Their former student Gertrude Esteros remembers them as the “shining lights” and the “most favored instructors on the St. Paul campus” of the University of Minnesota. In an era when women rarely explored the options beyond home and family, the Goldstein sisters, Harriet and Vetta, were determined to bring professionalism and dignity to work that was too easily dismissed as the domestic background to the more important business of public life.
The Goldsteins—and even decades after their deaths, those who know their legacy are still carefully correcting the pronunciation of anyone who refers to them as anything but the Gold-STINES—were professors of home economics at the University of Minnesota from the early years of the 20th century to their simultaneous retirement in 1949. The never-married sisters lived together their entire lives. When they weren’t teaching, they were often traveling—and collecting objects of practical beauty that they used as teaching aids in their classes, in order to emphasize the importance of aesthetic values in the circumstances of ordinary domestic life.
In 1976, their collection formed the core of a new exhibition space that the university named in their honor. Originally called the Goldstein Gallery, the original display venue has grown into what is now known as the Goldstein Museum of Design in McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Ave., on the St. Paul campus.
The collection numbers 34,000 items and, this year, the museum leaders decided to honor its 40th anniversary by inviting area design experts to choose a representative 40 items from the collection for a show called Seeing 40/40. The result is a pageant of mostly 20th-century good taste and cutting-edge design, including icons like Marimekko prints, a rya rug, a Burberry raincoat, a Chanel suit and other items familiar to anyone who ever tried to furnish an apartment or flip through a fashion magazine in the middle decades of the last century.
Associate curator Jean McElvain was responsible for drawing up an initial list of 75 items from the collection for the selectors to choose among. “I tried to look for a variety of items,” she says about the process. “Textiles, dresses, pottery, things that hadn’t been displayed recently.” In choosing a mere 75 items from among the riches of the collection, McElvain says, “I was constantly giving up things I love.” Although she insisted that all the chosen items are “amazing,” she did single out the Rudi Gernrich “monokini”—a topless swimsuit from 1964 that was probably never worn anywhere beyond a designer show runway—for special mention.
“It’s such a bizarre piece. [Designer Gernrich] simultaneously uses and exploits the female body; even as he says he’s trying to liberate women.”
McElvain says that the museum’s collection, which is dependent on donations, is still made up largely of objects that would fit into the original categories of textiles and domestic art objects favored by the Goldstein sisters. She cites haute couture dresses and examples of 19th-century Rookwood art pottery. “It’s unusual to find items like these in Minnesota,” she says. “But we also look toward product design and industrial design” she adds, noting that the collection contains well-designed telephones, representative Sony Walkman examples and iPads.
And then there are a few items that might simply be labeled “unclassifiable.” One of the oddest finds in the museum’s archives was “the accession of a decades-old piece of wedding cake,” says McElvain. “Amazing things have been accessioned—bobby pins, for example.”
For the most part, though, McElvain says that if they were able to see the collection now, the Goldstein sisters “might be surprised at its depth and quality … [as well as] the sheer number of beautiful objects collected in their names.”
Joanne B. Eicher, Regents Professor Emerita and resident of University Grove, was the director of the Goldstein during the 1980s. It was known as the Goldstein Gallery then, but during Eicher’s time, there were efforts to make it “more like a museum and not just exhibit space.” Eicher recalls with special pleasure a show she mounted called “Please Be Seated,” which was built around the work of Herman Miller, designer of the famous 20th-century chairs. She also speaks fondly of “Paris in the Cities,” a display of couture clothing owned by fashionable women in the Twin Cities “that showed we weren’t just Midwestern flyover country.”
Eicher chose a brightly colored cotton sundress by American designer Donald Brooks as her representative object for the current 40/40 exhibit. The dress had belonged to Dolly Fiterman, long a fine-arts dealer and trendsetter in the Twin Cities. “Dolly was a character,” says Eicher, “but she was more than a character. She was very astute. And I enjoyed the way she dressed.”
Another area resident, Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center and longtime former dean of the College of Design, selected an iconic American household object for the current exhibit, the teakettle designed by architect Michael Graves. The teakettle on display at the Goldstein was manufactured by the Italian firm Alessi, but the same design was later mass-produced for Target.
“I knew Michael,” says Fisher. “He liked working with Target. Good design should be available to everyone, he believed.” Choosing the teakettle with its personal associations, says Fisher, “makes me feel a little historical myself.”
Gertrude Esteros, who recently celebrated her 102nd birthday, was a professor of home economics and the first director of the Goldstein Gallery. She recalls the grand opening 40 years ago as an exciting hands-on experience for everyone involved. “The students participated in everything,” even to the point of helping to set up chairs and displays. Esteros, who received her B.A. in 1936, also remembers the Goldsteins: “Harriet was my graduate adviser. Vetta was my undergrad adviser.” Although Harriet had died earlier, Vetta Goldstein was present at the opening ceremonies in 1976.
Esteros says she learned a great deal from the Goldstein sisters, but “the most important thing they taught me was that art is part of anything and everything you do.” Whether furnishing a house, preparing a meal or planning your wardrobe, says Esteros, “Art is involved.”
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The Goldstein Museum of Design is located at 1985 Buford Ave. on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota. The exhibit Seeing 40/40: 40 Years of Collecting will run through January 8, 2017.
When she’s not writing about community news, Judy Woodward spends her time as a reference librarian at the Roseville Library.