Thursday, January 26, 2006


The Modern, NYC

The Modern is a restaurant of impeccable taste. It advances the mission of the Museum to which it is attached and demonstrates that forward-looking design (which is stylistically rooted in designs a century old and theories of reform that are older still) is fully appropriate for the haute bourgeois table. The Modern—and throughout I speak of the formal dining room—is a glorious celebration of the power of modern art to confer distinction. Just like in Vienna, around 1900 (but that is another, much longer story).

It is not a stretch to suggest that the tables at the Modern have been curated—in fact, many of the place settings, water jugs, coffee creamers and other accoutrements are in either MoMA’s permanent collection (the Museum gets a hefty bit of sponsorship from various Danish cultural authorities, which may—or may not, one shouldn’t be too cynical about these things, because northern design is just better in the end)—be reflected in the tendency towards Scandinavian modern on the tables) or the gift shop (i.e., the Design Store).

My favorite setting came with an amuse bouche, a lovely procession of shrimp presented on WMF Happy Spoons (available at the shop). The coffee service put Starbucks to shame: I don’t sugar my coffee, but the variety and beauty of the sugar presentation almost persuaded me to try, just this once. That is, in fact, the power of good design, and why reformers have very vocally and very adamantly insisted on maintaining certain standards on the table, because the shape of a silverware pattern or the manner of presenting tea alters behavior. “Good design” was never morally neutral, and the Modern, the restaurant, completely embraces the taste-building and educational mission of the Modern, the museum.

One might argue that the Modern is preaching to the converted. Especially at the prices (it was $78 for the 3-course prix fixe, excluding all drinks; coffee is $6, and, at that price, it damn better come with a selection of sugars) involved, those eating at the Modern probably aren’t the ones that need to be coaxed aware from their tv trays. But the reception of much of the modernist table settings throughout the twentieth century and into today documents the tension between advanced design and bourgeois taste. The most popular sterling patterns are not modernist, and most fine dining restaurants shy away from advanced designs, as well, favoring variations on classical English motifs.

But, the Modern is perfectly named. It is modern, not avant-garde, nor is it contemporary (even though some of the objects used were produced within the last decade). It shares this with MoMA itself, which has been criticized as a backwards-looking institution. MoMA not the place people go to see cutting edge contemporary art, particularly in architecture in design. And the Modern is not the place to eat to experience cutting edge design, either. But perhaps herein the Modern could play a role by redesigning its tables to include more radical interpretations for the table, things that get dismissed for being impossible to eat with, and even using modern materials. And I’d certainly book another table the day the Modern puts great plasticware on its tables.

The Happy Spoon are the only thing I'd consider buying at their kitchenware shop. I'm not paying $115 for any flatware that doesn't put the food in my mouth for me.
Perhaps you impugn the efficacy of the Arne Jacobsen flatware? I own the cake forks, and they are perfectly good for transporting food to mouth. Not ideal for white trash cakes, but perfect for Euro-style tartes, tortes, and the like.
This reminds me of something Ludwig Hevesi said about attacks against the Flachesmodell in 1906... but I'll spare you. For now.
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