At home in modernism: The John C. Waddell collection of American design

Photography by John M. Hall | from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2012 |

The art of today must be created today," the designer and author Paul T. Frankl wrote in 1928. "It must express the life about us. It must reflect the main characteristics and earmarks of our own complex civilization."1 Over the past four decades, collector John C. Waddell has explored the idea behind Frankl's words. He has acquired objects that chart and celebrate America's embrace of modernism during the second quarter of the twentieth century.

An inveterate collector since childhood, Waddell became interested in decorative arts and design in the early 1970s when he regularly visited Lillian Nassau's storied gallery on East Fifty-Seventh Street in New York. "I was captivated by the buzz-to-enter lock on the front door and the splendor of the offerings within," Waddell recalls. Nassau took a liking to him as well, "perhaps because I had a penchant and eye for objects." He bought his first piece of American modern design in 1972, a chromium-plated standing lamp with three stacked cones for a shade, designed in 1928 by Walter von Nessen (Fig. 1). Waddell also became a habitué of Fifty/50, the New York gallery that opened in the early 1980s and quickly became a clubhouse for gallery on East Fifty-Seventh Street in New York. "I was captivated by the buzz-to-enter lock on the front door and the splendor of the offerings within," Waddell recalls. Nassau took a liking to him as well, "perhaps because I had a penchant and eye for objects."

He bought his first piece of American modern design in 1972, a chromium-plated standing lamp with three stacked cones for a shade, designed in 1928 by Walter von Nessen (Fig. 1). Waddell also became a habitué of Fifty/50, the New York gallery that opened in the early 1980s and quickly became a clubhouse for aficionados of modern design. In 1983 the Yale University Art Gallery staged the exhibition At Home in Manhattan: Modern Decorative Arts, 1925 to the Depression, which helped solidify Waddell's interest in this period. As his own collection grew, Waddell matched his "eye for objects" with scholarly rigor, maintaining correspondence with a wide range of dealers, curators, and scholars.

In 2000 Waddell gave a significant gift of objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This donation formed the core of the traveling exhibition American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age. He has also been a long-time supporter of the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, which presented him with the Brooklyn Museum/Modernism Distinguished Collector Award in 2008. A graduate of Yale College, Waddell recently gave a substantial portion of his collection to the Yale University Art Gallery. His gift is included in A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery, 1920-1950, a collection catalogue that explores American modern objects in all mediums.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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