If it’s controversial to suggest the world was not created in six days, then the Block Museum’s decision to call its new exhibition “Design in the Age of Darwin” must be significant. Yet intelligent design—in a couple of senses—becomes the show’s true focus: Curator Stephen F. Eisenman, an art history professor at Northwestern, can’t quite prove that Charles Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origin of Species had any influence on 19th- and early-20th-century English and American designers and architects, and the exhibition’s dazzling specimens are much more intriguing than its flimsy foundation.
According to the exhibition’s introduction, Darwin’s theory that random mutations and natural selection were responsible for the variety of life he observed offended the “formalists,” who believed in fixed biological archetypes created by God. One of them was Christopher Dresser, a Victorian designer whose brilliant, self-branded products for multiple clients make Michael Graves’s Target line and Karim Rashid’s ubiquitous Umbra blobjects look like they belong to a different phylum. Dresser’s study of botany helped him create innovative floral patterns for wallpapers, textiles and other household goods; his willingness to embrace new manufacturing processes made him a household name. The news that the man who is thought of as a proto-Modernist and the world’s first industrial designer rejected Darwin’s ideas is a (fascinating) surprise. And the exhibition’s link between Dresser’s stylized, idealized depictions of nature and his assumption that one creator devised plants’ “strict rules of structure and design” is convincing.
“Design in the Age of Darwin” never demonstrates, however, that most of its other primary subjects—Arts and Crafts leaders William Morris, C.R. Ashbee and C.F.A. Voysey; and architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright—had any direct response to evolutionary theory. For instance, its statement that Morris thought “contingency and perpetual change governed nature and development” is annoyingly vague. The exhibition emphasizes how much all of these men relied on flora and fauna for inspiration, presenting lovely patterns by Voysey involving snakes, birds and vines, as well as Morris’s patterns Pomegranate (1866) and Willow Boughs (1887). But artists and designers began borrowing motifs from nature at least 30,000 years before Ashbee enameled blue and yellow flowers on a toast rack: How are these designers’ motivations any different? More information about how Darwin’s ideas were disseminated to the public and how these designers might have encountered them would be helpful.
Without that context, tying Sullivan’s preoccupation with form and function to natural selection seems like a stretch. The show’s gorgeous examples of Sullivan’s stylized organic ornament from the Chicago Stock Exchange and his description of nature as an “archetype” that is “the basis of all successful design” position him as Dresser’s intellectual heir, not Darwin’s. Ashbee’s jewelry designs, Wright’s Prairie-Style furniture and Dresser’s silver-plated serving-ware are out of place: These are masterpieces from pedigreed sources such as London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the private Crab Tree Farm collection in Lake Bluff, Illinois. But their connection to the show’s subject matter ranges from tenuous to nonexistent.
Only Voysey is explicitly said to have “embraced” evolution—yet one never learns how it affected his work in any detail. “Design in the Age of Darwin” is an enjoyable introduction to the work of its era, but its unusual thesis doesn’t bear fruit.