The 1920s was a creatively explosive period in the realm of design. In the United States, what emerged was a distinctive American style achieved in a distinctively American way—through a blend of cultural sources from overseas, changing social mores, and the introduction of new technology and industrial design into the home. Many hesitated to adopt the new. Americans had limited exposure to modern European design during World War I and in its immediate aftermath. “Good taste” continued to be defined by traditional designs, be they colonial revival styles or imported antiques. But a restored American enthusiasm for travel abroad—particularly to Paris, long held as the leading center of fashion, art, and design—led to a burst of artistic innovation. At the same time, the country saw the arrival of a wave of talented designers, primarily from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, who fled the postwar social upheavals and economic uncertainties in Europe. Their beacon was that American architectural innovation, the skyscraper, a symbol of thriving innovation (see Fig. 8).
Although the influence of modernist European designers had reached U.S. shores before the 1920s, it took the power of Paris—both before and as a result of the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes—to convince consumers to try something new. Many Americans attended the exposition, including artists, designers—Donald Deskey, Gilbert Rohde, Ruth Reeves, Kem Weber, Eugene Schoen to name a few—and their future patrons, including the Solomon Guggenheims (see Fig. 16). Some Americans also studied abroad—Reeves, Deskey, Joseph Stella, and Marion Dorn among them. At home the effects of these influences were manifested in gallery displays, department store shows, and museum exhibitions—all eagerly covered by journalists.
Americans first encountered new styles in the colorful exoticism and fantasy of the productions of the Ballets Russes, which first toured the United States in 1916, and Vienna-trained Joseph Urban’s stage designs. Urban arrived in 1912 as an architect-designer, and began his American career designing opera sets, first for the Boston Opera and later for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He then transferred his talents to the blossoming film industry, including William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions, for which he designed sets and directed numerous films. Several starred actress Marion Davies, including Enchantment (1921), which featured the first modern interiors seen in cinema. Urban would go on to design for theaters and commercial spaces, devising panels for the Ziegfeld Theatre (painted by Lillian Gaertner) in 1927 (Fig. 4) and the roof garden restaurant of the Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati, 1928 (Fig. 12).
After a visit to Vienna in 1921, Urban also hoped to advance the cause of modern design in the United States by promoting the Wiener Werkstätte. He underwrote and designed what turned out to be a short-lived store that opened in New York in June 1922, offering the sleek products of the progressive Viennese workshops. Among the pieces Urban commissioned for the store was a silver tea set in a low rectangular format by Joseph Hoffmann (Fig. 6). It may well have inspired German-born silversmith Peter Müller-Munk about a decade later. The architect Ely Jacques Kahn purchased a silver bowl by Hoffmann and a silver vase by Dagobert Peche (Fig. 9)—but that was one of the few times the cash register rang at the shop, which closed by the beginning of 1924. One of the first female screenwriters, Frances Marion, later acquired the tea set from Urban.
The designer Paul T. Frankl also arrived in New York from Vienna before World War I, and struggled similarly to find acceptance for contemporary designs when he opened a store in the city. There was a larger audience for his offerings of Asian pieces collected on his travels than for his own and others’ designs.1 Frankl’s star rose when he started thinking about truly original American forms. He did not attend the 1925 Paris exposition. Instead he worked in a studio near Woodstock, New York, manipulating a series of wood boxes to hold books, massing them in ways that suggested the great American design contribution of the day—the skyscraper. He emerged with the basics of what became his Skyscraper furniture, and started to sell the desks and bookcases in his New York gallery in 1926 (Fig. 3).
Originally conceived in natural and stained woods, the furniture evolved when Frankl met Donald Deskey soon after introducing his first Skyscraper designs. Deskey, recently back from France, where he had seen lacquered screens by Jean Dunand and others, was producing his own. Some had graced the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue (see Fig. 13). Frankl asked Deskey to create some screens and other accessories (Fig. 5) for his gallery, which may have led to Frankl’s addition of the shinier and more colorful surfaces favored by Deskey to his Skyscraper forms. Thus, the most American of 1920s avant-garde American furniture design came at the hand of an Austrian-born designer who updated the look of his original conceptions after contact with an American-born designer who found inspiration in Paris—a true example of what might be called “melting pot modern.”
A cosmopolitan class of American modern design enthusiasts began to grow. Typical members were the theatrical and film publicity agent, playwright, and movie producer Glendon Allvine and his wife, Louise, who had discovered the modern movement in Paris and Los Angeles. They acquired a stepped screen with zigzag design by Deskey for the starkly white International Style modern house they built on Long Island completed in 1929. The example in Figure 1, with stepped tops going in the opposite direction, may have been conceived as a mate. The Allvines also had a coverlet made from Ruth Reeves’s thunderbolt-patterned Electric textile, which was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1930 and available for purchase at the W & J Sloane department store. Reeves envisioned the fabric being used to decorate a room devoted to radio listening; the Allvines put it on a steel bed Reeves designed.2
Vienna-trained Frederick Kiesler, an architect and theater and ballet set designer, immigrated to New York in 1926. He had joined the De Stijl artistic movement, and Hoffmann asked him to design the Austrian Pavilion at the Paris exposition of 1925. In Manhattan, Kiesler put his background in theater to use styling shop windows, including some for Saks Fifth Avenue. His first domestic furniture commission—a pair of beds—came in 1933 from fellow Austrian émigré, textile designer Marguerite Mergentime. The wood and metal beds, with their built-in storage and reading lamp attachment, were an early example of the functionalism that made modern design attractive to apartment dwellers (Fig. 2).
Among the German architect-designers who came to the United States was Walter von Nessen—whose tiered conical lamp and dramatic chair suggest building setbacks (Figs. 7, 14). Others included Kem Weber, Richard Neutra, and Jock Peters, who made their careers on the West Coast. Like their New York counterparts, Weber and Peters found success through department stores. Peters designed the interior of Bullocks Wilshire and its display accessories in 1929. Weber’s Modes and Manners shop opened in Barker Brothers in 1926. Weber designed most of the furnishings, but also included elements by Paul Frankl.3
Before department stores, museums led the way introducing Americans to fresh design ideas. Newark Museum director Charles Cotton Dana initiated a series of exhibitions of contemporary European decorative arts in 1909 with the aim of informing museumgoers and allowing for museum acquisition. By the late 1910s the Metropolitan Museum of Art had hired a curator of industrial design, Richard Bach, and introduced new designs in annual exhibitions of “Industrial Art.” Alongside Bach, the museum had a curator of decorative arts, Joseph Breck, who acquired works for the permanent collection. In 1922 Tiffany & Co.’s chief designer and president, Edward C. Moore Jr., set up a fund with an initial endowment of ten thousand dollars to allow the Met to acquire contemporary decorative arts. This enabled Breck to buy or commission some extraordinary works of modern design by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and other leading French designers, as well as examples from the Wiener Werkstätte (see Fig. 15).
The Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Cleveland Museum of Art were among the venues for a pared-down American version of the Paris 1925 exhibition that traveled the United States beginning in 1926. When at the Met, the show was titled A Selected Collection of Objects from the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art at Paris 1925. While its chief focus was on French design, it included Scandinavian, Austrian, and Italian works seen in the Paris exposition, most of which were for sale, and sold along the way. Even as the Met’s president, Robert W. de Forest, promoted the arts of the nation’s past in the museum’s American Wing, which opened in 1924, he was an active purchaser of modern European works from the Selected exhibition.
Strong ties developed between the museums—particularly the Met—and department stores, which were not only introducing shoppers to the look of modern design, but also putting it in their homes. In New York, both Lord & Taylor and R. H. Macy & Co. presented small shows of novel furnishings in 1926 and 1927.4 They went all out the following year. In the spring Lord & Taylor staged an Exposition of Modern French Decorative Art, accompanied by a catalogue. Although Dorothy Shaver, head of fashion and decoration at Lord & Taylor, included some non-French work, the focus was on displaying French design as chic and accessible. Later that year, Macy’s mounted An International Exposition of Art in Industry, an ambitious show that included room settings by Weber as well as the von Nessen chair in Figure 14. In his foreword to the Macy’s exhibition catalogue, de Forest joined the show to the Met’s own efforts: “Every progressive museum in recent years has felt it to be an essential public duty to serve commerce by making available for study and inspiration the cultural resources in its collections. Special exhibits of industrial art are a feature of this service and have a stimulating effect, with ever widening response.”5
Both Macy’s and Lord & Taylor also offered to make special modified versions of the European originals they presented in their 1928 exhibitions. One bride-to-be, Marie-Louise Montgomery, availed herself of the opportunity to have Lord & Taylor make a vanity and bench based on Léon Jallot pieces of the same form. In place of lavish materials such as exotic hardwood veneers, ivory, and shagreen that Jallot employed in his versions, Lord & Taylor used inexpensive wood and a coat of striking red lacquer paint (Fig. 10). French designers fumed, but the concept of making good design more affordable through less expensive treatments was part of the American mission. The broadening of the consumer market for new styles, often made with new technologies and materials, enabled American consumers to feel more familiar with modern design when they made their design decisions on the cusp of the Great Depression. The democratization of design without social upheaval was an American contribution to the modern movement. The interaction of people from a variety of backgrounds, both geographic and educational, with broader design resources that complemented mass production, produced a melting-pot modernism. This new American design style was another powerful aspect of the rhythm, color, and sense of adventure of the Jazz Age.
The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s is on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York from April 7 to August 20 and at the Cleveland Museum of Art from September 30 to January 14, 2018.
1 The latter included wallpapers by modern Austrian, German, French, and American designers that he gave to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in the late 1920s—where they became some of the earliest examples of contemporary design accepted into the museum’s collection. 2 Both the Deskey screen owned by the Allvines and the Reeves-designed bed on which the coverlet was used are in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. 3 Christopher Long, “Kem Weber and the rise of modern design in Southern California,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 175, no. 5 (May 2009), pp. 96–103. 4 The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired some large textile panels from the 1926 exhibition. 5 Robert W. de Forest, “An Initial Experiment,” foreword to R. H. Macy, An International Exposition of Art in Industry (1928), p. 4.
SARAH D. COFFIN is the head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where she has curated numerous exhibitions. Along with Stephen Harrison, she is co-curator (and co-author of the accompanying catalogue) of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, organized by Cooper Hewitt and the Cleveland Museum of Art.