In 1967, Container Corporation of America unveiled Made with Paper at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.

The exhibition encouraged a sense of freewheeling exploration, and the accessibility of its artifacts allowed patrons to fully understand the power of learning by playing.


“The focus of this exhibition is on paper as a material,” clarifies Director Emeritus Paul J. Smith in the exhibition’s catalog. “Its qualities and applications are made visible through the objects which encompass the whole spectrum of dimensional paper forms, from primitive crafts to developed products of industry and art.” 1


Made with Paper blended disciplines, and relied on object and experience to weave a compelling story. It showcased over 400 works from 16 countries: a paperboard cradle and playhouse, a lounge chair and an ottoman, a bright yellow shirt, a tufted dress, a pet carrier, a pillowcase, a graduation gown, lamps, lanterns, masks—and that was only the beginning! It also included experiments such as a “tactile box,” into which one could stick her hand to “enjoy the sensation of crinkly, yielding masses of confetti,” and a “wade-in” enclosure designed to give “a kind of pleasure similar to that of kicking one’s way through piles of autumn leaves.” 2

Built on modular displays that expressed the qualities of paper as a material, the exhibition was designed to travel to other museums from the outset. This foresight allowed it to surface the following year at the former Playboy headquarters or as we know it today, the former Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago. The MCA was a much different organization compared to the established presence that it has today: young, scrappy, and focused on temporary exhibitions in the German Kunsthalle model. Entering year two, its portfolio already included coveted contemporary exhibitions from the likes of composer John Cage and Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles. This was a critically important moment for the burgeoning museum, and the show fit nicely within their actively evolving programmatic cadence.

A byproduct of discipline agnosticity and cultural curiosity, Made with Paper inspired dialogue about the very nature of man. “The form and the structure of paper and paperboard is a reflection of the form and structure of our society,” noted John Massey, former Director of Design at Container Corporation of America in the catalog. “Paper is an expression of our everyday existence. It is an expression of the fleeting moment, the fleeting thought, and most importantly, an expression of an evolving reality.” 3 While this message did not quite resonate with all patrons, most left feeling happy and fulfilled anyway. “What it all has to do with art is problematical,” Chicago Tribune’s Edward Barry wrote in a review of the exhibition, “but anyone interested in human ingenuity will find the 50 cent admission price (25 cents for students) reasonable enough.” 4

Given the privilege of hindsight, I can safely say that Made with Paper was unequivocally historic in every category. It contextualized a material that was largely taken for granted. It framed a conversation about design within a young arts institution, and then moved it across states to another. Perhaps most interestingly, it brought paper to the conversation in arts and culture, a material that is seamlessly and transparently intertwined into our lives.

For these reasons and more—including the technological evolution since 1967—we were compelled to revisit the themes from Made with Paper 49 years after the original. Our rendition reverberates with the spirit of its predecessor in remarkable ways. Yet, it also differs.

Unfolded came at a critical moment in our trajectory, following an international exhibition on architecture and a host of civic-oriented gestures.

It is of-the-moment, and sure to be nothing like the one that will follow it. This cadence allows our audience, volunteers, boards, and committees to evolve with our institution, always learning something new.

Our exhibition was juried, not curated. Neither is better, per se. They are simply two different mechanisms for developing a narrative. Ironically, for an exhibition showcasing paper, the call for entries was developed and disseminated solely through digital means. We received well over a hundred entries across neighborhoods, continents, and disciplines. The blind selection process was very difficult, yet objective and fair.

Exploring the gallery reveals an incredible energy that can almost be mistaken for spirituality. Designers and artists are showcasing work across a wide gamut of forms, fibers, colors, and methodologies. WHOSWHO by Brian Steckel uses layered paper to sculpt light in a mesmerizing motion that draws viewers across the gallery like flies to a trap. A tower of $1,000,000 in shredded currency questions the worth of paper as a material. A selection of oversized paper airplanes that have been designed by Boeing engineers in collaboration with advertising agency FCB are contextualized by a delicate, artful series of paper airplanes made by Reina Takahashi for a storefront window display in San Francisco. Each piece compliments its neighbor, and reminds me of the vast possibilities of a material that is as common as air.

The design of the show itself attempts to contextualize the work, and is integrated into the fiber of our curatorial statement. The 3,500 square foot gallery is clad in plywood that unfolds into tables and huts to display works. Overhead, a ream of virgin, clean white paper shifts and breathes as you walk under it. We quickly learned that light is as important as paper in this show, and used harsh fixtures to create shadows that reveal dramatic forms across the space. For me, this highlights the exhibition’s details in a fashion unprecedented at Chicago Design Museum.

I am reminded daily that this show would not be possible without the work of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1967, and that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Architect Daniel Burnham—the Director of Works for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—famously suggested we “make no little plans.” He continued: “They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone, be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.” Recreating the experiments of our predecessors inherently reveals the timeless spirit of our community. The traditions and lessons of generations past are embedded in craft. It is up to our generation to inform ourselves, and build upon them.

The Chicago Design Museum is youthful, adaptable, and collaborative. We strengthen culture. We build community. Unfolded represents all of these qualities. For that, I am proud. Thank you.

Notes:
1/3—Made with Paper. New York: Museum of Contemporary Crafts of the American Craftsmen’s Council, 1967. 2/4—Barry, Edward. “And It’s All ‘Made with Paper’” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 21, 1968, 121st Year—No. 21 ed., 1A sec.

Tanner Woodford in Conversation with Paul J. Smith, Director Emeritus of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts

Tanner Woodford—Made with Paper opened 49 years ago, in November of 1967. What was the Museum of Contemporary Crafts like then and how did you become associated?

Paul J. Smith—The Museum of Contemporary Crafts (MCC) (now Museum of Arts and Design) premiered in 1956 as an exhibition center for its parent organization, the American Craftsmen’s Council (ACC, now the American Craft Council) It was a new, specialized craft museum that became the showplace for exciting work that was emerging. I joined the staff in 1957, one year after the museum opened, to develop traveling exhibitions and educational components. In 1960, I became Assistant Director, and was appointed Director in 1963. When I became director, I had a small staff and a limited budget, but I had an opportunity to explore many new directions that I might not have been able to in a more established institution. Quite frankly, I had a lot of freedom in developing the program, and I took full advantage of that opportunity.

 

TW—You were running a young museum next to the iconic MoMA. How did this impact MCC and decisions you were making?

PS—We were in a modest space in a five-story renovated brownstone in a great location in mid-town Manhattan, a couple of doors away from MoMA. It was an advantage to be so close to another museum that attracted a large attendance of visitors, as there was the possibility that some would also visit our new museum. It was also a pioneering opportunity for the first craft museum in America to focus on showing work of artists working in clay, fiber, metal, wood, glass, and craft- and design-related subjects. At the time, there was so much new and exciting work appearing, such as sculptural expressions with clay by Peter Voulkos and Bob Arneson, impressive studio glass by Harvey Littleton, and Lenore Tawney’s exploration of sculptural weaving, among others. Showing work of these artists that were not being shown at other NY museums became an important venue for the field, and reporting on new activity was important for a museum focused on the “studio craft movement”.

 

TW—What cultural and artistic shifts were happening during the development of Made with Paper?

PS—The 1960s decade was a remarkable period of breaking from tradition resulting in a cultural change in America. It had good and bad aspects: the Vietnam War, the rebellion against it, and the assassinations of important figures resulted in challenging times, but many great new things surfaced in music and the arts in general. Most important was the new energy and attitude among young people who were going back to the basics of living, searching for roots, and starting fresh. There were many lifestyle activities such communal living and personal expressions with clothing such as decorated jeans and t-shirts. Thinking back, I was inspired by that environment, and I think it had a big influence on museum program.

 

TW—How was the concept for Made with Paper developed?

PS—The focus on paper became of interest by seeing some of the exciting new products that were coming on the market, like paper furniture and disposable clothing. As paper has its own rich tradition and has been an important part of almost every culture for many years, it seemed important to honor paper by organizing a major exhibition. We began by doing extensive international research on historical applications, as well as new products and individual one-of-a-kind expressions. Our research surfaced such a vast amount of material, we thought it would be great to bring a collection together portraying the broad range of applications. In fact, our final selection was so large that we worked out a relationship with the Time Life Building to host an extension of the exhibit. We brought in traditional paper works from around the world, including large festival figures from Mexico, traditional folk craft from many cultures, all displayed alongside contemporary products. Some were prototypes, some were one-of-a-kind, and others were mass produced. It was a big undertaking. We also explored involving artists with ideas for the use of paper to create events.

 

TW—Speaking of events, what happened on 53rd Street with the NYC Sanitation Department?

PS—The limitation of our space required that we explore outside areas. At the openings, we had performance events with paper, one being by the Fluxus group that took place at the Time Life Center. Another was a street event by James Lee Byers, an early conceptual artist. He was relatively unknown at the time, and later rose to great fame. James had a passion for paper, was extremely talented, and as a visionary, he thought anything was possible, which became a challenge. As he had found a water dissolvable paper, he thought it would be great to illustrate use of dissolvable paper as a commentary on a new concept for removing discarded paper waste. He proposed creating a large figurative form that would stretch from 5th Avenue to 6th Avenue, the full length and width of street. Closing an active block in Manhattan required permission from the city. To wash it away, he recommended we involve the Sanitation Department. For a small museum, these requests were not simple tasks. We got permission to close the street and got participation of the Sanitation Department, who sent two trucks. Unfortunately, it was a windy and cold day. The wind began to lift the sculpture and when the sanitation workers were attempting to wash away the paper, the water was freezing resulting in the trucks beginning to slide. It was not a pleasant experience, but somehow it eventually washed away. The whole thing was a major event that received a lot of press coverage and public interest. This was in the early days of exploring use of public space.

 

TW—In what ways was Made with Paper successful, and in what ways could it have been improved?

PS—In my opinion, it was much more successful than I would have ever expected. Outside of the freezing paper at the Byers street event, I don’t recall having any real problems. Given our limited gallery space, we probably could have shown more work in a bigger space. However, what we presented, I think, was an inspiration to viewers who were surprised to see the vast range of applications that they may have known about, but not thought about. I have always felt that an exhibition should educate, but it also should stimulate thought, and make connections with the viewer. It was successful in terms of public response, press, and attendance. As our first relationship with a corporate sponsor it was very successful.

 

TW—Container Corporation of America was heavily involved in Made with Paper, from both financial and curatorial contexts. Was it difficult to remain objective when working with a sponsor in this capacity?

PS—At the time, the museum had private funding, mainly from our patron founder, Aileen Osborn Webb. With the exhibition program expanding and this ambitious exhibition, outside funding was needed. We were fortunate in involving the Container Corporation of America to become a sponsor. It was really great to have a corporation with such a sophisticated design program. We worked closely with John Massey, Director of Design, Advertising and Public Relations, and with Robert and William Kaulfuss at the CCA Center for Advanced Research in Design. We were lucky to have a sponsor that was supportive beyond financial means. They produced the catalog, and conceived a unique concept for the main floor of the museum to illustrate the strength of paper, by creating modular three foot folded board forms, each different, that were placed in wooden containers supporting a half-inch-thick glass covering. When museum visitors arrived they would be given a pair of disposable paper slippers to cover their shoes for viewing the exhibition. This involvement from our sponsor was unusual as corporate sponsorship of an exhibition does not usually have such participation in content.

 

TW—How have museums changed across the arc of your career?

PS—Museums and cultural institutions are varied and each has its own reason for being but need to relate to changes that takes place over time. For example, a museum that is dealing with contemporary art and design is influenced by current activity. What was appropriate 50 years ago isn’t necessarily relevant today, and there are always other associations to be explored. For example, it’s been interesting to see how Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum has recently incorporated new technology as part of the viewers experience with electronic devices for the visitor to use while viewing the galleries. The Internet age has also been very important in developing a new form of communication that provides outreach to the world for many institutions.

 

TW—What is the role of a museum in today’s society?

PS—In the broadest sense, education, along with clarity of its focus and mission. A museum should not exist unless there is a reason for it to exist. Today, many are exploring new ways of reorganizing their collections to create experiences that stimulate thinking and break down barriers for the visiting public.

At MoMA, they currently have a 60s show with a car displayed with painting & sculpture, along with objects from their important design collection. Several other museums with big collections are organizing work into a new context. Museums, however, depend upon a potential audience as you don’t have a reason to exist without an audience. The challenge remains of how to reach new audiences: people of all ages, young people, older people, and those with specialized needs. There’s not a prescribed formula. It’s something that evolves and varies with each institution. Museums dealing with contemporary art are influenced by what is current, as the creative process represents change with new expressions continually surfacing. A year from now, there may be a whole new thing happening that deserves attention. This is what took place with MCC / ACC while I was director for twenty-four years.

 

TW—We have centered our institution in a mall, largely serving the general public. Our audience isn’t expecting to encounter a museum. They expect to go shopping, or have lunch. It’s interesting to talk to people who don’t realize that everything in their lives is intentionally designed. We try to communicate that design has the capacity to be the fundamental improvement of the human condition.

PS—What you’re trying to do is make a connection with people who may not have a close association with the arts and design. That’s something I was always interested in. Also, you seem to be aware of your audience by doing programming in a unique public location for a museum. When we were trying to reach an expanded audience, we were extremely successful with a lot of the participatory programs. One was Make a Banner, Fly a Banner where people were invited to come in and make a banner. At the end of the week, we had a parade for participants with flags they created. There were many things we did as a craft museum to have people engage in making. We found that once we became known for that kind of activity, people were coming to us with ideas. One time, we transformed the main floor gallery for a week for IDEAS WANTED. The public was invited to come in, write an idea on a provided sheet of paper and post it on a wall panel created for responses. Providing this opportunity to the public opened up a dialogue, and made the visitor feel they were being connected to the museum. That was something that was always very much on my mind.

We once did a show on doors: old doors, special doors like or religious center doors, doors as protection, such as prison doors, and on and on and on. In conjunction with the exhibit, we created maps for walking tours of interesting doors to observe in the city.

 

TW—Why doors?

PS—As everyone connects with a door or doors several times a day, it is an important part of daily activity. The exhibition presented examples of historical and contemporary doors—carved, metal, decorated, and a broad range of types of doors. Today, most new doors are metal, wood, or glass. The intent was to stimulate awareness about something basic that we associate with daily. Another exhibition we organized was THE BED. We spend a third of our life in bed, but don’t think about how important it is. Organizing thematic shows was a good way of stimulating thinking about common subjects. Creatively thinking about a subject and exploring all of its different aspects stimulates the viewing public to think about the things they connect with. We found that presenting exhibitions on common subjects was a great way of making a connection. Made with Paper was a show of a familiar material that everyone related to.

 

TW—Last question. Is paper as relevant today as it was 49 years ago?

PS—With its vast history of over 2,000 years, it is amazing how much paper has been part of every culture of the world. As today’s use of paper is being challenged by digitization, one would wonder why books exist—yet they exist. Newspapers and magazines could be obsolete—but they exist. The fact is that use of paper continues to have a place in society. It has been challenged with new technology, and has in recent years, its source has raised consciousness about destroying our forest and trees. For me, it’s a material that has been and will continue to be part of everyone’s life, in one form or another.

This letter and interview first appeared in the exhibition catalog for Unfolded at ChiDM.

Photos are by Geoff Adler, Peyote.

July 1, 2016