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American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age

 

If ever there is an exhibition that illustrates the competitive creative spirit of Americans, it is American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age. Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Federation of Arts, with support by the National Patrons of the AFA, this landmark exhibition dramatically demonstrates, through 150 objects, the unprecedented ascent of modern design that was unmistakably American in style and character. The furniture, appliances, posters, textiles, tableware and even literally, the bathroom sink, from 60 designers, including Norman Bel Geddes, Donald Deskey, Paul Frankl, Raymond Loewy, Isamu Noguchi, Eliel Saarinen, Walter Dorwin Teague, Walter von Nessen and Russel Wright are on display in American Modern at Charlotte, NC's Mint Museum of Craft + Design, May 4 through July 28, 2002. (left: Frank Lloyd Wright, Desk and Chair,1936)

At the turn of the century, the United States was reaching full economic and cultural maturity. Artists such as John Singer Sargent, Winslow Horner and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were earning international recognition. In acknowledgment, America was offered a prime location in the monumental 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes to demonstrate the skill and latest achievement of American craftsmen and manufacturers. The organizers stipulated that works must show "new inspiration and real originality" of the modern decorative and industrial arts. Imitation of ancient styles was strictly prohibited.

It must have come as a great shock to Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to learn from leading art and education consultants that there was no modern design in America. Despite the exceptional work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, virtually all of American design in 1925 was heavily dependent on historic precedent. The United States declined the invitation. To American designers, the gauntlet had been thrown down in much the same manner as the later 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik challenged American scientists. (left: Paul T. Frankl, Skyscraper Bookcase, c. 1927)

In the initial response, much of America' s modernist design reflected the widespread influence of the Paris fair which brought to international prominence the chic French luxury style of Art Deco, with its emphasis on costly materials and fine workmanship. Dramatic economic, industrial and technological changes, however, would significantly impact design during this time of drastic growth in mass production and mass consumption.

America's most innovative designers adapted the clean lines, pure geometric forms and machine-made materials of Germany's Bauhaus movement which forged an alliance between art and industry. The onset of the Depression served to enhance the aim of the Bauhaus to create objects that were both attractive and affordable.

A decisive factor in the start of American design dominance was the huge influx of foreign talent. More than a third of the designers in American Modern were immigrants drawn by economic opportunity or escape from political oppression. They found a country receptive to entrepreneurs, even if their radical new design styles were not yet widely understood. Finnish architect-designer Eliel Saarinen brought new elegance, subtlety and sophistication to American modernist design as seen by his Tea and Coffee Urn and Tray (c. 1934). The spherical urn, mounted on an openwork cylindrical stand and decorated with a delicate vertical finial, combines modernist geometric aesthetics with classical sense of proportion and ornament. Hungarian-born Ilonka Karasz's pair of cone-shaped bowls (c.1930), made of electroplated nickel silver and resting on stands made of crossed metal plates, also catered to the taste for mathematical precision and a machine-made look.

Not only designers and manufacturers, but department stores, museums and galleries joined in an effort to promote innovative work in overcoming the country's generally conservative taste for traditional forms. During the Depression many companies turned to modern styling as a novelty they hoped would spur plunging sales. The clean, sleek, fun and affordable modern pieces lifted flagging American spirits during an uncertain and erratic time. Foremost in influence were three landmark design exhibitions organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929, 1934 and 1940 which popularized new materials and encouraged designers to work with American industry. Dozens of the works on display in American Modern first appeared publicly at the three exhibitions. (left: Lurelle Guild, Electrolux, Model 30, Vacuum Cleaner, c. 1937)

Industrial designers such as Walter Dorwin Teague came to prominence. While American designers absorbed and profited from European influences, they sought ways to give their work an unmistakably American stamp. Paul Frankl's Skyscraper Bookcase (c. 1927) with its strong vertical lines and staggered setbacks, is evocative of the Manhattan skyline that spawned a rash of skyscraper-related objects, from cocktail shakers to textiles. While ultimately too extreme and eccentric, Frankl's look paved the way for streamlining.

Developed by aerodynamic engineers as a means of minimizing air resistance, streamlining, with its bullet profiles and flowing lines, not only made objects move faster -- it made them look fast. Not only were cars, planes and trains streamlined, but so were a whole range of stationary household objects including Kem Weber's Airline Armchair (c. 1934), Lurelle Guild's Electrolux, Model 30, Vacuum Cleaner (c. 1937) and Egmont Aren's Streamline Meat Slicer (1940).

Industrial materials like cork, linoleum and tubular steel and new materials such as Bakelite and Vitrolite became components of modern architecture, furniture and household goods. On display in American Modern is the first plastic shell chair ever made. Framed in tubular steel and rendered in Plexiglass, Gilbert Rohde's curvy clear-plastic seat was a prototype made for the 1939 World's Fair. It never went into production because Plexiglass was taken out of commercial use by the federal government and diverted for use in the windshields of military aircraft when war broke out in Europe that same year.

By 1940 a noticeable shift had occurred in American tastes. The vogue for dynamism, speed and sophistication gave way to an approach that valued comfort. The Scandinavian emphasis on softer, organic shapes, designed to conform more closely to the human hand and body, was taken up with brilliant success by Russel Wright. His line of American Modern Dinnerware which debuted in 1937 and ultimately sold more than 80 million pieces is on display in the exhibition. Other examples include J. Robert F. Swanson's maple and stainless steel Flexible Home Arrangements Nesting Tables (c. 1940) and "user-friendly" kitchen utensils by Henry Dreyfus.

By the start of the 1939-40 World's Fair in New York City, Americans dominated design innovation. Designers had found a middle ground, encompassing both the precision of the machine aesthetic and the nostalgic warmth of hand craftsmanship. Designs were practical, livable and comfortable, quintessential American traits that transformed the American domestic landscape.

An illustrated 192 page publication, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the American Federation of Arts, accompanies the exhibition with essays by guest curator J. Stewart Johnson. Objects featured in the exhibition and the publication are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection and from the John C. Waddell Collection, a major promised gift to the Metropolitan.

American Modern, 1925-1940 travels to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, August 23 - November 10, 2002.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Mint Museum of Art / Mint Museum of Craft+Design in Resource Library Magazine.


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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