Visual Arts

Simple Comfort

It's difficult to make a convincing case for the comforts of things you can't touch. Yet there's clearly a physical ease about the fashions and furnishings in Phoenix Art Museum's exhibition "Sophisticated Moderns: Claire McCardell and Edward Wormley."

Both were masters of the kinds of material subtleties that are often better experienced at home or in a second-hand store than in a museum. There, at least, you could peek under the collars of McCardell's women's dresses and suits, and open the drawers, stroke the polished wood grain of Wormley's elegant chests, shelves and tables, or plop down in one of his comfy chairs.

This workaday life of design objects always suffers in the land of Do Not Touch. Yet the visual strength of McCardell's and Wormley's designs gives you plenty to ogle.

When they first appeared, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, their works were tagged and marketed as advanced appurtenances for the smart lady and home.

Wormley was in the league of Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, George Nelson and other lions of modernity. McCardell's name and fashions hung alongside those of Dior and Chanel.

Yet the boldness of Wormley's and McCardell's works has gradually slipped into a bath of comfort.

Whether you're looking at the magazine tree that Wormley designed for the Dunbar furniture company in 1947, or the wrap-around and tied dresses that McCardell created for Townley around the same time, the works now seem to be as soothing as the Norman Rockwell paintings downstairs at PAM.

Part of that's due to the dose of nostalgia that comes with just about anything older than five years. The rest stems from the pragmatic simplicity and material richness that McCardell and Wormley both pursued.

While many other artists and designers of the mid-century era were happily chucking tradition to chase the new, McCardell and Wormley played the high notes of both, merging living-room ease with an unforgettable modern sleekness.

This show, which includes only 14 objects, was organized by Dennita Sewell, the museum's curator of fashion design, and David Sheflin, who owns Vintage Modern Gallery, which specializes in Wormley and other notable modern designers.

"We started out thinking about doing an exhibition of American fashion," says Sewell, "but then David brought some of Wormley's things to the vault at the museum, and they seemed to click."

As far as Sewell knows, McCardell and Wormley have never been paired in a museum setting. Yet it's a resonant combination.

Like other advanced designers of the era, Wormley and McCardell exalted the underlying structure of clothes and furniture. Along the way, they came up with kinder, gentler expressions of modernism, ones that softened the hard-edged discomforts that accompanied many efforts to make over the world with new materials and ideas.

Instead of following the rigid purity of lines and geometric forms that characterized some modern designs, Wormley -- in works such as the serving cart he designed for Drexel in 1947, or the 1953 bookcase he designed for Dunbar -- rounded off and tapered nearly every edge he created.

He also stayed with the proven warmth of exotic woods. In works such as the mahogany and rosewood side board in the exhibition, he used the innate colors and textural contrasts of the wood grains to create a collagelike pattern with the faces of the drawers and sliding compartments. These choices gave his designs warmth not found in the flood of tubular metals, laminated plastics and other shiny materials then being popularized by modern design and industry.

McCardell sometimes softened her own designs by using fabrics cut on the bias. This approach brought out the flexibility of the fabric. So the cloth in works like the 1953 suit and jacket (number 5 in the exhibition) could stretch enough to flatter, rather than stiffly overhang bodily curves.

Both designers were born in the first decade of the 20th century. Wormley was the Dunbar company's chief designer from the 1930s through the 1960s. McCardell led Townley's collection -- with one interruption -- from the 1930s until her death in 1958. Wormley died in 1995.

They rose to prominence in an era dominated by the machine aesthetic and the promise of American design. There was such great faith in the mechanical wonders being produced at the time that contemporary design shows routinely presented propellers, gears, ball bearings and all sorts of fancy industrial valves alongside paintings, sculptures and other traditional aesthetic finery. This pairing equated the clean lines and configurations of industrial tools and equipment with those of the era's abstract art.

True believers promoted the clean look of the machine aesthetic as a new concept of beauty, and slapped the bumper sticker "Form Follows Function" on it.

But it was far from new. Forms defined by function had been evolving in nature for eons. The results were creatures and plants whose forms suited their purposes. The same could be said of Wormley's and McCardell's best works. They have an organic integrity that bridges natural and manmade forms.

The structure of Wormley's five-tiered magazine tree mimics the upward thrust of organic growth. The rounded pockets and lapels of McCardell's 1947-48 dress (number 2 in the exhibition) follow the lead of blooming flowers or growing leaves.

These subtle details were more than mere stylizations; they contributed to the purpose of their forms.

In the serving cart, that purpose was remarkably sculptural. Its fluid lines spring beneath the wooden carriage to give the form an unusual sense of lightness and muscularity.

Yet in works such as Wormley's Dunbar chair from 1955 and McCardell's dresses with wrap-around and adjustable ties, the purpose was to make design whose beauty was accessible and comfortable. The pivoting back of the chair allowed sitters to adjust the seat to suit them. The ties or wraps of the dresses allowed their wearers to snug them to their own size.

It's hard to find better examples of forms expressing their functions.