Exhibitions/ American Modern, 1925–1940

American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age

May 16, 2000–February 4, 2001
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Between 1925 and 1940, a pioneer group of industrial designers emerged in this country who decisively altered the shape and character of the everyday things with which we live. They created objects that reflected the dynamism of the twentieth century, trying their hand at everything from streamlined locomotives and "skyscraper" furniture to cocktail shakers and kitchen appliances. Drawn exclusively from the Museum's collection and from the John C. Waddell Collection, a major promised gift to the Metropolitan, this landmark exhibition features more than 150 objects—including furniture, clocks, appliances, posters, textiles, radios, tableware, and even a bathroom sink—by such leading designers as Norman Bel Geddes, Donald Deskey, Paul Frankl, Raymond Loewy, Isamu Noguchi, Eliel Saarinen, Walter Dorwin Teague, Walter von Nessen, and Russel Wright.

Installed chronologically and thematically, the exhibition reveals how these and other key innovators of the period—while at first dependent on contemporary modernist design movements in France, Germany, and Scandinavia—ultimately forged a style that was at once modern and unmistakably American.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Federation of Arts.

Support has been provided by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation and the National Patrons of the AFA.

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A key event initiating the modern design movement in America was the great 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Modernes. As a major World War I ally of France, the United States was offered a prime site in this showcase, which provided participants with the opportunity to demonstrate the skill and latest achievements of their nation's craftsmen and manufacturers. The organizers, however, stipulated one crucial condition: Works admitted to the Exposition must show "new inspiration and real originality" and be representative of "the modern decorative and industrial arts. Reproductions, imitations, and counterfeits of ancient styles [were] strictly prohibited."

Reluctantly, the United States declined the invitation; after consultation with major establishment figures in the art and education worlds, it was concluded that there was no modern design in America.

The 1925 exhibition was a clarion call for American design, and over the next fifteen years dramatic changes occurred. Not only designers and manufacturers, but department stores, museums, and galleries joined in an effort to promote innovative work and overcome the generally conservative and historically oriented level of consumer taste in America.

At first much of America's "modernist" design reflected the catalytic influence of the Paris fair, which brought to international prominence—and inspired the name for—the chic new French luxury style known as Art Deco. The exhibition opens with several examples of this "French" phase in American design, including a veneered and inlaid armoire of about 1926, designed for the New York firm of W. & J. Sloane. Made of thuyawood, mahogany, satinwood, and ebony, it exemplifies the Art Deco love of costly materials and fine craftsmanship. As an example of the American adoption of contemporary French decorative motifs, the exhibition features an elegant glass bowl (1935) by Sidney B. Waugh, engraved with a running course of stylized gazelles.

One of the most ambitious American essays in the Art Deco style was the interior decoration for Radio City Music Hall, carried out in 1932 and overseen by Donald Deskey, who had studied in Paris and attended the 1925 Exposition. Deskey's "Singing Women" carpet, designed for the main auditorium, and a formica and aluminum console table, also for the Radio City project, are included in the exhibition.

Soon, however, America's most innovative designers had moved away from the self-conscious elegance and ostentation of Art Deco toward the clean uncluttered lines, pure geometric forms, and machine-made materials espoused by Germany's Bauhaus. Unlike French Art Deco, which catered to a leisured clientele, the Bauhaus forged an alliance between art and industry, the aim of which was to create objects that were both attractive and affordable for the masses. The onset of the Depression only served to enhance the appeal of Bauhaus design theory and practices in this country.

With the closing of the school by the Nazis in 1933, a number of Bauhaus teachers—notably Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—emigrated to the United States, where they continued their careers and exerted a profound influence on current and successive generations of American designers.

The Bauhaus model also fostered the rise to prominence in America of industrial designers—men and women whose creations were intended to be machine-made and mass-produced. Walter Dorwin Teague, one of country's first and most famous industrial designers, is represented in the exhibition by some eighteen objects, including a square centerpiece and spherical vase designed in 1932 for Corning Glass Works' Steuben Division. Hungarian-born Ilonka Karasz's pair of cone-shaped bowls (ca. 1930), made of electroplated nickel silver and resting on stands made of crossed metal plates, also catered to the taste for mathematical precision and a machine-made look. A 1934 coffee service by Helen Hughes Dulany, featuring pitchers and pots with triangular bodies, is an even more extreme example of the American fashion for radically simplified and geometric design.

Finnish architect-designer Eliel Saarinen, who emigrated to the United States in 1923, brought a new elegance, subtlety, and sophistication to American modernist design. He is represented in the exhibition by several important works, the most celebrated of which is a brass-plated spherical tea urn and tray, the prototype for one that was featured in the Metropolitan's 1934 landmark design exhibition Contemporary American Industrial Art. The spherical urn, mounted on an openwork cylindrical stand and decorated with a delicate vertical finial, beautifully combines modernist geometric aesthetics with a classical sense of proportion and ornament.

As American designers absorbed and profited from European influences, they also sought ways to give their work an unmistakably American stamp. One important response was provided by Paul Frankl, who produced a series of furniture designs modeled after skyscrapers—a potent and uniquely American symbol of modernity. His "Skyscraper" bookcase (ca. 1927), with its strong vertical lines and staggered setbacks, is a witty evocation of the Manhattan skyline that spawned a whole rash of skyscraper-related objects. A number of these, including candleholders, cocktail shakers, coffee services, and textiles are included in the exhibition.

Ultimately, the skyscraper motif in American design proved too extreme and eccentric to have a lasting and broad application. Nevertheless, the clean, contemporary, and very American look paved the way for a new design motif that was soon to become almost ubiquitous—streamlining. Developed by aerodynamic engineers as a means of minimizing air resistance, streamlining, with its bullet-profiles and flowing lines, not only made objects move faster—it made them look fast. In a nation increasingly enamored with speed and power, streamlining seemed to evoke what was best and brightest about America's future.

During the 1930s, it was applied—logically enough—to planes, cars, and trains, as well as to an extraordinarily wide range of appliances and other household objects, many of which led quite stationary lives. The exhibition includes, for example, Kem Weber's "Airline" armchair (ca. 1934); Lurelle Guild's "Electrolux, Model 30" vacuum cleaner (1937), which, despite its resemblance to a speeding locomotive, still had to be pulled along the carpet by its user; Egmont Arens's "Streamliner" meat slicer (designed 1940); sleek, chrome-plated clocks by Gilbert Rohde; and a device by an unknown designer for pulverizing ice cubes known as an Ice Gun (ca. 1935), which bore a striking resemblance to the ray guns used by such contemporary comic-book heroes as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Henry Dreyfuss, best known as the visionary designer—both inside and out—of New York Central Railroad's "20th Century Limited," also created a number of streamlined objects for home use. Along with a plate and stationery designed for passengers on the "20th Century, " the exhibition includes Dreyfuss's now-familiar red-capped thermos bottle (1937) and an enamel and aluminum thermos carafe and tray (1935).

Norman Bel Geddes, another versatile designer, whose creations ranged from cars and ships to soap dispensers, was represented by a number of objects, including his rocket-shaped "Soda King" syphon bottles (1938); his "Patriot Radio" (1940), the face of which resembles the stars and stripes of the American flag; and a medal, designed in 1933, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of General Motors, in the center of which is the stylized profile of an automobile, whose rushing speed is suggested by the curvilinear lines streaming over its nose and hood.

By 1940 a noticeable shift had occurred in American taste. The vogue for dynamism, speed, and sophistication had given way to a more relaxed approach that valued comfort—a fact that was keenly observed in the Metropolitan's 1940 industrial design show. Among the fourteen room schemes on display was the "Sports Shack" by Donald Deskey—the same designer who eight years before had made Radio City Music Hall such an elegant Art Deco showplace. Set up as a hunting cabin, with rifles leaning against the wall and duck decoys mounted above an open fireplace, the room suggested a casual informality.

Although the "Sports Shack," along with comparable rooms in the exhibition, was unquestionably American, it owed a certain debt to the unpretentious and very livable designs that were coming out of Scandinavia at the time, especially those of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, whose furniture had been imported since 1936.

The Scandinavian emphasis on softer, organic shapes, designed to conform more closely to the human hand and body, was taken up with brilliant success by Russel Wright. His line of "American Modern" earthenware dishes, which debuted in 1937 and ultimately sold more than eighty million pieces, is included in the exhibition, along with J. Robert F. Swanson's "Flexible Home Arrangements" maple and stainless steel nesting tables (ca. 1940), and "user-friendly" kitchen utensils, including a spoon and potato masher (1934) by Henry Dreyfuss.

As the twentieth century reached midpoint, designers had found a middle ground, encompassing both the precision of the machine aesthetic and the nostalgic warmth of handcraftsmanship. Responding to an array of economic and social as well as aesthetic influences, they could take pride in providing the nation with designs that were "practical, livable, and comfortable"—quintessential American virtues and attributes that in time would come to transform the American domestic landscape.