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The Wolfsonian Surprises and Charms

By Arnold Berke

Glitz and gloss, sun and sand, and plenty of people-watching: These have lured travelers to South Beach for many a year now. But for those who want a deeper experience, duck into a former warehouse just two blocks from Ocean Drive. Here you’ll be immersed in a different scene—the wide world of modern design. From bowls to buildings, you’ll encounter a beguiling display of objects that proves that the cutting edge of modernity wasn’t born yesterday. It was slicing away long before the rise of our appletini culture—as far back, in fact, as the first half of the 20th century.

This is the Wolfsonian, a museum that shows how persuasive art and design can be—how they influence, and are influenced by, society. Its 100,000 or so objects, made mostly in Europe and America from 1885 to 1945, illuminate the social, political, and technological changes that occurred during that often-turbulent time. The collections run the gamut from paintings and prints to posters and photos, from sculpture and furniture to textiles and household appliances.

Some are just things—postcards, travel brochures, even bits of buildings—and many are connected to political and wartime themes; the Wolfsonian’s huge collection of Italian and German fascist propaganda art is well known. The purpose of all this, the museum explains, is “to explore the active role that design plays in shaping and reflecting human experience.” A broad mandate, indeed, but one that makes us look at the history we thought we knew in new and enchanting (and sometimes disturbing) ways.

Here are most of modernism’s modes—Arts and Crafts as well as Arts Nouveau, Deco, and Moderne—and its isms: Constructivism, Futurism, and the like. Industrial design looms large, as do the themes of travel, transportation, world’s fairs, and the New Deal. Most of this dazzling array was once the private collection of museum founder Mitchell (Mickey) Wolfson Jr., who amassed the items over many years and on many travels. In 1995 he moved the whole lot to a home of its own, a 1927 neo-Mediterranean fur-storage warehouse on Washington Avenue, which he renovated for public use. Originally subtitled “the museum of the decorative and propaganda arts,” certainly one way to get people in the door, the Wolfsonian is now called “the museum of thinkism.” (I’ll stick with the first, more provocative moniker.) In 1997, Wolfson donated the building and most of its contents to Florida International University; the museum is now an FIU department.

I had visited the Wolfsonian a few years ago, my first time, and was quite taken by the almost-anything-goes variety of its holdings—much of it strange, all of it stimulating in one way or another. Where else would one find, under one roof, New Deal posters, toys and games, print media of all types, movie ads, a vacuum cleaner, a skyscraper finial, and even a museum-entry turnstile? Two articles in particular have taken permanent residence in my mind: a 1933 “continuous profile” bust of Mussolini made of stacked rounds of bronzed terra-cotta (very strange, very effective) and (are you ready?) the matchbook collection of King Farouk.

My second visit, last November, coincided with the museum’s classy 10th anniversary celebration, highlighted by a new show, In Pursuit of Pleasure: Schultze and Weaver and the American Hotel. The exhibition surveys the culture of hotels in the first half of the 20th century through the architectural firm responsible for many of the most famous: New York’s Waldorf-Astoria and Pierre, for example, Los Angeles’ Biltmore, and the Breakers in Palm Beach.

Not to mention the Miami Biltmore in nearby Coral Gables, which every visitor to the Wolfsonian should make a point of seeing. The salon-like exhibit rooms are adorned with architectural plans and presentation drawings, plus photos, furniture, and printed ephemera.

Published in conjunction with the show (which runs through May 28, 2006) is the book Grand Hotels of the Jazz Age: The Architecture of Schultze and Weaver (Princeton Architectural Press). Edited by Wolfsonian staffers Marianne Lamonaca and Jonathan Mogul—don’t those names seem just right for the museum?—the book presents an album of 14 of the firm’s urban and seaside hotels and essays that chronicle their cultural and technological underpinnings. Its sumptuous illustrations and period photographs make you want to ditch today’s world of chain-hotel “spas” and “resorts” and head back—on a Streamlined train, of course—to the time when martinis were martinis.

The Wolfsonian-FIU is located at 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33139; (305) 531-1001;

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