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Design: Art for Sport’s Sake

2 minute read

In its 33-year career of dogmatizing on what is modern and what is art, Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art has had shows on the design of everything from classic cars to Japanese houses, from geodesic domes to Inca sacrificial knives. This week the museum turns its attention to as surprising a subject as any: design for sport.

Under a brown and white tent in the museum’s statue-populated backyard is a collection of 115 pieces of sports equipment, a glistening trove of varnished wood, polished steel and glowing leather. All the objects were selected by the museum’s Arthur Drexler, who believes that function and designer’s taste combine to make a piece of sports equipment modern art. After the objects were selected, the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED approved their performance qualities.

Among the items chosen for function, taste and performance: > Fishing reels whose every part has a function, whose polished movements are worthy of Swiss watches, whose beauty is evocative of fine silverware.

> A hydroplane “as lyrical as a fiddle in the sweep of its polished plywood.”

> A javelin of steel, its streaking taper ending in a needle tip, that seems to arc through the air even while lying still.

> A scarlet, torpedolike British racing car, the Lotus, crouching between its outsize wheels with a lunging, on-the-starting-line readiness about it.

> A harness-racing sulky whose spare, delicate frame of hickory and fragile, bicycle-spoked wheels have not changed in more than 50 years.

> A baseball. Says SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: “Every handsome element of a baseball’s design is there for a reason. Nothing is extraneous. Everything works. Without the figure-eight pattern of its hand stitching, a baseball would be just another sphere. But the pattern is not for decoration, nor is it merely to hold the horsehide sections together—that could be accomplished by a seam around the middle. The curvilinear design provides a grip for the pitcher, and when the ball is released with a spinning action, the seam gives the sort of resistance in flight that makes a controlled curve possible. It is a perfect example of the law that in sport, as in architecture, a thing has to do what it is designed to do or it is as useless as tailfins on a houseboat.”

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