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

Waddell's New York City apartment is filled with striking examples of American design from between the wars. "My chief interest is an object's place in the story of modernism that began to unfold here around 1925," Waddell observes. "I tend to be primarily influenced by a work's date and contribution to the historical narrative." Initially he collected industrial material designed in the 1930s (see Fig. 3). Over the past decade, his collecting energies have narrowed to the second half of the 1920s, the years when American manufacturers and consumers first embraced modernism.


The political and cultural isolationism that pervaded the UnitedStates following World War I made many Americans skeptical of contemporary European design. "It is the easiest thing in the world to poke fun at the modernist movement in decoration," House and Garden commented in 1921. "You can claim that interiors done in the modernist style would be difficult to live with. Or you can say that they do not fit our type of life here in America."2 This skepticism began to fade, though, after Americans visited or read about the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925, which promoted the modernist movement. One American who visited the fair was Reuben Haley, a freelance mold maker for the glass and ceramic industries.3 Shortly after returning home from France, Haley worked with the Fulper Pottery Company on a striking ceramic pattern called Square Modern (Fig. 2). The angled, layered shapes show the influence of contemporary Czechoslovakian ceramics as well as of cubism. Fulper introduced Square Modern at the January 1926 glass and ceramic trade fair in Pittsburgh, a mere three months after the Paris fair closed. It is one of the earliest-known examples of modernist design produced by an American manufacturer.4 

Haley is best known for the Ruba Rombic line he created for Consolidated Lamp and Glass in 1928.5 This extensive line of glassware had jagged profiles and faceted surfaces inspired by cubism. During the late 1920s Americans were fascinated by cubistic designs; the angular decoration was aggressively modern and matched the frantic exuberance of the Jazz Age (Fig. 5). Haley also designed the Rombic line of ceramic vases for Muncie Clay Products, which used similar fractured shapes and was introduced the same year as Ruba Rombic. Ruba Rombic glass and Rombic ceramics were among the most exuberant expressions of cubism in American design, but they were not alone. Over the years Waddell has amassed a broad collection of cubistic designs in glass, ceramic, silver, textiles, and even a cubistic clock.

Haley was not the only American who drew inspiration from the Paris fair. Donald Deskey was studying painting in Paris when he and his wife attended the exposition in 1925. He was so captivated by what he saw that he decided to return to New York and become a designer. In 1927 Deskey and his colleague Phillip Vollmer established Deskey-Vollmer Incorporated, which manufactured furniture, lighting, and other objects (see Fig. 4). A saw-tooth table lamp designed by Deskey in 1927 and a console table he designed in 1932 for the interiors of Radio City Music Hall show his joint interest in repeated geometric forms and avant-garde materials. The table lamp is chromium-plated metal, a technology that was only perfected for commercial use in 1924. Deskey helped pioneer the application of industrial aluminum for domestic purposes; the base of the console table is three strips of aluminum that curve elegantly at the base. Before establishing Deskey-Vollmer, Deskey sold a series of geometrically painted objects through Rena Rosenthal, whose eponymous shop was instrumental in promoting progressive design in America. In 1927 Rosenthal commissioned Fulper Pottery to manufacture a cigarette casket decorated with arcs and triangles. Deskey used a similar pattern in his own work, suggesting that he may have provided Rosenthal with the design for the casket.6

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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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