“My Adopted State”: Arthur Carrara in Wisconsin

Arthur Carrara in his studio, Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin, ca. 1964. Published in Recent Works: 1960-1965 (1965). Photo by John Cornwall/Arthur Carrara.

Architect and designer Arthur A. Carrara (American, 1914–1995) was born in Chicago and worked in locations across the world, from Buffalo, New York to the Philippines. But for Carrara, Wisconsin felt like home; in his 1964 retrospective catalog he fondly described Wisconsin as “my adopted state.”[1] Over the course of his multifaceted career, Carrara worked repeatedly in Wisconsin—creating homes for private clients, designing exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Center, and eventually building a studio for himself in the state’s Kettle Moraine region.

 

 

Carrara’s experiences in Wisconsin began in 1925, when he attended summer camp at Lake Geneva. He later called this “early contact with nature” an “important influence in my life.”[2] This influence is evident in the homes he designed on Wisconsin’s Whitewater Lake in the 1950s, one of which incorporated greenhouse-like windows “to provide a constant sense of contact with nature.”[3]

Reno J. Carrara House, view from Whitewater Lake, ca. 1954. Detail of page in A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960). Photo by John Szarkowski.

A decade later, in 1962, Carrara took a similar approach to the design of his own studio in Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin. Carrara conceived of the studio as a 200-foot-long wooden structure, lit by a 55-foot skylight, which he called an “eye to the sky.”[4] He conceived of the building as an inverted ark, and named it Tebah—Hebrew for “ark,” or “ark form.” But Carrara paired this ancient form with modern elements, using a single piece of fiberglass for the skylight and equipping the space with electric heat and a multi-zoned thermostat system.

Arthur Carrara’s studio under construction, Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin, ca. 1962. Detail of page in Recent Works: 1960-1965 (1965). Photo by John Cornwall/Arthur Carrara.

Carrara’s work in Wisconsin extends to our very own museum; from 1958 to 1960, he was the exhibition designer for the annual designer-craftsmen exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Center (as the Milwaukee Art Museum was formerly known). In this role, Carrara oversaw all aspects of exhibition layout, installation, and lighting, as well as the design of associated print materials, such as invitations and catalogs. Carrara viewed this work as invaluable to his practice. Though he found the work, “difficult and tiring,” exhibitions provided an opportunity to explore “ideas in circulation, lighting, materials and methods,” which could then be adapted into architectural projects.[5] In 1960, the Milwaukee Art Center presented the first retrospective exhibition of Carrara’s work.

Installation views of 39th Annual Wisconsin Designer-Craftsmen exhibition, Milwaukee Art Center, 1959. Detail of page in A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960). Photos by John Szarkowski.

 

Child playing with Magnet Master, 1948. Published in Everyday Art Quarterly no. 8 (Summer 1948), p.1. Photo by John Szarkowski.

Carrara’s Wisconsin story comes full circle with the Milwaukee Art Museum’s acquisition of his Magnet Master toy sets in 2016. Carrara designed these colorful construction sets in 1948. Originally sponsored by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, they consist of flat metal shapes, steel rods, and small magnets. Using the power of magnetism and their own imaginations, children could assemble an endless variety of tabletop constructions. In doing so, they would develop both their understanding of structure and their sense of creative expression.

 

Arthur A. Carrara, Magnet Master 400, 1947. Offset lithograph, steel plates and rods, and magnets. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, with funds from the Demmer Charitable Trust M2016.153. Photo by John R. Glembin.

 

Model and section drawing (showing magnetic fountain and spherical triangle) for FDR Memorial, 1960. Detail of page from A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960).

Despite the playful quality of his Magnet Master sets, magnetism wasn’t just fun and games for Carrara. He envisioned a future where buildings’ steel beams were held in place by a powerful magnetic core. Welding would become unnecessary, and the “ugly seams” it produced would be replaced with “clean, clear structural lines.”[6] In 1960, Carrara proposed a design for a monument to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that would use magnetism to create a hovering spherical triangle, a form he described as a “symbol of the geometry of the space age.”[7] These farfetched ideas never came to fruition, but the Magnet Master serves as a reminder of Carrara’s bold sense of innovation and creativity.

This blog post accompanies a special installation about Arthur Carrara in Wisconsin that is on view in the Museum’s 20th- and 21st-Century Design Galleries now through mid-December, 2018. And learn more about Carrara–along with many other midcentury American designers who embraced creativity and play– in the exhibition Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America, on view in the Baker/Rowland Galleries, September 28, 2018-January 6, 2019.

 

Hannah Pivo is Curatorial Assistant for Design. She works on acquisitions, gallery rotations, and exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century ceramics, glass, textile, graphics, industrial design, and more.

 

[1] Arthur A. Carrara, “Statements by the architect,” in A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960), unpaginated.

[2] Arthur A. Carrara, “Chronology,” in A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960), unpaginated.

[3] Arthur A. Carrara, “Reno J. Carrara House,” in A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960), unpaginated.

[4] Arthur A. Carrara, “Architects Studio/Kettle Moraine,” in Recent Works: 1960-1965 (1965), unpaginated.

[5] Arthur A. Carrara, “Exhibitions,” in A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960), unpaginated.

[6] Genevieve Flavin, “Finds Modern Architecture in Ancient Orient,” Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1953.

[7] Arthur A. Carrara, “FDR Memorial,” in A Flexagon of Structure and Design: An Exhibition of the Work of Arthur A. Carrara (Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Center, 1960), unpaginated.

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