Light Reading: A 1965 Exhibition at Harvard

Originally posted June 18, 2009 on interiordesign.net


“Everything that is seen enters the human eye as a pattern of light qualities. We discern forms in space as configurations of brightness and color. The entire visible world, natural and man-made, is a light world. Its heights and depths, its majestic outlines and intimate details are mapped by light.” So stated Gyorgy Kepes in “Light as a Creative Medium.”


Hungarian-born painter, designer, educator, and art theorist Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001) spent a large part of his career exploring and explaining light as a physical, cultural, and artistic phenomenon.  A student of Moholy-Nagy in Europe, Kepes went on to teach a workshop on light and color at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and later at MIT. The 1965 exhibition he planned and designed at Harvard, “Light as a Creative Medium,” is thus a summation and continuation of 40 years of work. A stated aim of the exhibition was to trace the deep and deeply historical significance of light as a central tool of art.
“There is an age-old dialogue between man and light…Our human nature is profoundly phototropic. Men obey their deepest instincts when they hold fast to light in comprehensive acts of perception and understanding through which they learn about the world, orient themselves within it, experience the joy of living, and achieve a metaphoric, symbolic grasp of life,” Kepes continues.


The original language of this dialogue was fundamentally altered by the advent of the electric light, co-incident with the rise of cultural modernism and the modern city.

“In all major cities of the world, the ebbing of the day brings a second world of light…It is the world of man-made light sources, the glittering dynamic glow of artificial illumination of the twentieth-century metropolis…Washing away the boundary between night and day has lost us our sense of connection with nature and its rhythms. If our artificial illumination is bright and ample, it is without the vitality, the wonderful ever-changing quality of natural light. For the warm, living play of firelight we have substituted the bluish, greenish television screen with its deadening stream of inane images…”


This, of course, was a source of frustration to Kepes. Despite a quarter century of cultural preparation, modern artists still had not grasped the centrality or potential of light as a medium of art. As Kepes put it, artists were “afraid of light, the use of light, and the meaning of light.” This “spectrum of despair” corresponded with other perceived failures of the modernism project that were hashed out in the mid-1960’s, particularly in regard to the urban milieu. Against this backdrop of criticism and doubt, Kepes presented a call-to-arms to artists, designers, and architects, and offered a message of hope for the future: “This exhibition is a plea…for an emerging environmental art: the creative management of light…It is an art of enormous promise. For painters, sculptors, and makers of motion pictures, a field for creative originality…For architects and planners, a mighty tool with which to reshape our tangled, cluttered cityscapes. For the ordinary citizens of our dizzily expanding urbanized world, an aid to orientation in their surroundings.”


Author’s note: In 1964, at the same time that “Light as a Creative Medium” was being organized, a young artist mounted two exhibitions in New York City galleries. Dan Flavin’s first exhibition in fluorescent light, at the Green Gallery, addressed Kepes’ plea for a “radiant new visual poetry” and marked a watershed in the advent of 1960’s minimalist art. In the context of the Harvard exhibition, it is interesting that the minimalist movement was directly influenced by this use of light and color.

Images 1-4 from the catalog “Light as a Creative Medium” published by Harvard University in 1965; image 5 by Bernice Abbott in “Language of Vision” by Gyorgy Kepes; image 6 by Billy Jim, courtesy of Stephen Flavin; image 7 courtesy estate of Dan Flavin.

The Lives They Lived: Fran Hosken

Originally posted December 30, 2008 on interiordesign.net

To be a designer in mid-century America was to be part of a club of like-minded individuals, widely literate, socially concerned, and avowedly activist. Trained at places like Cranbrook, the New Bauhaus, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, a young generation of designers shared with their teachers a sense of responsibility and efficacy. Boundaries were fluid, so that furniture or industrial designers also engaged matters of architecture, landscape design, community planning, and urban renewal. As fully-rounded citizens, designers were above all cultural participants, with a level of commitment and dedication we today can only acknowledge and admire.

Franziskas Porges Hosken (1918-2006) was born into a prominent Jewish family in Vienna and immigrated to the United States in 1938. She graduated from Smith College in 1940 and moved to Boston to study architecture and design. One of the first female students admitted to the Harvard School of Design, she earned her Masters in Architecture in 1944. At Harvard, Fran learned Bauhaus ideas and methods from Gropius and Breuer, and Kepes and Moholy-Nagy. While a graduate student, she designed and built a flip-down dining set for her own use, a design that would later be featured in a prestigious international design review. Fran began designing furniture for the market in 1947, and along with her husband, James Hosken, founded Hosken, Inc. later that year. One of her first projects, a stacking stool, became a commercial and critical success. More acclaim would follow. Over the next few years, their work was published in Furniture Forum, The Everyday Art Quarterly, Arredimento Moderno, House and Garden, and The New York Times. It was distributed by Knoll, Raymor, and Macy’s, and was shown at the Chicago Merchandise Mart (including a MOMA Good Design selection in 1951) and the Milan Triennale. Despite this promising start, the business foundered in 1951 when Fran had her first child and a deal for a factory space fell through.

Writing about her own career for a retrospective at the Lin-Weinberg Gallery in 2001, Fran noted that “Hosken, Inc. was a good idea; the time was right, but we had no capital and no investors to back us up and too little business experience.” She went on to observe: “Now some 50 years later the very concept of what was called ‘modern’ by a new generation of architects has vanished especially in housing and furniture. The great wave of enthusiasm for ‘new design,’ starting with a new social concept of housing and ‘form follows function’…is gone and has vanished, which I deeply regret. The design and social ideas which I still believe in and which I then thought would sustain the production of simple, demountable, and affordable new furniture…for young families are dead and gone.”

Fortunately for posterity, Fran was anything but a pessimist, and with the closing of one door, many other doors opened. During a long and varied career, Fran defied conventions and forged a path of her own choosing. She was a pioneering architectural photographer and archivist (the bulk of her collection is now at Texas A&M University). She was a journalist and teacher on matters of design and architecture. She published books about urban planning, notably The Language of Cities (1968). She traveled extensively, particularly to Africa and Afghanistan, and gained first-hand knowledge about women’s issues in Third World countries. Not one to be limited in her own options, she became active in feminist causes beginning in the 1970’s, serving on the boards of numerous organizations, and founding WIN, the Women’s International Network, a pre-internet means of connecting women and issues globally. She published and distributed a feminist newsletter out of her own house until well into her eighties. And she took up painting in her fifties, becoming a fairly accomplished artist.

I came to know and admire Fran while planning an exhibition of designs and design prototypes from her own collection. Fran was flattered by the belated attention to this part of her career, but it quickly became apparent that the furniture and jewelry that so interested me was but a footnote to Fran. Fran wrote me in April 2001 that she would try to attend the opening of her exhibition–we were providing transportation and accommodations–if she finished publishing the current edition of WIN NEWS in time. This was humbling to me, but demonstrated Fran’s focus and fierce dedication to issues that mattered to her. As her daughter-in-law eulogized, “She felt that unless you were doing something for the world, you were useless.” With Fran’s passing in 2006, the world of design–and the world at large–lost a passionate and tireless advocate.