Before there was Design Within Reach — or Room & Board or Crate and Barrel or West Elm or CB2 or Hive or Unica Home or our own Walker Shop, for that matter — there was Useful Gifts.
From 1946 to 1960, these annual exhibitions in the Walker’s Everyday Art Gallery showcased the fruits of midcentury modern design: “simple, well designed objects for everyday use that some day may counteract the present zany gift market,” as described in Everyday Art Quartlery No. 3, published by the Walker, which also remarked upon such zany and repellant offerings as “china frankfurter mustard pots with china mustard dripping about the edges.”
As a Midwestern counterpart to the Useful Objects exhibitions that MoMA presented starting in the late 30s (which grew into its “Good Design” program), items for Useful Gifts were sourced from local retailers; however, inverting today’s “buy local” ideal and the Shop’s new mnartists marketplace, the aim was to include things that were nationally recognized and widely available for purchase. The zany gift market endures, to be sure, but so does much of what’s on display in these images — the first two from the inaugural 1946 show, above and below, followed by three from 1948 and the last from 1956.