Ideas connect in Art Institute’s ‘Past Forward’ design exhibit

There are old favorites, like Daniel Burnham’s sweeping vision for Chicago. And there are unexpected gems, like the glossy prefab kitchen and bathroom units of a French architect intent on making once-elite ski resorts affordable to the masses.

These are among the eye-catching objects in the Art Institute of Chicago‘s new installation of its permanent architecture and design collection. It is the most extensive display the museum has ever mounted of its vast holdings in these areas. But the objects alone aren’t what makes the show worth seeing.

Rather, it’s the skill with which the pieces are framed within a larger narrative of how architecture and design have shaped — and continue to shape — how we live. While there are some lapses in that story, the exhibition, titled “Past Forward: Architecture and Design at the Art Institute,” is, for the most part, freshly and intelligently told.

Throughout, a major theme is that architecture and design are idea-driven fields engaged in the making of experimental visions, not just the tangible reality of a brick bungalow or a tubular steel chair. That cerebral view will likely provoke a world-weary dismissal from those who have witnessed the costs, both human and financial, of designers’ failed visions. Think demolished public housing projects. But there is no denying the revolutionary, often uplifting impact that architecture and design have made during the past nearly 120 years.

The show, to its credit, explores both sides of this coin.

Organized by Zoe Ryan, the museum’s chief architecture and design curator, “Past Forward” occupies most of the architecture and design galleries in the museum’s Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing. (The rest of those galleries will be devoted to temporary shows).

As in the rest of the Modern Wing, the displayed material — drawings, models, pieces of furniture, posters, videos and more — covers the period from 1900 to the present. It is the first time,…

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