Alfred Barr was just 27 years old when he became the first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1929. One of his first acts was to appoint as his director of design and architecture a Harvard philosophy undergrad who had no formal training in architecture or design.

That undergrad was Philip Johnson, who would eventually become a renowned designer of buildings and other things. A key attraction for Barr at that point was that the energetic Johnson shared his passion for the new design philosophy emanating from the Bauhaus school in Germany.

This is a catch-all ASF view; only displays when an unsupported article type is put in an ASF drop zone

In 1929, museums were still relatively passive institutions, gathering and presenting work without any conspicuous partisan agenda. Barr and Johnson were activists, who gave MoMA’s adventures in design and architecture – still novel fields for a fine-art museum – a sharp polemical edge. They promoted the sparse aesthetic and all-encompassing approach of the Bauhaus, and denigrated nearly everything else. Their goal was to convince everyone in America to take the same view.


The show gives special and unusual attention to the apartments the two lived in, on neighbouring floors of a building on Manhattan’s East Side. Barr and Johnson, we are repeatedly told, “experimented” with modern design in their own austere digs. The wealthy Johnson’s experiment consisted of hiring Mies van der Rohe to design his flat, then closely following the master’s instructions for use. A lived-in look was not permitted. When a visitor dared to leave a handbag on one of Johnson’s chairs, Barr’s wife Marga informed her that “one does not leave extraneous objects lying around … The interior is a still life.”

The Barrs, who lived on Alfred’s salary, had to scrounge for domestic knock-offs of German furniture priced beyond their reach. Amusingly, Hanks’s research discovered that a Marcel Breuer-inspired table and chair set the Barrs used for decades was actually the work of Donald Deskey, the man behind the “horribly deformed” deco interiors at Radio City Music Hall.

These and other pieces from the Barr home were donated by their daughter in 1988 to the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts, which became part of the MMFA in 2000. Some of Johnson’s furnishings are on view also, along with a 3-D-simulating video tour of his apartment. Johnson justified the expense of hiring Mies to his mother by saying it was “the cheapest possible publicity for my style.”

But few tastemakers actually saw the place, and one of the only publications to write about it at the time was the newsletter of Johnson’s old prep school.

No matter: MoMA’s “‘missionary’ responsibility,” as Barr called it, was better served by a series of shows that travelled widely and set the modern standard for touring exhibitions in the United States. The museum’s Modern Architecture: International Exhibition (1932) toured for several years, as did Machine Art (1934), Barr’s and Johnson’s most far-out statement of how wide a contemporary-art museum’s reach should be. Exhibits included kitchen utensils, a cash register and a ball bearing, which also appeared on the poster.