Reviewed April 2019
Heather Saunders, Director of Ingalls Library
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Syracuse University’s Marcel Breuer Digital Archive features drawings, photographs, letters, manuscripts, and office and teaching records created by and related to the 20th Century Hungarian-born, US-based architect and furniture designer. At the time of writing, there are 83,275 records from Syracuse University as well as numerous partner institutions, including Vitra Design Museum, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others. Access is free and unencumbered, with no need to create an account. At the record level, a broad audience is embraced, thanks to well-written didactic texts. At the project level, familiarity with Breuer appears assumed, as realized and unrealized projects are browsable in alphabetical order by project name, as opposed to chronologically, which would convey Breuer’s evolving style. Novices may wish to consult the timeline linked from the site’s comprehensive Resources section for an overview of Breuer’s formidable career. Assuming the archive is geared to scholars and, thus, more involved research, the lack of mobile device scalability is not an issue.
Overall, finessing the design and troubleshooting the functionality would do this treasure trove greater justice. The design feels simultaneously au courant and passé. The header on each page displays Breuer’s signature above “Digital Archive” in a sans serif font with a hairline underline; the combination is evocative of the simplicity of his mid-century modern design but also current minimalist branding such as the recent Netflix sensation, Tidying up with Marie Kondo. The ample white space on the homepage feels reminiscent of Google, but at the cost of practicality: the wideness of margins requires users to scroll past the fold to read but 84 words remaining in the section Navigating the Archive. Having a near miss of a seamless experience feels outdated.
Scrolling to the bottom of the homepage rewards the user with a manual rotation of thumbnails (six at a time) of Breuer’s projects. If the user is compelled to zoom into a thumbnail image—and the detail is superb—it is necessary to click on the thumbnail and then search based on media for the corresponding image in the results list, as zooming can only be done from that file. For projects containing few files, this set-up is relatively convenient. In contrast, Breuer’s aluminum lounge chair with zebra print upholstery must be found among 122 photos, either by scrolling through them or by ordering the results by title and cross-referencing the results with the caption from the slightly enlarged image accompanying the didactic. Fortunately, images load quickly and their URLs are stable. From the results list or the zoomed image, users can flag images to be emailed, but this reviewer experienced issues: not being able to add content to the necessary bookbag (on a PC in Microsoft Edge) and never receiving it via email (on a Mac in Firefox and Chrome). Nonexistent email addresses go undetected.
Lastly, the degree of metadata is extensive but there are glitches with display. For example, in the Name List (one of four menu options), clicking on People causes the list to begin with a series of seemingly inexplicable initials. Selecting “A., H.” from the list provides an option to search related materials; that in turn leads to the advanced search (which, incidentally, offers an autocomplete function), revealing that the reference is to “Irving and Casson – A. H. Davenport Co.” However, searching the Name List under Firms rather than People necessitates looking under the letter “I” and not “A” for this manufacturing company. Also, some information is repeated; for example, for the photograph, General View. Preliminary Excavation to Level R.L. 29:00, “Paris, France,” “English,” and “Australian Embassy” are each listed twice in a row. These shortcomings may lengthen and complicate the user experience, but the scope of content is sure to impress students and scholars of architecture and design history.
*Disclosure note: While Cleveland Museum of Art contributed material to the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive, CMA is not an official partner on the project. All opinions are the reviewer's own.