Ray of Light

April 2022 View more

John McKinnon likes to think of the Elmhurst Art Museum as an institution that simultaneously honors the past while always looking to the future. It’s little wonder, then, that the multimedia exhibition he has chosen as executive director to celebrate the museum’s 25th anniversary encourages visitors to do likewise.

Houses of Tomorrow: Solar Homes From Keck to Today, which opened in February and runs through the end of May, focuses on the work of the Chicago architecture firm run by brothers George Fred Keck and William Keck, who designed modern, award-winning, affordable homes throughout the Midwest between 1935 and 1979. For Chicago’s A Century of Progress world’s fair in 1933, the Kecks designed the House of Tomorrow, the first glass house in America, featuring new ideas ranging from the first GE dishwasher to a personal airplane hangar and, perhaps most significant, the purposeful use of harnessed solar energy.

“The Kecks built hundreds of homes throughout the Chicagoland area which are very early precursors to today’s solar or green homes,” says McKinnon, who has led the museum for four years. “Rather than looking at the glass as only a stylistic feature, they saw the energy and resource possibilities and worked to incorporate some of those design concepts in their homes going forward. We’re able to look at these through the lens of today to talk about modern design concepts and issues like climate change.”

In addition to a wealth of renderings, photos, and artifacts related to the Kecks’ work—not to mention a full slate of presentations and lectures—the museum has also commissioned for its historic onsite Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed McCormick House (itself celebrating a 70th birthday this year) an installation from artist Jan Tichy centered on glass and light that incorporates original pieces from the 1933 House of Tomorrow. McKinnon hopes that, in conjunction with the broader exhibition, this piece will help visitors see the underlying solar concepts in a new, well, light.

“He’s borrowed reflective and household objects to show how light plays with these items,” he says. “That’s one of the really exciting things for visitors, and a good argument for why they need to come see this in person rather than just checking it out online or looking at a book on solar history.”

To that last point, McKinnon says the new exhibition serves not only as a hat tip to the museum’s 25th anniversary, but also a beacon to welcome visitors back after two years of pandemic-related closures and disruptions (covering half of his tenure as executive director). And while he’s proud of everything the museum has accomplished and represented in its first quarter-century, like the Keck brothers, he’s most interested in looking toward tomorrow.

“I’m really interested now in where we take things going forward,” he says. “We’ve found new ways to present our core concepts in new ways in every exhibition, and that’s always exciting. Playing with those ideas and finding new ways to innovate and plan new programs and bring in new audiences is what drives us.”

Houses of Tomorrow: Solar Homes From Keck to Today runs through
May 29. elmhurstartmuseum.org

Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Hedrich Blessing Collection