A New York exhibition takes the first comprehensive look at America’s taste in design during the 1920s.
In May 1919, an Indiana newspaper ran an editorial that detailed a litany of complaints from a Baptist minister about the state of culture. It read: “He finds jazz in present-day magazines, in books, in plays, in art and even in religion. In short, he complains, it is a jazz age.” Some three years later F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is popularly credited with the coinage of the term “jazz age,” published his collection of short stories Tales of the Jazz Age. In fact, during the early ’20s, the term was become fairly popular. As often occurs, a widespread cultural phenomenon ignites linguistic trends, and in the case of the 1920s, using the word jazz, with all of its connotations, as an epithet for the period was what we call today a “no-brainer.” Jazz music had deeply permeated American life and was one of the country’s top cultural exports to Europe. The term, as the cantankerous Indiana minister so astutely noted, also became a descriptor of the rhythm of life in the 1920s—the attitude, the relationships, the art, and the design.
“The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” a new exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York (April 7–August 20), focuses on America’s taste in design during the period. The subject, viewers might be surprised to know, has never before been tackled by a major museum exhibition. Though plenty of shows have highlighted the various design movements of the decade, until now none has taken an intensive look at its overarching taste. If the Cooper Hewitt’s show, which was co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art (it opens there in September), is any indication, the ambition of an exhibition like this might have been the deterrent: 350 works from public and private collections, including furniture, jewelry, fashion, textiles, tableware, paintings, posters, and wall coverings, will come together to give viewers a panoramic view of the style of the ’20s.
Referring to the title of the show, Sarah Coffin, the curator and head of production design and decorative arts at the Cooper Hewitt, says, “We’re using jazz in two ways, as a metaphor for the era when jazz music comes to the fore and a metaphor for the changing temperature of the time, when we move on from the pre-World War I culture.” The exhibition showcases objects associated with speakeasies, jazz clubs, nightlife, and flappers, such as bejeweled cigarette and make-up cases and form-fitting fashions. A pastel drawing for a textile design titled “Party Ashtray” (1930–31), features chalky-white cigarettes with glowing orange tips and trails of grayish-blue smoke. The festive design was created by Donald Deskey, an industrial designer who won a contest to design the interiors of the Radio City Music Hall and went on to create the Crest toothpaste packaging and the Tide bull’s-eye emblem in the 1940s.
The message of these objects and designs goes beyond frivolous partying. One of the show’s themes is “Stepping Out,” which, says Coffin, “is the idea that people were stepping out of a traditional lifestyle,” says Coffin. During this period, urban living was rapidly becoming more popular, and within that context race relations, gender roles, and sexual mores relaxed. By eschewing tradition, groups that had been historically marginalized were beginning to experience hard-won acknowledgement and even harder-won freedoms. “Women were stepping out to vote, they were going out unescorted for the first time, they were going outside to engage in sports, and they were even stepping out of their girdles,” the curator says. Something as simple as a tube of lipstick represented a woman’s ability to make her own choices. One piece in the show, a silk purse made by Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris, features a clasp in the form of a nearly nude, reclining odalisque rendered in gold with diamond and sapphire adornments. Below the figure, a Greek key-and-wave pattern is rendered in blue and green enamel. The purse is a unique statement of eccentric glamour.
With the popularization of jazz and the international fascination with the culture of Harlem, “people were stepping out into African American musical opportunities,” Coffin says. For affluent whites, that meant breaking out of restrictive social roles and enjoying an exciting nightlife, while for famous African American musicians like Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker (who are depicted on posters included in the show), jazz represented an opportunity to escape from racism and segregation. To illustrate the role of music in the popular culture of the ’20s, the Cooper Hewitt is displaying sheet music, and clips of performances by Duke Ellington and fellow Cotton Club stars will play in the gallery.
Though jazz was greatly influencing American taste, not every object in the show is as explicit as “The New Yorker” Jazz Punch Bowl, a 1931 design by the Ohio-born industrial designer and sculptor Viktor Schreckengost. The large blue bowl, made of glazed and molded earthenware, was manufactured at the Cowan Pottery Studio in Ohio. It features the word “JAZZ” spelled out in capital letters. Around it, musical notes dance on musical staffs, while abstract forms float around skyscrapers. Its style of lettering and mark making has since become canonical not only for the period, but on restaurant menus, movie-theater signs, and graphics that reference the era.
Though the country was beginning to develop more confidence in its cultural aesthetic, after World War I, as before, Americans looked to the designers and trends of Europe—particularly France—for cues. For wealthy Americans, this meant commissioning pieces from abroad. For instance, a set of doors designed by Seraphin Soudbinine, a Russian-born French artist, and executed by Jean Dunand, a Swiss-born French artist, for Solomon R. Guggenheim’s music room take pride of place in the exhibition. Of carved, joined and lacquered wood, with eggshell, mother-of-pearl, gold leaf, and cast bronze, they were made in Paris in 1925–26. The striking green and orange doors take on a neo-Byzantine style, with angels playing horns atop geometric and monumental rock formations.
In 1926, an exhibition made up of 400 objects from the highly influential 1925 Paris Exposition toured museums in eight major American cities. The show was instrumental in opening America’s eyes to modernism. U.S. department stores such as Macy’s and Lord & Taylor immediately took on the mantle of modern design, exhibiting fine examples and recreating, in more affordable materials, pieces that were suitable for apartment living and fashionable cosmopolitan life. “During this period, department stores played a major role,” says Coffin. “They hired designers—many of them were architects—to design room displays that enabled people to see the effect of having an entirely new, modern room.” The curator cites a Macy’s exhibition catalogue with a forward by then-Met president Robert de Forest as being particularly influential. “The pieces were all American-made variants of imported French designs,” says Coffin. A notable work in the exhibition is a red Cubist-inspired dressing table and bench (circa 1929) after French designer Léon Jallot. The lacquered wood, mirrored glass, and metal ensemble was sold through Lord & Taylor.
It wasn’t just France; émigré Austrian and German designers and artists also had a profound effect on the American scene, as this exhibition is at pains to show. The Viennese school established roots in the U.S. with the opening of a branch of the Wiener Werkstätte on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1922. Pieces from that showroom are on view, including a four-piece silver tea set designed by Austrian architect and designer Josef Hoffmann and commissioned by Joseph Urban, a fellow Austrian designer, who came to the States in 1911. A birch-faced plywood, tulip poplar, and nickel-plated steel daybed (circa 1933–35) by Frederick Kiesler, a architect, theoretician, and theater designer from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is also on view. Kiesler’s design, which has a built-in desk lamp, is pod-like and brings to mind an impossibly chic cubicle.
While working in the United States, European artists became interested in American industrialization and building. The skyscraper was of particular fascination and pops up again and again in designs of the period. Austrian Art Deco furniture designer Paul T. Frankl—whose showroom was right around the corner from the Wiener Werkstätte’s—was well known for his skyscraper pieces and even called his company Skyscraper Furniture. Frankl’s skyscraper bookcase desk (circa 1928), made of California redwood and black lacquer, is featured prominently in the show. A silver-plated brass skyscraper tea set designed by Louis W. Rice, a German designer, and produced by the New York-based company Apollo Studios, is also on view. New York’s iconic architecture also inspired modernist artists who weren’t industrial designers; the exhibition includes a 1919–20 oil on canvas version of Joseph Stella’s celebrated image Brooklyn Bridge, which shows the famous structure in a highly geometric, kaleidoscope-type view. The jewel-toned painting gives the viewer the sense of being surrounded by the bridge’s complicated structural elements.
Not all American collectors were looking for the hottest new thing in the 1920s; in fact, some were actually looking to the past. “The Jazz Age” also claims the decade as a time when collectors were establishing “good American taste.” This included a reprisal of interest in 17th- and 18th-century furniture from England, as well as in large woven Renaissance-style tapestries and intricate Rococo wallpaper patterns from France. With the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924, collectors and decorators took second looks at American colonial and Federal designs, and recreated what they could. A section of the show features a wrought-iron fire screen by Philadelphia artisan Samuel Yellin and a blanket chest made and painted by Max Kuehne in a 17th-century style. A tea service by Boston-based silversmith George Gebelein is also in the show. Gebelein, who is often considered the leading 20th-century American silversmith, made the piece in the style of famed silversmith and patriot Paul Revere. The tea set, which is just as American as jazz, will make you forget all about bathtub gin, smoky speakeasies, and wild nights on the town.
By Sarah E. Fensom