Design in the Age of Darwin Review - A Delight

Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art

I have had the opportunity of visiting the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art,
(designed by Chicago architecture firm Loebl, Schlossman, and Hackl), since it was established in 1980 by Chicago art collectors Mary and Leigh B. Block (former vice president of Inland Steel Company).  When it was less known, had more modest exhibits and was trying to make a place for itself, a friend of mine (now deceased) was a docent who spent time and energy establishing programs for children in collaboration with the Evanston Schools.

Fruit wallpaper, 1866 Collection of crab tree farm

Chicago architecture firm Loebl, Schlossman, and Hackl, designed the original building.  In 1989, the museum added the Block's outdoor sculpture garden.  And in 2000, the museum building was expanded with a design by Chicago architectural firm Lohan Associates, that tripled the museum's gallery size.  In addition, the museum's Pick-Laudati Auditorium hosts the Block Cinema, a repertory film series featuring international, classic, and art house cinema with the selection of films curated by students in the Northwestern University Film Society.

Christopher Dresser, Pitcher, ca 1985, Collection of Crab Tree Farm

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I joined the scheduled 2:00 p.m. tour.     Our docent, Sandy Singer, introduced the group to the items in the exhibit, "Design in the Age of Darwin: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright".  We were told about the previously unrecognized relationship between biological evolutionism and English and American decorative arts and architecture during the half-century following the publication of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" (1859).

C.F.A. Voysey, Snakes Among Weeds, ca, 1896, Collection of Crab Tree Farm

During the 50 or so years following the publication of "The Origin of Species," biologists and designers wrestled with the question of whether the evolution of plants and animals, and the decorative forms derived from them, was the result of an internal dynamic presided over by a divine creator or external factors governed by mere contingency.

Our group had the chance to see the 60 pieces in the collection from Crab Tree Farms in Lake Forest, Illinois, the 10 pieces on loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and several items from the Northwestern University Library Collection and more.  The pieces are just beautiful and very contemporary.

C.R. Ashbee, jar, ca 1904, Collection of Crab Tree Farm

The exhibition runs through Aug. 24 in the Block Museum's Main Gallery, Print, Drawing and Photography Study Center and Ellen Philips Katz and Howard C. Katz Gallery, 40 Arts Circle Drive, on the University's Evanston campus. A full-color
140-page full-color exhibition catalogue, "Design in the Age of Darwin: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright" ($36.95), may be purchased at the Block Museum bookstore, ordered online through Northwestern University Press at or by phone at (847) 491-4002. For more information regarding Block Museum exhibitions, programs or location, phone (847) 491-4000 or go to the Block Museum Web site at

Guest curated by Northwestern art history professor Stephen F. Eisenman, the exhibition contains decorative art, furniture, textiles, housewares and other original works of design by Christopher Dresser, William Morris, C.F.A. Voysey, C.R. Ashbee, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. (To view works in the exhibition online,visit

Louis Sullivan, Decorative Panel, Babson Residence, 1907 terra cotta

"The work and writings of the British and American designers and architects highlighted in the exhibition were conceived and developed to a significant degree in response to the Darwinian challenge, if not explicitly to Darwin himself," said Eisenman. "Their works and careers constitute the terms of an implicit debate concerning the question of evolution and natural selection in the practice and theory of the decorative arts."

Special features of the exhibition include a full period room --  a bedroom modeled after designs by the English decorator and architect C.F.A. Voysey -- and an evocative period installation of works by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, including architectural ornaments, furniture, stained glass and a large ceiling fixture.

Frank Lloyd Wright Window, Frederick C. Robie Residence, Chicago,ca 1909

Free guided tours of the exhibition are held at 2 p.m. Saturdays.  Admission to the exhibition and programs is free of charge and reservations are not required. "Design in the Age of Darwin" and "Darwin and Design" are part of American Art American City, a citywide American art initiative sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art that promotes the awareness and enjoyment of historical American art.

The museum currently has over 4,000 pieces in its collection. The museum is particularly known for its sculpture garden as well as its collection of works on paper. Among its collections are strong holdings of works by Chicago-based artists, Nineteenth-Century prints and drawings and photography. In addition to its permanent collection, the museum dedicates one third of its space to temporary and traveling exhibits.

This exhibit is a real treat and can hardly be beat with easy parking and free admission. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday one can park free after 4:00 p.m. and the museum is open until 8:00 p. m.  Parking is also free on Saturday and Sunday.

Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
Northwestern University
40 Arts Circle Drive
Evanston, Illinois 60208
[email protected] Admission to the Block Museum is free. Donations are accepted.
Hours: Monday    Closed
Tuesday    10 AM - 5 PM
Wednesday    10 AM - 8 PM
Thursday    10 AM - 8 PM
Friday                10 AM - 8 PM
Saturday    12 PM - 5 PM
Sunday    12 PM - 5 PM

Additional support for the Block Museum's spring and summer programming is provided by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and the Graduate School, Northwestern University; Alumnae of Northwestern University; American Airlines; Mark Angelson; Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation; Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; Myers Foundations; John K. Notz Jr.; Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art; Trustworth Studios; and Arete Swartz Warren.

In conjunction with Northwestern's Artica Studios, the Block Museum is conducting a five-session adult studio workshop focusing on ceramics that will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. every Saturday, from July 12 to Aug. 9. Reservations are required for the workshop, which will be held at Artica Studios, Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive, Evanston campus. The cost for the workshop is $140 for Block Museum members or $150 for nonmembers and includes all materials and studio time outside of class. Call (847) 491-4852 or e-mail block [email protected] to register for the workshop.

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