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Curators Play Detectives

October 21, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ Curators had to become detectives to find such artifacts as old televisions, chairs and radios for an exhibition of 20th century design at the Whitney Museum. And they found their ″art″ in some unusual places.

It took three years to assemble the 300 items in the Whitney’s ″High Styles: Twentieth-Century American Design,″ a retrospective of furniture, textiles, graphics and appliances that have adorned American homes since the turn of the century.

Many of the items, especially those of the recent past, were difficult to find because they are not considered collectors’ items. If they broke or went out of style, they usually ended up on the trash heap.

Most of the early pieces came from museums, but museums only provided about 20 percent of the more modern works. Private collections provided the bulk - and finding many pieces wasn’t easy.

Martin Filler, who assembled a section of the exhibit devoted to 1960-75, wanted an inflatable chair. But such chairs were as substantial as circus balloons and they are not generally considered collectors’ items.

Looking through an old copy of House & Garden, Filler saw a photograph of the chair. A copy of Industrial Design provided the name of the creator, Kip Coburn, a Yale University architecture student in the class of 1968.

Filler began calling Yale graduates. He was told that Coburn lived on a farm ″somewhere in upstate New York.″ Filler tried five area codes before finding Coburn. The designer still had two of his chairs.

Rosemarie Haag Bletter, another curator, had a similar problem when she tried to find two 1939 RCA television sets. Like Filler, she had seen photographs of them in an old magazine. First, she did what any good detective would do: She called RCA.

″They said no, they didn’t have any archives. They didn’t keep a single set.″

Fortunately, there is a fascination with television in the United States, and many people like to tinker with old sets. Bletter found collectors who specialize in appliances and obtained two televisions.

David Gebhard, who assembled the 1915-30 section, wanted a 1925 Atwater- Kent Model 20 Radio. ″We looked and looked and looked, but we couldn’t find it,″ he said.

Then he got the break he was looking for - someone on the Whitney staff had a friend who knew about a New York store called Waves, which specializes in old radios, often providing them for use in movies.

Bruce Mager, the owner of Waves, called eight collectors before finding an available radio. It cost the exhibition $350.

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