Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939

Editorial Staff Art, Exhibitions

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2012 |

In 1851 Albert, prince consort of Queen Victoria, and the architect Henry Cole realized their grand vision of an international exhibition where the traditions, aspirations, and accomplishments of many nations were showcased.1

Hardware at the Great Exhibition by Joseph Nash (1809-1878), from Dickenson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London 1852). Color lithograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


This noble endeavor, known officially as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, or most familiarly as the Crystal Palace, had an underlying motivation: to inspire improvements in design in the industrial or decorative arts. Its legacy of 140 events held over the ensuing 160 years in thirty countries around the globe firmly established the role of the world’s fair as a forum for displaying technological advancements and defining fashionable taste. Marvels such as the sewing machine and the telephone, as well as architectural novelties like the Eiffel Tower and the Ferris Wheel, made their debuts at these fairs. Many of the exhibitions were broad in scope, displaying decorative arts alongside paintings, sculpture, and agricultural products; others, like the 1902 exhibition in Turin and the 1925 fair in Paris, concentrated on the decorative arts alone. Altogether, as the most important vehicles for introducing objects to an international audience on a large scale, the fairs held between 1851 and 1939 democratized design for the first time.

A constant push and pull between historicism and modernism defined the fairs, and this tension generated some of the most exciting developments in the decorative arts and in the creation of objects for modern living. Innovation took on many forms. Decorative arts frequently revived materials and fabrication techniques in inventive ways. A recently rediscovered coupe displayed at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle is a worthy demonstration of Parisian techniques and motifs revived from the Renaissance.2 A triumph of enamel and gilding the handles, mounts, and foot are masterfully executed in brilliant hues that are carefully controlled to depict realistic shading and natural gradations of color. The mounted agate bowl and a handful of other objects by Charles Duron are based on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century royal gems and jewels displayed in the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre, which was reinstalled in 1861 on the orders of Napoleon III to educate and inspire artisans as well as the general public.3 Such museum exhibitions promoted historicism by perpetuating a connection with the past, just as many of the precious hard stones-agate, bloodstone, and lapis lazuli-used by nineteenth-century artists were themselves antiques.4

  • Centerpiece and bolws designed by Marianne Rath (1904-1985), made by Karlsbader Kristallglasfabriken, Czechoslovakia (Karlovy Vary), retailed by J. and L. Lobmeyr, Vienna, c. 1925. Glass; width 16 1/8. Collection of J. and L. Lobmeyr, Vienna.
  • Coupe by Charles Duron (1814-1872), c. 1867. Agate with gilded and enameled brass; height 5, width 7 1/4 inches. Carnegie Museum of Art, Women’s committee Acquisition Fund, gift of Baroness Cassel Van Doorn, by exchange, and Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.
  • Coupe by Charles Duron (1814-1872), c. 1867. Agate with gilded and enameled brass; height 5, width 7 1/4 inches. Carnegie Museum of Art, Women’s committee Acquisition Fund, gift of Baroness Cassel Van Doorn, by exchange, and Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.
  • Pitcher by Keller Freres, Paris, 1900. Silver-gilt: height 10 1/4 inches. Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris.
  • Zaire centerpiece bowl designed by Raymond Ruys, (1885-1956), made by Delheid Frerers, Brussels, 1930. Silver; height 5 1/4 inches. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, purchase, Charlotte and Perry Faeth Fund.
  • Fig. 18

    Vanity and ottoman designed by Gilbert Rohde (1894-1944), made by Herman Miller Furniture Company, Zeeland, Michigan, 1934. Painted white holly, red English elm, yellow poplar, chromium-plated steel, mirrored glass, Bakelte, and original wool upholstery.  Vanity: height 66 1/4, width 51 3/4, depth 15 3/4 inches; ottoman: height 17 1/2 inches. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

  • Bracelet by Maison Boucheron, French, 1926. Platinum, osmium, gold, enamel, diamond, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds; length 7 3/8 inches. Siegelson, New York.
  • Morning Sea, four-panel screen with embroidery by Hashio Kiyoshi (also known as Kajimoto Seizaburo; 1888-1963), 1915. Silk and lacquered wood; height 75 1/2 inches, width (overall) 10 feet. Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Van Santvoord.
  • Fig. 10

    Andirons by Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), French, c. 1900.  Iron; height 33 7/8, width 18 7/8, depth 28 3/8 inches.  Iparmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest.

  • Conglomerate Vase made by Tiffany and Company, New York, 1878. Silver with copper, gold, iron, and niello; height 20 1/4 inches. Private Collection.
  • Fig. 17

    Vase and stand designed by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), made by Minton and Company, Stoke-on-trent, c. 1873. Glazed porcelain with gilded decoration; height 18 inches. Gewerbemuseum im Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.

  • Chair designed by Paul Hankar (1859-1901), Belgian, 1896. Cogolese bilinga and original leather; height 30 3/8, width 17 3/8 inches. Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels. 
  • Cabinet made by Maison Charon Frerers with marquetry by Julien-Nicolas Rivart (active 1835-1867), Paris, c. 1855. Mahogany and kingwood with glazed porcelain and gilt bronze; height 44 1/8, width 40 1/2, depth 19 1/2 inches. Musee national du chateau de Compiegne.
  • Pianoforte by John Bettridge and Company, Birmingham, England, c. 1867. Gilded and lacquered papier-mache, verre eglomise, mother-of-pearl, brass, aluminum, glass, and original silk; height 51 1/2, width 68 1/2, depth 26 inches. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Women’s Committee Acquisition Fund.

In “Adaptations from the Antique” of 1868 the Reverend Charles Boutell, an art critic, suggested that “in our present revival of Art, we look steadily forward beyond a perfect reproduction…as may cause our revived Art to become in very deed our own Art.”5 Boutell’s challenge to find inspiration from the past while imprinting the present is epitomized by the work of Julien-Nicholas Rivart, who is credited with taking the eighteenth-century practice of incorporating porcelain in furniture to new heights. By cutting and inlaying enameled porcelain like marquetry, rather than fitting entire plaques into furniture, Rivart advanced the process that had made Martin Carlin famous during the reign of Louis XVI.6 The realistic depiction of tulips, carnations, rhododendrons, and irises on a cabinet inlaid by Rivart is comparable to that found in romantic painting of the period; the flowers’ presentation against a handsome veneered wood background elevates them to framed portraits. Empress Eugénie acquired the cabinet directly from the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle. Nearly eighty-five years later it was exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but Rivart’s name was not even mentioned in the 1939 catalogue; his inlay technique had died with him in 1867.

The monumental porcelain Coupe de Rivoli, one of a pair shown at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, reveals the Sèvres factory’s fusion of historical styles and forms as seen through a nineteenth-century lens. Rendered in monochromatic puce enamel, the neoclassical scenes of the star-crossed lovers Daphnis and Chloe create an interplay of color that imitates the time-consuming and expensive process of cameo cutting. Here Sèvres ingeniously demonstrates its artistic and technological prowess by mechanically scraping away at the enamel-a technique comparable to the preparation of an engraved printing plate-to create a sense of perspective, shading, and perceived layers on the flat sides of the porcelain.7 The coupe’s ancient Greek form and subject matter had been vastly popular in France during the second half of the eighteenth century and were revived during the Second Empire, in part because of Napoleon III and Eugénie’s interests in the era of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Critics at the world’s fairs often pointed out that the purity of ancient shapes, especially those from Greece, made them the ideal idiom for modern interpretations in bronze, earthenware, glass, and other decorative arts, regardless of style.8

While an interest in the past was an important aspect of the styles presented at the world’s fairs, successful experiments with materials and techniques were also part of the promotion of nationalism and national styles. For example, the Tennyson Vase made by London’s C. F. Hancock and Sons is an homage to the Arthurian legends of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and a technically profound tribute to the imperial success of Victoria and Albert-the latter, often equated with King Arthur in the mid-nineteenth century. Steeped in stories of chivalry and morality, the vase can be read like Tennyson’s poems, depicting key moments in the Arthurian legend-from his battle with the traitorous Mordred to his final chapter, fatally wounded and comforted by three queens with crowns of gold. Merlin the magician and the adulterous Guinevere watch the story unfold from their vantage points on the handles of the vase.

The complex and highly narrative imagery is composed entirely of hammered silver, enhanced by chiseling and polishing bone to create the textures of skin, hair, clothing, and the landscape, all in remarkable detail. The highly skilled silversmith (presently unidentified) literally drew with his medium, creating emotion in faces and hands, the subtle tone and definition of muscles in both man and horse, and, by layering carefully constructed bands of silver, the essence of chain mail.

Equally important, the vase has gilding accomplished through electroplating, one of Britain’s shining scientific contributions to the applied arts of the period. A tour de force in craftsmanship, the Tennyson Vase was seen as a nationalistic symbol when presented to Queen Victoria at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867, and again when it was displayed at the Vienna Weltausstellung in 1873. Indeed, the Arthurian legends and conquests depicted on the vase helped legitimize imperialism at a moment when the sun never set on the British Empire.

Several world’s fairs unabashedly celebrated colonial power. A special Exposition Congolaise was held in conjunction with the Exposition Internationale de Bruxelles in 1897. King Leopold II’s agenda, manifested in the exhibit of extraordinary works in Congolese ivory and exotic woods, aimed to quiet unfavorable reports regarding the appalling treatment of the native peoples and to encourage Belgian manufacturers and artists to use these natural resources. A chair from the exposition by Belgian architect-designer Paul Hankar represents the reductive aesthetic referred to as “le style Congo,” which drew explicitly on traditional African models. The basic form of the seat, with its bowed legs and brass tacks, is reminiscent of a Congolese Luba tabouret, or stool; the chair back, a completely European concept absent from traditional Central African seating, becomes an abstracted face, recalling African masks.

As the greatest global gathering places of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the fairgrounds swirled with exotic sights, sounds, and smells, and this confluence of cultures left an indelible mark on the design and production of decorative arts. The opening to the West of China and Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century had exponentially increased the scope of information and material available for display, and designers and manufacturers from Asia, Europe, and the United States mined the exhibits for inspiration while competing with their international rivals.

The shape of the porcelain vase on stand in Figure 17, for example, designed by Christopher Dresser for Minton and Company and shown at the 1873 Vienna Weltausstellung, are derived from Chinese Han Dynasty vases usually produced in painted earthenware.9 Dresser looked to Japanese ceramics, lacquer work, and prints as sources for the aubergine ground and gilded flying cranes, a popular motif symbolizing longevity. The neck of the vase is evocatively decorated with drips or dustings of gilding, further conveying the illusion of a lacquered surface. While the Asian original would have had a base of dark or lacquered wood, Dresser’s stand is rendered in the same glossy aubergine glaze as the vase.

When Japanese objects were first displayed at the 1862 London International Exhibition-and often thereafter-observers commented that they “excited admiration” for their workmanship.10 Japan’s stand at the 1862 fair included bronzes with figurative reliefs in mixed metals, which played an important role in the development of American silver of the period, culminating in Tiffany and Company’s spectacular Conglomerate Vase shown at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This tour de force of metalwork combines the deceptively simple form of a Chinese meiping vase with decoration of Paulownia leaves and vines, gourds, and insects executed in patinated copper, oxidized iron, and various Japanese-style alloys (sentoku). Perhaps the most innovative technique is the bands of mokume, tiny pieces of different metals fused into a block of twenty-four layers that was then twisted and rolled under great pressure into a thin sheet to imitate wood grain. Richard C. McCormick, the United States commissioner general to the 1878 fair, enthusiastically admired Tiffany’s contribution: “This decorative coloring [in metalwork] is also derived from Japanese art, but has been so developed by Tiffany & Co., through the aid of chemistry and machinery, that they now possess a greater variety, and, in some instances, finer qualities of color than the Japanese. The specimens…astonished even the Japanese, from whom the method was learned, many articles being purchased by them.”11

By the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, no part of decorative arts production was untouched by what was considered Japanese. The andirons by Louis Majorelle in Figure 10 share the fluidity of the Japanese-inspired art nouveau designs that had held sway in Europe for a decade. Majorelle’s contemporary René Lalique caused a sensation with the composition of his stickpin evoking a swarm of wasps on a glowing honey-colored opal. While perhaps unsettling to some viewers, museum director Pietro Krohn could not pass the masterwork up and bought it at the fair for the Danske Kunstindustrimuseum in Copenhagen.

Equally dramatic and startlingly modern is Hashio Kiyoshi’s gold-medal-winning embroidered screen Morning Sea, exhibited by the Kyoto retailer Nishimura Sōzaemon at the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition.12 Painstakingly embroidered with 250 shades of blue silk, the screen’s surface shimmers as light plays across the image of a turbulent sea. Discussing the Japanese contributions to the fair, San Francisco writer John D. Barry singled out the work of the Kyoto embroiderers, noting that the screen displayed colors “that could not have been reached in water color or in oil.”13 Without a narrative and with an ambiguous vantage point, influenced by contemporary post-impressionist European painting, the composition might be viewed as a statement for the turbulence and uncertainty of modern life, particularly since the exhibition took place after the onset of World War I.14

By the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, unbridled scientific and material discoveries fed progressive design. The long-time French jewelry purveyor Maison Boucheron exhibited a dazzling bracelet of innovative osmium set with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. J. and L. Lobmeyr, Austria’s most famous glassmaker and retailer, was celebrated for the “Rare Earths” series from Karlsbader Kristallglasfabriken that emphasized molten forms and rich colors, partly achieved through the use of uranium.15 The biomorphic shapes, derived from eighteenth-century Chinese scholars’ rocks and rhinoceros-horn cups, seem to anticipate works of the 1950s.

Firms such as Lobmeyr, Sèvres, and Tiffany-as well as manufacturers such as Westinghouse and Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG)-regarded the fairs as intrinsic to the promotion of their goods because they afforded the opportunity to interact with the public. Designers like Kem Weber, Alvar Aalto, and Gilbert Rohde found the fairs of the 1930s to be invaluable showcases for advances in the industrial arts. Rohde’s vanity and ottoman in Figure 18 testify to innovations in materials, forms, and techniques conveyed in the House of Tomorrow at Chicago’s 1933 A Century of Progress Exposition. The reductive forms emphasize the modern materials, such as Bakelite and tubular steel, while the geometrical orientation has an affinity with contemporaneous architecture-namely the skyscraper.

Following World War II, the role of decorative arts at the world’s fairs changed, as the exhibitions shifted to presentations on overarching themes-the legacy of the “Century of Progress” and “World of Tomorrow” envisioned at the fairs of the 1930s. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries however, the decorative arts were the physical manifestation of the progressive, economic, and technological ideals embodied by the world’s fairs. As some of the only surviving elements of these ephemeral events, these singular objects represent the pinnacle of the scientific and artistic achievements of their time.

This article is drawn from the research done for Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939, a groundbreaking exhibition and catalogue organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The exhibition is on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum from April 14 to August 19 and at the Carnegie Museum from October 13 to February 24, 2013. It will later travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

1 See Jason T. Busch and Catherine L. Futter, Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939 (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, and Skira Rizzoli, New York, 2012). The authors wish to thank Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Stephen Harrison, Karin A. Jones, Martin P. Levy, Dawn Reid, Ethan Robey, Annamarie V. Sandecki, Jane Shadel Spillman, and Kevin W. Tucker for their contributions to the catalogue.  2 The coupe was originally owned by Alfred Morrison, a noted British aesthete and collector of exquisite hard stones.  3 For Duron’s inspiration from historic objects at the Louvre see M. Chirac, “Bijouterie et joaillerie: Œuvres de M. Duron,” L’exposition universelle de 1867 illustrée 2, no. 36 (September 5, 1867), p. 95.  4 For Charles Duron, see Olivier Gabet, “Kunstkammer Objects in the Age of the World’s Fairs: Charles Duron in 1867,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 149 (June 2007), pp. 393-399; and Daniel Alcouffe, “Les émailleurs français à l’exposition universelle de 1867,” Antologia di belle arti, vol. 4, no. 13-14 (1980), pp. 102-121.  5 Rev. Charles Boutell, “Adaptations from the Antique,” in The Illustrated Catalogue of the Universal Exhibition, Published with the Art-Journal (London, 1868), pp. 139-140.  6 Rivart obtained a patent for porcelain marquetry in 1848.  7 Probably influenced by Sèvres, the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (KPM), the royal porcelain factory in Berlin, later displayed the technique at the 1867 Paris and 1876 Philadelphia fairs, as preserved in a tea service now at the Carnegie Museum of Art.  8 For example, see Ralph Nicholson Wornum, “The Exhibition as a Lesson in Taste,” in The Art -Journal Illustrated Catalogue: The Industry of All Nations, 1851 (London, 1851), p. xvii. At the time of the 1876 Philadelphia fair, Walter Smith wrote: “It is possible that the ancient Greeks and Romans practiced a luxury and lavishness of living that will never be equaled in any land or in any century. . . and as objects of sensual beauty, the relics of that age will always serve as models. It is no wonder, therefore, that in the present revival of taste, the artist seeks his inspiration from these sources” (Examples of Household Taste [New York, 1880], p. 210).  9 The Bayerische Gewerbe Museum in Nuremberg acquired the vase directly from the Vienna fair.  10 Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper Exhibitor, 1862, p. 131.  11 Richard C. McCormick, “Our Success at Paris in 1878,” North American Review, vol. 139, no. 272 (July 1879), p. 5.  12 The screen was purchased at the San Francisco fair by Kate Fowler of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and remained in her family until given to the Allentown Art Museum in 2008.  13 John D. Barry, The Palace of Fine Arts and the French and Italian Pavilions (H. S. Crocker, San Francisco, 1915), p. 42.  14 A similar screen was displayed by Nishimura Sōzaemon, probably by Hashio Kiyoshi, at the 1926 Philadelphia fair; see Pictorial Record of the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition (John D. Cardinell, Philadelphia, 1926), n.p.  15  For “Rare Earths” glass, see Peter Noever, Katja Miksovsky, and Ulrike Scholda, J. and L. Lobmeyr: Between Vision and Reality; Glassware from the MAK Collection, 20th-21st Century/J. and L. Lobmeyr: Zwischen Vision und Realität; Gläser aus der MAK-Sammlung, 20./21. Jahrhundert (Prestel, London, 2009), pp. 116-117, no. 73.


Jason T. Busch is Curatorial Chair for Collections and the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

 Catherine L. Futter is the Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.