as “AIGA, the professional association for design.” The AIGA Design Archives at the Denver Art Museum houses award-winning entries submitted to AIGA’s annual competitions from about 1980 to 2010. The collection represents the largest and most comprehensive holding of contemporary American communication design in the world with approximately 12,000 physical artifacts. These objects reflect evolving styles, sensibilities, and techniques, and represent many of the leading design firms and individual practitioners within the United States during this 30-year period.

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Membership and Museum Friends

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Lit up hallway of the newly renovated Martin Building

The Martin Building Project

The gallery for this collection is closed during the Martin Building renovation project. Standing seven stories tall, the Martin Building will house collection galleries, a conservation laboratory, interactive classroom space, a family activity center, two restaurants, and the brand new Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center.