The turn of the 20th Century has become a hot topic this year, since 2017 is the centenary of the U.S.’s entry into WWI. The Cooper Hewitt examines the period following the end of that conflict in The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, an overview of the various European trends – considered hallmarks of refined taste – that influenced Art Deco, such as Bauhaus, deStijl, Scandinavian and Viennese design. Covering two floors, the show contains 400 examples of interior design, industrial design, decorative art, jewelry, fashion and architecture inspired by these styles.
The Roaring 20’s was an age of new beginnings, as Americans threw off the strictures and mores of the 19th century and sought to put the war behind them. It was an era when things moved faster. Rapid industrialization dramatically shortened manufacturing times, thus facilitating mass production – and consumption. The rise of the automobile and the airplane made transcontinental and intercontinental travel faster, easier and more accessible. Design became sparer, more abstract, incorporating geometric and arabesque motifs influenced by advances in transportation and industry. Musical tastes were changing, as African-American musical forms such as the blues and jazz entered mainstream America’s living rooms via sheet music and radio, and could also be heard in the numerous cabarets and supper clubs that sprung up as night life – dining, drinking and dancing outside the home – became increasingly popular ways for Americans to shake off the post war doldrums. Cocktails and cigarettes became symbols of a newly liberated society. This was the age of the Flapper: having served their country in various capacities during WW1, women gained the right to vote in 1920, cut their hair, shortened their hemlines, and started to claim their independence. Changing norms and a sense of possibility infused those heady times.
Here are some examples of what you’ll see in this wonderful show (it was hard to edit my selections).
Perhaps nothing personifies that age like its music and films. This exhibit showcases how jazz music and the social world surrounding it shaped design, with images of musicians and dancers gracing everything from vases to textiles. It also shines a light on the ambivalence – on both sides of the Atlantic – towards Africa and African-Americans, featuring textiles and jewelry inspired by African masks and wildlife, along with a video loop of short clips of performances by Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne, but also offering examples, such as the posters by Paul Colins, of how the contributions of Africans and African-Americans were exoticized and caricatured.
This 1929 oil painting Blues by Archibald Motley Jr. (a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance and in the Chicago arts scene) conveys the sights and sounds of a mixed race (or black-and-tan) nightclub in the late ’20s, where patrons could be free from the censures of white society, as racial barriers continued to be widely observed and enforced.
Egypt-mania was spawned in 1922 with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and imagery of that era, especially scarabs and lotus flowers, invaded every facet of design. Cartier and other luxury jewelry designers offered their own versions of King Tut’s resplendent jewels in diamond encrusted platinum brooches, bracelets , earrings and cases, often accented by rubies, emeralds, onyx, coral, jade and lapis.
At the beginning of this era, original works in American colonial designs as well as those from 17th- and 18th-century France and England still conveyed social status. However, the International style of chrome tube furniture by renowned architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer soon came to be seen as symbols of the future; not only was this metal used in emblems of progress like cars and radios, but it allowed for a cleanliness in design, marking a break with Victorian stuffiness. Because of chrome’s affordability, these new designs could be mass manufactured and widely diffused to an emerging middle class.
Travel – in automobiles, trains, airplanes, airships and balloons – was a dominant motif of the 1920’s, found in jewelry, cocktail shakers, furniture and accessories.
The influence of industrial design, an appreciation of New York’s urban environment, and a fascination with travel are captured in Joseph Stella’s oil painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, whose fractured light through the suspension cables give it a futuristic undertone.
The exhibit continues on the second floor focusing mainly on the influence the Parisian 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (hence Art Deco) had on textiles, clothing, and home décor, not only those sold in luxury boutiques but also ones found in department stores. You’ll also find examples from the Wiener Werkstatt and Italian Futurism that found their way into American fashion and furnishings of that era.
The exhibit continues through August 20th. Be sure to see it. But don’t stop there….
Also on the 2nd floor, you’ll find two ancillary exhibits. In the room that had been the Carnegie family library (a/k/a the Teak Room) is the fantastic Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection. Prince Sadruddin was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for 12 years, as well as a co-founder of the Paris Review and an ardent environmentalist. This collection, which is being publicly displayed for the first time, was created for his Egyptian-born wife Catherine from 1972 until his death in 2003. It is absolutely fabulous.
In it you’ll find over 100 examples of luxury cases, compacts and other small items, mostly for women, from notable houses such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Bucheron, made between 1910 and 1938, featuring exquisite craftsmanship and complex designs executed with diamonds, lapis lazuli, coral, cabochon rubies, enamel, gold and platinum. It will come as no surprise the Prince and Princess collected Persian miniatures and manuscripts .
This exhibit is on through August 27th. And since you’re on the second floor,
Also stop by The World of Radio , where you can see eight decades worth of radios, and a rare public showing of “The World of Radio” a 16 foot-wide cotton batik mural by Canadian artist Arthur Gordon Smith that covers one wall.
Radio was made possible by Giulio Marconi, inventor of the long-distance radio transmission, and in the 1920’s radios became smaller and sleeker. Powered by household electrical outlets, it quickly became part of Americans’ household furnishings – think of those large wooden radio cabinets – and a shared family experience. Over time, with the development of the transistor, radios in the 1950’s became even smaller, portable, and multi-functional, like the clock radio. You’ll find not only models from the early days of this medium, but also an iPod nano with an FM tuner, bringing this show into the 21st century.
You’ll also find sketches for radio designs and photographs of the interiors of homes showing how radios were incorporated into domestic environments.
The highlight of this exhibit for me was the 1934 batik mural The World of Radio whose center depicts the singer Jessica Dragonette, standing atop a globe with an NBC microphone held up by the allegorical figure of Radio. She is surrounded by skyscrapers, airplanes, zeppelins, and other icons of the age’s technological breakthroughs. If you look closely at the mural, you’ll see that the lines that radiate from her – seemingly rays of light – are actually made up of music notes.
This exhibit is on display until September 24th. However, I urge you to see all three of these shows before the main one closes on August 20th.
The Cooper Hewitt is on Fifth Avenue at 91st Street.