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

Most of the objects in Waddell's collection were made in an industrial setting, although few were produced in large numbers. "There's a common assumption that this material, being less than a century old and typically serially produced, has survived in abundance," Waddell notes. "For many of the more important works, this is proving not to be true. Production was limited; demand was modest; and much has been lost." A group of metal housewares makes this point (Fig. 10). Kem Weber intended his 1928 Today line for the Friedman Silver Company to include over one hundred designs, but fabrication apparently was cut short after fifteen were produced, underscoring how companies needed to balance innovation with profitability.13 A notable number of modern metal designs were for drinking paraphernalia, suggesting that early proponents of American modernism also enjoyed evading Prohibition. Bernard Rice's Sons transformed a skyscraper into a silverplate cocktail shaker while Russel Wright explored austere geometric shapes for a pewter cocktail service. After repeal, Creative Design declared that "drinking, for America, is superbly modern."14 But as the shakers in Waddell's collection prove, for some Americans it always had been.

 

Over the four decades that Waddell has been collecting American modernism, he has seen it become firmly ensconced in the narrative of American material culture. "The window to collect the best of the earliest examples of American modern is nearly closed," he reflects, although he remains undeterred as scholars continue to explore the late 1910s and early 1920s. "Any object reflecting the form and spirit of early modernism deserves a second look."

 

1 Paul T. Frankl, New Dimensions: The Decorative Arts of Today in Words and Pictures (Payson and Clarke, New York, 1928), p. 16.  2 "Modernist Decoration in Paris," House and Garden, vol. 39, no. 1 (January 1921), p. 30.  3 Biographical information for Haley and all other designers comes from John Stuart Gordon, A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery, 1920-1950 (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2011).  4 Some handmade modernist objects and furniture were produced in the UnitedStates before 1925, but large-scale manufacturers and retailers took longer to adopt the new style. 
5 Consolidated fabricated the cubic glassware until they closed the factory in 1933, but the molds were purchased by the Phoenix Glass Company, which continued production until 1936. Gordon, A Modern World, p. 61.  6 This same decoration appears on a cigarette box by Deskey given by Waddell to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on a screen illustrated in David Hanks and Amy Toher, Donald Deskey: Decorative Designs and Interiors (E.P. Dutton, New York, 1987), p. 161.  7 For a full discussion of Weber see 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.  8 Paul T. Frankl, Form and Re-Form: A Practical Handbook of Modern Interiors (Harper and Brothers, New York, 1930), p. 170.  9 For a full discussion of the genesis of Frankl's Skyscraper furniture see Christopher Long, Paul T. Frankl and Modern American Design (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2007), pp. 66-67.  10 Paul T. Frankl, "Furniture of the Fourth Dimension," House and Garden, vol. 51, no. 2 (February 1927), pp. 77, 140.  11 Martin Filler, "A rare Kem Weber chair shows the European side of American modernism," The Magazine Antiques, vol.  173, no. 5 (May 2008), pp. 90-93.  12 "Style Trends at Grand Rapids," Good Furniture, vol. 33, no. 1 (July 1929), p. 48.  13 "Weber's Designs Shown," Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1929.  14 "Two Slants on Contemporary Silver," Creative Design, vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1934), p. 15.

 

John stuart gordon is the Benja­min Attmore Hewitt Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery.

 

 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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