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Mad About Mod 

Tucson Modernism Week celebrates mid-century design in the Old Pueblo

click to enlarge The Firebird III will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Courtesy photo

The Firebird III will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Demion Clinco is the executive director of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, which is sponsoring Tucson Modernism Week which runs from Oct. 2 through Oct. 10. The celebration of mid-century architecture, design and style will feature nearly three dozen tours, parties, talks and other events. Clinco recently appeared on Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel to discuss Modernism Week. This Q&A is edited and condensed from that conversation. For a complete schedule of events, visit tucsonmod.com.

What is Tucson Modernism Week all about? Modernism Week is a celebration of Tucson's post WWII history from the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. It was a really transformative time for Tucson during this period. In the 1930s, the population was just over 30,000, and by 1960, it had quadrupled to over 220,000. So it was really the biggest point of growth in Tucson, and it is this golden era of our history. There was extraordinary design and architecture, and a lot of thought about what the future of our community would be, and what that future would look like. We really make a specific effort during Modernism Week to highlight buildings all over the city, so we go out and try to utilize buildings in a different way, and hope that the community sees them as being a true architectural resource and gem, and not just a library or an old market, but really begin to think about them as important architectural icons in our city.

You're kicking off with a party at the Tucson Convention Center next Friday, Oct. 2. The first weekend, we're headquartered at the Tucson Convention Center. The landscape designed by Garrett Eckbo, who was one of the founders of landscape architecture in America, was just listed in the last few weeks on the National Register of Historic Places at the National Level of Significance, which is the highest level that an object, a place and a district can be designated. So we decided to take Modernism Week there to really get the community to begin to think about the TCC a little bit differently. Collectors and people who have restored their vintage trailers from all over the region are bringing them to the TCC and they'll take up residency. We're also going to have a car show across the street at MOCA, along with the Firebird III, which is a concept car that GM is sending us. We'll be having an expo and furniture exhibit, so if you're looking to fill your house with mid-century modern designs, over 30 concessioners and dealers will be at the TCC selling mid-century modern furniture and design elements. We have lectures from national speakers from all over the country are coming in. Tell me about this Firebird III. That's like the Batmobile. In 1958, General Motors commissioned a group, a design team to create a sort of car of the future and they unveiled at the Motorama in Detroit in 1958 the Firebird III, and it was truly the concept car of the future.

Did it fly?

It didn't fly, although I think in early renderings it was conceived as being able to sort of be this space car, and it certainly looks like it. This car has fins that look like they're off of an airplane, and it's a remarkable design object that really transformed American car design in this country. There was only one produced, and it will be on display at MOCA during Modernism Week. We're having a special reception because one of the designers lives here, Jim Ewen, and the other, Norm James, is flying in from San Diego. These two gentlemen are going to talk about the experience of designing this car that transformed American automotive design.

One of the things that the late Charles Bowden once said was every time he left town, he came back and they'd bulldozed something else that he loved in the city. How much of this have we lost? We've lost a lot. We have lost a tremendous amount. I'm doing a talk on Oct. 10 about William and Sylvia Wilde, who were constructivist Russian architects in Tucson from New Jersey, and they sort of designed out of the Bauhaus tradition, and both of their buildings are gone, and they were, slowly, as the city evolved and changed, they were torn down to make way for strip malls, or they were re-faced with stucco and they're unrecognizable today. That's sort of a tradition that we see. You know, after the 1970s, this architecture really fell out of favor, and so it was easy to update it by putting up a drywall or some stick and stucco and covering up the original design details, and so a lot of our Mid-Century Modern buildings are just hiding behind a sort of stucco facade waiting to be restored and revealed. Other communities like Palm Springs are using this type of architecture to parlay it into economic activity. Palm Springs is on their tenth year of their Modernism Week. It brings over 35,000 people to Palm Springs, and over $20 million to the Palm Springs economy during that two-weekend window, and it's becoming a year-round tradition for them, and it's really reframing their community as an epicenter of design and culture. Are you getting the same kind of interest from out of town for Tucson's Modernism Week yet? Absolutely. The New York Times did an article a few months ago about Tucson's Mid-Century Modern design and we received emails from all over the world of people who are booking tickets to come to Tucson Modernism Week and see our Mid-Century Week on an equal basis. We're getting emails who are coming here who want to see these architecture treasures and we're working to provide interpretation and opportunities for them to be able to actually go out and see these Mid-Century buildings. During this era it was really a golden age of Tucson's design, an era that was our sort of design movement. We had fashion designers and jewelry designers and industrial designers and architects all working and sharing ideas that were expressing the Sonoran Desert, and so we were putting out to the entire country who we were through our industrial, commercial and architectural design, and I hope that people get excited about our design traditions, and maybe Tucson will become a center of American design again. Do you owe a big debt to Mad Men for triggering all this interest in this era?

Mad Men played a huge part but you sort of see a cyclical tradition of Americans looking back to the past and to early parts of the 20th Century, and getting inspired. In the '80s we saw a huge surge of Art Deco which was harkening back to the '20s and '30s, and in the early 2000s, has certainly been defined by renewed interest in American design from the 1950s and '60s. You have a big party happening at DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun.

Ted DeGrazia was an artist who really took Southwestern design flavors and intentions and sort of created pop art and mass produced it out to the entire country, and has sort of become synonymous with Western kitsch. He built that gallery himself with adobe block. And cactus floors. It's a really remarkable building. It's adobe expressionism, and a rare example from that era of someone using adobe in this interesting modern way. And so to celebrate Modernism Week the Gallery in the Sun is putting on a special exhibit of Ted DeGrazia's Modern work, and that will be Sunday, Oct. 4, from 4 to 6 p.m. and it's free to the public, so we hope people will come out and join us for that, as well as all of the events.

More by Jim Nintzel

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