In his first race ever, Henry Ford beat Alexander Winton in the Sweepstakes Race. / THF94819
On October 10, 1901, Henry Ford made history by overcoming the favored Alexander Winton in his first-ever automobile race. Backed by a willingness to take risks and an innovative engine design, Henry earned the reputation and financial backing through this one event to start Henry Ford Company, his second car-making venture.
His success that day is a natural introduction display for our newest permanent exhibition, Driven to Win: Racing in America, presented by General Motors. Driven to Win celebrates over 100 years of automotive racing achievements and the people behind the passion for going fast.
Photos of the 1901 race provide a view of the environment that written accounts don’t. / THF123903
In creating an exhibition, we start with many experience goals. In this case, one exhibition goal is to take our guests behind-the-scenes and trackside. As you experience Driven to Win, you’ll find many of the vehicles displayed on scenic surfaces and in front of murals that represent the places the cars raced. Henry Ford’s Sweepstakes Race took place on a horse racing track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Through reference photos and discussions with our exhibit fabrication partner, kubik maltbie, artisans created a surface that captures the loose dirt quality of a horse racing track. If you look closely, you’ll see hoof prints alongside tire tracks, which capture the unique location of this race.
kubik maltbie’s artists created a variety of samples to find the most accurate dirt display surface that’s also suitable for use in a museum setting.
Look closely and you can see evidence of horses having raced on the same track.
The next component in bringing this race to life needed to illustrate what the day was like. It also needed to convey the most exciting part—when Henry Ford overtook his competition. Working with a local artist, Glenn Barr, we created a background mural depicting Henry’s rival being left in the dust. To do this, we returned to available reference photos showing the track, grandstand, and Henry’s rival, Alexander Winton, who was the country’s most well-known racer at this time.
Sketches and small-scale paintings allowed Glenn Barr and the design team to discuss components of the mural before the final painting was created.
Glenn created a series of early sketches to make sure we had all the important elements. We then took those sketches and added them to our 3D model of the exhibition. This allowed us to pre-visualize the entire display from all angles, and verify we had the correct perspective in the mural. Color plays a big part in creating this scene with a certain mood. The goal was a color palette that felt like 100+ years ago, but also like we were watching the race. Glenn created a series of color samples that allowed us to find the right combinations.
Programs like Sketchup allow us to easily create exhibit spaces in three-dimensions so that we can study sightlines and relationships between exhibit elements.
While this photo was posed, likely to commemorate the race win, Henry Ford and Ed “Spider” Huff’s postures are confirmed from other photos, and this one provides clearer details. / THF116246
The last element in creating our day-of-the-race display was perhaps the most important—Henry Ford and his ride-along mechanic, Ed “Spider” Huff, themselves. Again, reference photos are vital tools in seeing the past. In creating these mannequins we had three key elements to address: Henry and Spider’s likenesses, the clothing they wore, and the postures they’d have sitting in the vehicle. kubik maltbie’s artists were able to capture this moment. They started with clay sculptures of Henry and Spider’s faces.
Henry Ford and Ed “Spider” Huff’s likenesses were captured in life-sized clay sculptures that would later be used to create molds for the finished mannequins.
As these mannequins needed to sit directly in the vehicle, a museum artifact, much of the final sizing, positioning, and decisions on how they interfaced with the car was done away from the actual vehicle. kubik maltbie’s sculptor came to the museum for several days and built a wood frame system around the Sweepstakes. This accurately captured important dimensions and connection points. An exact replica of the steering wheel became a template that sculptors could use in their studio to finalize hand positioning.
If you’ve visited Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, you’ll have seen that period clothing is one of our specialties. Every spring we distribute over 1,000 sets of handmade attire authentic to many different time periods. With insight from our curators, our Clothing Studio provided period-accurate clothing, from shoes to hats, for Henry and Spider.
Henry Ford and Ed “Spider” Huff arrive at the museum.
Museum conservators and the installation team place Ed “Spider” Huff, Henry’s ride-along mechanic, on the Sweepstakes’ running board.
Together, all these elements allow us to take you on a trip back in time. I invite you to visit the museum and see this monumental moment in racing history, stand trackside, and imagine what it must have been like. You can even hear our faithful replica of the “Sweepstakes” running. It sounds nothing like today’s track-ready racing machines.
Wing Fong is Experience Design Project Manager at The Henry Ford.
Adult changing table in one of our two new accessible companion-care restrooms.
As for so many others, the year 2020 was not easy for The Henry Ford. The pandemic brought many challenges that we had to face as an institution. Despite those challenges, we remained committed to reaching strategic goals that we had set to improve accessibility and inclusion for all of our guests. Through teamwork and determination, we were able to stay on track toward this commitment.
We are excited to share that we received a three-year grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to support sensory programming initiatives. With this grant, we will be able to expand our current programming and build on what we have learned with new programming for guests with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD). The grant will allow guests to have improved on-site experiences and access to our collections in all of our venues.
In addition, we are excited to announce that, within the next year, we are planning to launch a new program for teens and young adults with ASD and SPD that will include activities aimed at social skill-building and networking.
The inclusion of all guests is one of the main pillars of our strategic plan. We believe that this is an important component that will help all guests feel welcome and comfortable on our campus. Because of this, we are expanding training for both current and new staff members. We are developing a module that will use information from the Autism Alliance of Michigan, as well as other organizations, to help our staff become more aware of those with disabilities. As an institution, we understand that it is our responsibility to become more aware of disabilities, as well as how we can modify our unique educational experiences for guests who may need additional support. It is important that guests of all ages, backgrounds and abilities have equal access to the collection and our campus.
Another example of how we are making a more comfortable experience for our guests with disabilities is with the installation of two new accessible companion care restrooms, located at both ends of the main promenade of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Our accessibility specialist, Caroline Braden, partnered with the Madison Center to help design these restrooms. The Madison Center has partnered with The Henry Ford for over 10 years through our Community Outreach Program. The project was supported in part by grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Ford Foundation.
Toilet in one of our new accessible companion-care restrooms.
The work done on the companion care restrooms goes above and beyond compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The restrooms are barrier-free and include power-operated doors, extra space, and a power-adjustable adult changing table. These tables will be able to accommodate guests with physical and cognitive disabilities. As an institution, we are very proud of this construction, and we are very grateful to those who worked so hard on this essential project.
In 1975, two Alpex Computer Corporation employees named Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel approached Fairchild Semiconductor to sell an idea—a prototype for a video game console code-named Project “RAVEN.” Fairchild saw promise in RAVEN’s groundbreaking concept for interchangeable software, but the system was too delicate for everyday consumers.
Jerry Lawson, head of engineering and hardware at Fairchild, was assigned to bring the system up to market standards. Just one year prior, Lawson had irked Fairchild after learning that he had built a coin-op arcade version of the Demolition Derby game in his garage. His managers worried about conflict of interest and potential competition. Rather than reprimand him, they asked Lawson to research applying Fairchild technology to the budding home video game market. The timing of Kirschner and Haskel’s arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
A portrait of George Washington Carver in the Greenfield Village Soybean Laboratory. Carver’s inquisitiveness and scientific interests served as childhood inspiration for Lawson. / THF214109
Jerry Lawson was born in 1940 and grew up in a Queens, New York, federal housing project. In an interview with Vintage Computing magazine, he described how his first-grade teacher put a photo of George Washington Carver next to his desk, telling Lawson “This could be you!” He was interested in electronics from a young age, earning his ham radio operator’s license, repairing neighborhood televisions, and building walkie talkies to sell.
When Lawson took classes at Queens and City College in New York, it became apparent that his self-taught knowledge was much more advanced than what he was being taught. He entered the field without completing a degree, working for several electronics companies before moving to Fairchild in 1970. In the mid-1970s, Lawson joined the Homebrew Computer Club, which allowed him to establish important Silicon Valley contacts. He was the only Black man present at those meetings and was one of the first Black engineers to work in Silicon Valley and in the video game industry.
Refining an Idea
Packaging for the Fairchild Channel F Video Entertainment System. / THF185320
With Kirschner and Haskel’s input, the team at Fairchild—which grew to include Lawson, Ron Smith, and Nick Talesfore—transformed RAVEN’s basic premise into what was eventually released as the Fairchild “Channel F” Video Entertainment System. For his contributions, Lawson has earned credit for the co-invention of the programmable and interchangeable video game cartridge, which continues to be adapted into modern gaming systems. Industrial designer Nick Talesfore designed the look of cartridges, taking inspiration from 8-track tapes. A spring-loaded door kept the software safe.
Until the invention of the video game cartridge, home video games were built directly onto the ROM storage and soldered permanently onto the main circuit board. This meant, for example, if you purchased one of the first versions of Pong for the home, Pong was the only game playable on that system. In 1974, the Magnavox Odyssey used jumper cards that rewired the machine’s function and asked players to tape acetate overlays onto their television screen to change the game field. These were creative workarounds, but they weren’t as user-friendly as the Channel F’s “switchable software” cart system.
Jerry Lawson also sketched the unique stick controller, which was then rendered for production by Talesfore, along with the main console, which was inspired by faux woodgrain alarm clocks. The bold graphics on the labels and boxes were illustrated by Tom Kamifuji, who created rainbow-infused graphics for a 7Up campaign in the early 1970s. Kamifuji’s graphic design, interestingly, is also credited with inspiring the rainbow version of the Apple Computers logo.
The Fairchild Video Entertainment System with unique stick controllers designed by Lawson. / THF185322
The Video Game Industry vs. Itself
The Channel F was released in 1976, but one short year later, it was in an unfortunate position. The home video game market was becoming saturated, and Fairchild found itself in competition with one of the most successful video game systems of all time—the Atari 2600. Compared to the types of action-packed games that might be found in a coin-operated arcade or the Atari 2600, many found the Channel F’s gaming content to be tame, with titles like Math Quiz and Magic Numbers. To be fair, the Channel F also included Space War, Torpedo Alley, and Drag Race, but Atari’s graphics quality outpaced Fairchild’s. Approximately 300,000 units of Channel Fun were sold by 1977, compared to several million units of the Atari 2600.
Around 1980, Lawson left Fairchild to form Videosoft (ironically, a company dedicated to producing games and software for Atari) but only one cartridge found official release: a technical tool for television repair called “Color Bar Generator.” Realizing they would never be able to compete with Atari, Fairchild stopped producing the Channel F in 1983, just in time for the “Great Video Game Crash.” While the Channel F may not be as well-known as many other gaming systems of the 1970s and 80s, what is undeniable is that Fairchild was at the forefront of a new technology—and that Jerry Lawson’s contributions are still with us today.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, 2018 / THF185488
People might think that curators look at objects in the same way. In fact, every curator at The Henry Ford has a different background and range of expertise, and we interpret things through a varied set of lenses.
Take, for example, an artifact in The Henry Ford’s collection that is related to a top-of-mind subject right now—vaccines. We were asked to offer two interpretations of the Stone Cold Systems Ice-less Vaccine Refrigerator, a 2018 IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) winner (you can find out more about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA here). Here are our thoughts.
Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content:
At its best, design solves problems. Good designers are problem solvers, creatively working through a problem’s constraints towards a competent solution. When I first became familiar with this artifact, the Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, I was taken with its functionality and potential for social impact, all wrapped in a sleek case. This vaccine refrigerator, built within a siren-red carrying cage, aims to improve vaccine distribution to hard-to-reach locations.
The invention of vaccines has had an incredibly positive impact on global health. The World Health Organization estimates that 2–3 million deaths globally are avoided due to immunizations each year. But, perhaps surprisingly, vaccines can be fragile. They often need to be kept at a stable temperature (usually cold) without exposure to light or significant environmental fluctuation. The efficacy of the vaccine could be compromised should these factors not be met. The journey from the scientist’s laboratory to the arm of someone in New York City is a long one—and an even longer journey should that someone live in a rural area or developing country.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator Quick Start Guide / THF621440
This vaccine refrigerator aims to increase access to immunizations, regardless of where one calls home. It utilizes a more reliable iceless thermoelectric cooling technology and is rechargeable by multiple methods, including solar energy, so can be used anywhere. Although developed prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, its future in fighting the pandemic is clear.
The late design critic Ralph Caplan is noted as saying that “design is a process of making things right.” Creation of a product which facilitates access to effective immunizations for all people—even far from a modern hospital building—is certainly one way to make things right.
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life:
This vaccine refrigerator immediately brought to mind the recent research I’ve been doing on Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard, a 19th-century country doctor whose office is now located in Greenfield Village. At the time Dr. Howard was practicing medicine (1855–83), people didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, or that diseases were transmitted this way. As a result, infectious diseases—like cholera, tetanus, yellow fever (or malaria), measles, dysentery, scrofula, and typhoid—were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions and people constantly feared that they, or members of their families, might contract them. But, without knowledge of what caused and spread disease, or modern pharmaceuticals (including vaccines), safe drinking water, and improved sanitation facilities, 19th-century country doctors constantly fought an uphill battle.
How relevant this is, I thought, to our lives today—to the COVID-19 pandemic; to people fearing they or members of their family might contract the virus; to our current knowledge of germs and our understanding that washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, and wearing masks reduces their spread; and to our hopes for combatting this disease through the application of successful vaccines.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, alternate view / THF185489
What about those deadly infectious diseases of the 19th century that Dr. Howard was attempting to treat, like cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid? One might assume they have disappeared—but they haven’t. Many of them still exist, especially in developing countries that have limited-to-no access to modern medical treatments, sanitation facilities, and vaccines. This refrigerator was, in fact, designed to hold vaccines where there is no electricity—in these very countries.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
We all know that 2020 was quite the year—there was a worldwide pandemic, protests across the United States, and a contentious presidential election. It’s understandable that during the year, we all had a lot on our minds.
That said, we shared more than 160 new posts on our blog during 2020. Most of these were eagerly found and devoured by our readers. But a few really great stories from our collections might have gotten lost in the shuffle—and we wanted to make sure you didn’t miss them. Here are ten of those hidden gems to help you start off 2021 right.
The Jazz Bowl: Emblem of a City, Icon of an Age. Discover how a 24-year-old ceramic artist, Viktor Schreckengost, designed a bowl that both captured the essence of New York City in the early 20th century and became an icon of America’s “Jazz Age.”
A LINC console built by Jerry Cox at the Central Institute for the Deaf, 1964.
New Acquisition: LINC Computer Console. The LINC computer may not be as familiar to you as the Apple 1, but it is in contention for the much-debated title of “the first personal computer.” Learn more about its history and the people involved in its creation.
Immerse Yourself in Pop Culture
Lady and the Tramp Charm Bracelet, circa 1955 / THF8604
Lady and the Tramp Celebrates 65 Years. Take a new look at an old classic—Disney’s 1955 movie Lady and the Tramp. Learn how it came to be and share in some personal memories from one of our curators.
Crosley Reado Radio Printer, 1938-1940 / THF160315
Experiments with Radio Facsimile at W8XWJ. Learn about the “Press-Radio War” of the 1930s, and a revolutionary, but ultimately short-lived, experiment by Detroit News radio station W8XWJ to deliver print-at-home news.
A More Colorful World. Discover how a chemistry student, seeking to create a synthetic cure for malaria, inadvertently created the first synthetic dye, aniline purple—and then created more, transforming the world’s access to color.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
The secret to this car’s striking look is a blend of English elegance and Italian aggressiveness. Late-1950s Rolls-Royces inspired the Riviera’s creased fenders and crisp roofline. But the Riviera leans forward, like a cat poised to pounce—or a Ferrari poised to win races. The tension between these approaches makes the Riviera one of the most memorable designs of the 1960s.
General Motors styling chief Bill Mitchell looked at Rolls-Royces, like this 1960 Silver Cloud II, for inspiration. They were modern without being trendy. THF84938
Many elements of this Ferrari 250 GT Pininfarina coupe slant forward to create an aggressive look. Can you see similarities between it and the Riviera? THF84932
Buick compared the car’s interior styling to that of an airplane, claiming the driver “probably feels more like a pilot” in the Riviera’s bucket seats. THF84935
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Early car buyers knew what motor vehicles should look like--carriages, of course! But automobiles needed things carriages didn’t: radiators, windshields, controls, horns, and hoods. Early automakers developed simple solutions. Brass, often used for carriage trim, was adopted for radiators, levers, and horns. Windshields were glass plates in wood frames. Rectangular sheet metal covers hid engines. The result? A surprisingly attractive mix of materials, colors, and shapes.
Although the Stevens-Duryea Company claimed its cars had stylish design, most early automakers worried more about how the car worked than how it looked. / THF84913
To build a car body, early automakers had to shape sheet metal over a wooden form. Cars made that way, like this 1907 Locomobile, often looked boxy. / Detail, THF84914
Some early automobiles looked good. But even the attractive ones looked like an assembly of parts, like the Studebaker shown in this 1907 ad. / THF84915
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
The auditorium at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference before guests arrive. / THF610598
The setting is sparse. The downward sweep of theatre curtains, a man seated stage left, backed by a hinged office cubicle wall. Technology in this image is scarce, and yet it defines the moment. A video camera is perched on top of the wall, its electronic eye turned downwards to surveil a man named Douglas Engelbart, seated in a modified Herman Miller Eames Shell Chair below. A large projection screen shows a molded tray table holding a keyboard at its center, a chunky-looking computer mouse made of wood on the right side, and a “chording keyboard” on the left. Today, we take the computer mouse for granted, but in this moment, it was a prototype for the future.
The empty auditorium chairs in this image will soon be filled with attendees of a computer conference. It is easy to imagine the collective groan of theater seating as this soon-to-arrive audience leans a little closer, to understand a little better. With the click of a shutter from the back of the room, this moment was collapsed down into the camera lens of a young Herman Miller designer named Jack Kelley. He knew this moment was worth documenting because if the computer mouse under Douglas Engelbart’s right hand onstage was soon going to create “the click that was heard around the world,” this scene was the rehearsal for that moment.
Entrance to the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco Civic Auditorium. / THF610636
“The Mother of All Demos”
On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) hosted a session at the Joint Computer Conference at the Civic Center Auditorium in San Francisco. The system presented—known as the oNLine System (or NLS)—was focused on user-friendly interaction and digital collaboration.
Douglas Engelbart demonstrates the oNLine System. / THF146594
In a span of 90 minutes, Engelbart (wearing a headset like the radar technician he once was) used the first mouse to sweep through a demonstration that became the blueprint for modern computing. For the first time, computing processes we take for granted today were presented as an integrated system: easy navigation using a mouse, “WYSIWYG” word processing, resizable windows, linkable hypertext, graphics, collaborative software, videoconferencing, and presentation software similar to PowerPoint. Over time, the event gained the honorific “The Mother of all Demos.” When Engelbart was finished with his demonstration, everyone in the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Fixing the Human-Hardware Gap
In 1957, Engelbart established the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at SRI to study the relationship between humans and machines. It was here, in 1963, that work on the first computer mouse began. The mouse was conceptualized by Engelbart and realized from an engineering standpoint by Bill English. All the while, work on NLS was percolating in the background.
Douglas Engelbart kicks back with the NLS at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). / THF610612
While Engelbart was gearing up to present the NLS, Herman Miller Research Corporation’s (HRMC’s) president and lead designer Robert Propst was updating the “Action Office” furniture system. Designed to optimize human performance and workplace collaboration, Action Office caught Engelbart’s attention. He was excited by its flexibility and decided to consult with Herman Miller to provide the ideal environment for people using the NLS. Propst sent a young HMRC designer named Jack Kelley to California so he could study the needs of the SRI group in person.
Jack Kelley and Douglas Engelbart testing Herman Miller’s custom Action Office setup at Stanford Research Institute. / THF610616
After observing and responding to the needs of the team, Kelley recommended a range of customized Action Office items, which appeared onstage with Engelbart at the Joint Computer Conference. One of the items that Kelley designed was the console chair from which Engelbart gave his lecture. He ingeniously paired an off-the-shelf Shell Chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames with a molded tray attachment to support the mouse and keyboard. This one-of-a-kind chair featured prominently in The Mother of All Demos.
An unobstructed view of Jack Kelley’s customization of an Eames Shell Chair with removable, swinging tray for the NLS. The chording keyboard is visible at left, and the prototype mouse is at right. / THF610615
During the consultation, Kelley also noticed that Engelbart’s mouse prototype had difficulty tracking on hard surfaces. He created a “friendly” surface solution by simply lining the right side of the console tray with a piece of Naugahyde. If Engelbart was seen to be controlling the world’s first mouse onstage in 1968, Kelley contributed one very hidden “first” in story of computing history too: the world’s first mousepad. Sadly, the one-of-a-kind chair disappeared over time, but luckily, we have many images documenting its design within The Henry Ford’s archival collections.
A closer view of the world’s first mousepad – the beige square of Naugahyde inset into the NLS tray at bottom right. / THF610645
The computer scientist Mark Weiser said, “the most profound technologies are the ones that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” If this is true, the impact of Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration—supported by Kelley’s console chair and mousepad—are hidden pieces of the computing history. So as design shaped the computer, the computer also shaped design.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
My name is Cheryl Preston, and I’m a graphic designer and design director at The Henry Ford. What I get to do here is design graphics for print and online use—design to educate teachers and learners, market events, support the stories we tell, sell food experiences, tempt shoppers, and guide visits around the museum, village and factory tour. I get to combine two passions, history and design, in one job.
We all know 2020 has been crazy and difficult in many ways. I have been working on this year’s digital-only holiday retail campaign, where we are featuring a lot of new and old favorite signature handcrafts, along with fun, innovative toys. This has been a bright spot in tough pandemic times for me right now.
I wanted to create a tiny bit of “happy" to give our supporters, with these free printable gift tags to bring the cheer. We all need even the tiny smiles, right? You can preview the gift tags below, or click here to download a PDF version of them for printing at home.
I’m in awe of the handcrafts from our Greenfield Village artists, and the products we offer to bring the past forward, and hope these tags help you share the fun!
Cheryl Preston is Design Director at The Henry Ford.
A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.
The 400 quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection, dating from the 1700s to the 2000s, represent quilting traditions of nearly 300 years--all reflecting the resourcefulness and creativity of their makers. Quilts were among the objects of everyday life that Henry Ford collected as he gathered objects for his museum. Since Ford’s time, The Henry Ford’s curators have continued to add to the collection, gathering quilts that represent diverse quilting traditions.
Quilts serve a practical purpose as warm bedcovers. Yet they are also inherently about design--from a simple traditional pattern to a unique motif crafted through the expert manipulation of pattern and color. While many quiltmakers have no formal training in design, they instinctively create attractive quilts that display their innate talents.
Quiltmaking has continued to evolve, reflecting new aesthetics and influences. An exciting, robust trend of the past 20 years has been the Modern Quilt Movement—a style of quiltmaking we are eager to add to our collection.
A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.
A wonderful opportunity arose. While giving a paper at the American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar, I met Kristin Barrus, who was presenting a poster session on “Why Women Under 45 Quilt.” (Silent Generation and Baby Boomers created the quilt revival of the post-Bicentennial era. They were followed by GenX and Millennial quilters, many of whom have shaped and embraced the Modern quilt aesthetic.)
Kristin Barrus’s poster, presented at the American Quilt Study Group Seminar in 2019. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.
Kristin, a graduate student studying Material Culture and Textile History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is not only knowledgeable about the Modern Quilt Movement, she’s a modern quiltmaker herself. We were delighted to have Kristin join us this Spring for a remote practicum experience at The Henry Ford, conducting research on the Modern Quilt Movement to help us more fully understand its vibrant landscape. Her research will inform strategic additions to our collections: examples of modern quilts, printed materials reflecting the movement, and books on the topic. Part of Kristin’s research involves a survey of modern quilters.
Here’s Kristin to tell you more about the Modern Quilt Movement, and her research survey.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Kristin Barrus. Photo by Alisha Tunks.
Hi, I’m glad to have this opportunity to tell you about my quilt research project! I started quiltmaking around 2003 in my twenties and got swept up with this new aesthetic called Modern quilting. I co-founded the Utah County Modern Quilt Group, which ran monthly for seven years in Lehi, Utah. While I taught at meetings, quilt shows and retreats, I realized I was more interested in watching the quiltmakers make connections with each other than with what came out of the other side of my sewing machine. (Although I do still love to make quilts!) The topic of my thesis for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the first study of QuiltCon, an annual convention for Modern quiltmakers.
Modern Trends, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A sampler quilt turned Modern by joining several popular quilt blocks together in a new layout. Photo by Kristin Barrus.
There is much to celebrate and investigate in 21st century quiltmaking. The Modern Quilt Movement is a sub-category within quiltmaking, bracketed at years 2000–2020 for the purposes of my research. Modern is a very broad and sometimes contested term, not just a new aesthetic. It’s also a new kind of experience in the contemporary quilt world. People come to Modern quilting not only to make quilts, as traditional quiltmaking guilds do, but to be a part of the energetic vibe that happens at Modern meetings, both online and in person. Often people who do not consider themselves Modern quiltmakers join because they love the inclusive comradery, mini quilt swaps and inspiration of the Modern Quilt Movement. Thus this popular phenomenon is identified not only by what Modern quilts look like, but also the type of person and the community involved.
The main design philosophy of Modern is exploration through bending or breaking unspoken—and sometimes spoken—traditional quilt rules. It relies on the use of technology such as blogs, Instagram and digital publications to connect across distances, initially building a vibrant community online. Because of the variety and dispersed nature of these makers, Modern quilting is complicated. The look of Modern quilts can include brighter color palettes in solids or prints, or quiet neutrals to create quilts with a strong graphic feel. Or it could just be a new twist on a traditional pattern. Other common aspects include, but are not limited to, large use of negative space, asymmetrical design and straight-line, rather than curvilinear, quilting.
Group Improv, Kristin Barrus & Sew Night Friends, 2018. An example of collaborative quilt design by seven women, using popular colors and fabrics. Photo by Kristin Barrus.
For my practicum at The Henry Ford, I will present a paper on “The Landscape of the Modern Quilt Movement, 2000-2020” next Spring. I will also recommend specific quilts from the movement to consider acquiring for The Henry Ford’s collection, as well as books on the topic. In the meantime, I will be conducting recorded interviews with key individuals from the movement to be included in The Henry Ford’s archives, as well as future research.
My project also includes a survey for Modern quilters. I am hoping to hear from anyone who has participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, via an anonymous survey. I hope to capture what Modern means to the people who play a part in it: What do they feel Modern is? What are the trends and people that have influenced them? This data will help academia study what the Modern Quilt Movement is, as well as its impact on the lives of many people all over the world. The survey is anonymous, contains 15 questions and takes about 5–8 minutes to complete.
Tula Pink Millefiori, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A hand applique medallion quilt using motifs from popular fabric designer Tula Pink. Photo by Kristin Barrus.
Let Your Modern Voice Be Heard
If you have participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, please consider taking the survey, or sending it to someone you know who makes Modern quilts. The lines between Modern and Modern-traditional quiltmaking are blurred and intersect often. As you answer each question, please reflect on what Modern means to you specifically, regardless of how anyone else defines Modern quiltmaking. You can access the survey here, or using the QR code below.
Kristin Barrus is a graduate practicum student at The Henry Ford.