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D Is for Design

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Through February 22, 2015

How can something with only 26 letters reveal the MFA's encyclopedic collection and also illuminate nearly 500 years of the design process? Curator Meghan Melvin tackles this mind-bender in D Is for Design, an exhibition of European and American design drawings on display in the Clementine Brown Gallery.

There is a lovely resonance between the changing experience of the physical gallery — at times humming with visitors and in other moments quite hushed —  and the vastly different, mostly two-dimensional, works on display. On only four walls and in 30 works, Melvin captivates our attention with a modest exhibition that feels supersized.

The exhibition is arranged from “A,” for Arts and Crafts designer C.R. Ashbee, to “Z,” for silversmith Franz Zwollo. With thousands of works from the collection to choose from, a magazine cover design by Frank Lloyd Wright for “W” and a border design for a printed volume of picturesque voyages by architect and theorist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc for “V” emerge as astute selections of not-so-familiar work from some quite familiar individuals. Particularly thoughtful is the “un-framing” of some works: For Ilya Bologtowsy’s sketch of a 350-square-foot Works Progress Administration–commissioned mural, the curator has pulled back the mat, revealing handwritten annotations that bring us further into the individual artist’s design process.

The experience of moving through the gallery — whether examining violin design, set design, or something as small as a brooch to as large as an entire city block — was like tasting one amuse-bouche after another. Using the wall text as a guide, you will enjoy a bit of history, a bit of biography, and a bit of context with each visual morsel.

Three models wearing winter coats. Alice Yuskowski, November 19, 1957. Graphite pencil, blue pencil, marker, watercolor, gouache. Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Design for printed textile. Stefan Jancsy (1885–1968), probably 1940-1947. Pencil and gouache. Gift of Mr. Stefan Jancsy. Reproduced with permission. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Design for Sargent Baby Set Squirrel Plate. Arthur Stone (American, born in England, 1847–1938), about 1913. Graphite, sepia ink, yellow watercolor. Gift of Miss Alma Bent. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Matchless Mine. Donald Oenslager (American, 1902–1975), 1956. Opaque watercolor, collage, mixed media. Ellen Kelleran Gardner Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Study for Staff Dining Room #239. Ilya Bolotowsky (American (born in Russia), 1907–1981), 1940–41. Opaque watercolor over graphite pencil on board. Charles Amos Cummings Fund, © VAGA, New York. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Design for a ring. Charles Robert Ashbee (English, 1863–1942), probably 1907-1910. Graphite pencil and wash on paper. Gift of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston