Published: January 15, 2019
By Karla Klein Albertson
MIAMI BEACH, FLA. – For anyone harboring an antiquarian’s passion for Florida’s rich vein of Art Deco, where is the starting point? A period approach could be viewing The Cocoanuts, a 1929 early Marx Brothers movie, filled with cloche hats and Irving Berlin tunes, that satirized the state’s building boom of that decade. But the best bet in this New Year is a visit to “Deco: Luxury to Mass Market,” an ongoing exhibition at the Wolfsonian museum in Miami Beach that draws on the institution’s extraordinarily deep permanent collection. Featuring more than 100 objects, the thoughtfully assembled displays illustrate how the style broke out of the drawing rooms of the wealthy to become a force in public space design around the globe.
The Institution and Its Collection
For those unfamiliar with the institution, The Wolfsonian, now part of Florida International University, houses the vast and very focused collection of one man, American philanthropist Mitchell Wolfson Jr (b 1939). He gathered what interested him: objects and art from the last decades of the Nineteenth Century and the first half of the Twentieth. The mission statement expressed on the website reads: “The Wolfsonian-FIU uses objects to illustrate the persuasive power of art and design, to explore what it means to be modern, and to tell the story of social, political and technological changes that have transformed our world. It encourages people to see the world in new ways, and to learn from the past as they shape the present and influence the future.”
Strengths of the collection include specific topics within that time period from British Arts and Crafts and Dutch Nieuwe Kunst to modern transportation and political propaganda. The Deco show also draws heavily from the museum’s depth in American Industrial Design and World’s Fair material. Wolfson formally organized the museum in 1986 to preserve the collection, which now contains more than 180,000 objects. In 1992, the collection moved into a 1927 Mediterranean Revival building on Washington Avenue, which had been renovated into a 56,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility for exhibition, storage and research. In 1997, Wolfson donated the collection and building to the state, and it became a department of Florida International University, but – like all dedicated collectors – he has remained a driving force on the scene. And travelers abroad can view more of the collection in Genoa, Italy, at the Wolfsoniana; details about that at www.wolfsoniana.it.
Organizing the Exhibition
Shoshana Resnikoff was one of three curators involved in various aspects of organizing the exhibition. She told Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “The exhibition objects are entirely from our own collection. I’ve joked that we probably have enough material that we could have curated the show once again with an entirely different selection of objects. The original focus of the show was about the transition from Art Deco as a luxury set of styles to the more mass-produced material that’s available in the States. What we’re trying to do is explore Art Deco in different and unexpected directions, and because we have such a strong collection of European Art Deco that isn’t necessarily always French, we’re able to tell that story really well. Furthermore, because we have this very strong industrial design collection, we’re able to dive deep there as well.”
Since the show’s opening in October 2018, Resnikoff has observed, “People have been responding really positively to the exhibition. Definitely there are a couple of installations that catch people’s attention. For example, the Sevres vase – the “Mappemonde” that welcomes people to the exhibition – a lot of people are talking about that and its relationship to the plaster relief of a woman on the wall from the Rio movie theater in St Louis. There’s a contrast between a low production, high-design luxury object and the mass-produced, simplified architectural piece. Another installation that really captures people’s attention is the Donald Deskey room setup with the striped walls – it’s a strong display.”
An exhibition brochure underlines the relationship of American and European Deco and emphasizes the importance of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair in popularizing the style. The curator noted, “People stop by the Florida Tropical House display, because that’s such a unique story and we’re able to tell it with furniture from the house. The dining room set was made for that building, which was a showhouse at the 1933 Chicago “Century of Progress” Exposition. Visitors are always surprised that there was this tropical modern home built on the shores of Lake Michigan for this two-year fair. Over a million people visited the ‘Homes of Tomorrow’ model homes, so it was a widely seen destination. It did a lot to set the tone for how people saw South Florida in this period.”
As indicated by the “Mass Market” designation in the exhibition title, the sophisticated style that had emerged from France was eventually applied widely, so that the forms of everyday objects kept up with the fashion in vogue. Walter Dorwin Teague (1883-1960) designed a brilliantly geometric camera case, 1930-1931, for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., and Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) later designed a sleek electric shaver for Schick. Resnikoff pointed to a standout example on view: “The Nocturne radio is really an icon of American Art Deco design; we’re very lucky to have it in our collection. It dates to 1935 and was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague. It retailed at around $300 in that era, so it was quite expensive. They were often found in public spaces, like hotel lobbies, and that is where ours came from. It was in the Park Central Hotel here in Miami Beach.” The Nocturne was Model 1186 manufactured by the Sparton Corporation of Jackson, Mich. Examples still bring substantial prices at auction; one sold in 2015 at Wright in Chicago for $149,000 ($70/90,000).
The curator has several personal favorites on view, one of which is the geometric Maurice Adams desk with striped veneers; Adams was a high-end cabinetmaker in London who shifted his production in tune with changing tastes. Another is the “Skyscraper” bookcase designed by Paul Frankl (1886-1958), which was an iconic creation for the time period. She added, “There was a whole range of inspiration for their designs. They were looking to history, they were looking at exoticism and colonialism, they were looking at geometry and nature. We now call it Art Deco, but in the period, they didn’t think of it as one style. They wanted to make something new that was exciting to the public. That’s what we tried to capture in the exhibition, where we try to give visitors a visual vocabulary for Art Deco.”
The Exhibition’s Neighborhood in Miami Beach
The Wolfsonian is located in the heart of the city’s South Beach neighborhood, surrounded by some of city’s best Art Deco public architecture and not far from the Villa Casa Casuarina on Ocean Drive, once the mansion of couture designer Gianni Versace. For a quick visual, watch the opening credits of The Birdcage, the 1996 comedy with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane; the camera flies in over the water toward a line of vividly illuminated beachfront hotels in cubic Deco design. Not surprisingly, the exhibition incorporates a “Miami Beach Deco Walk” outlined in a brochure which focuses on the architecture of seven hotels, most on nearby Collins Avenue, and discusses how their decorative details relate to Art Deco style.
Curator Resnikoff explained, “Finally, we’re able to connect the exhibition to Miami Beach, which has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the United States – even in the world. Because we have objects that so clearly relate to the architecture around us, we wanted to make sure that we could really ground the exhibition in place – especially for our Miami Beach residents and our Miami visitors, who think of Deco as a Miami style but don’t necessarily know why. It was an exciting opportunity to connect those dots for them and give them the opportunity to go out and explore the neighborhood with what they’ve learned in mind. We also have an app that gives a virtual walking tour as well.”
For more information about the locale, Mitchell Wolfson Jr wrote Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden (2005) with Michele Oka Doner; both authors had fathers who were mayor of the city. In conclusion, Resnikoff said of Wolfson, “He’s still very involved in the institution. He is a generous donor to the museum in terms of expanding the collection and takes a strong interest in what we’re doing and how we’re moving forward. It’s not just a passion project for him – it’s an intellectual pursuit. He feels very strongly to the commitment he made, not just to the collection but to the public. That’s part of why he donated to FIU, he wanted the museum to be a public institution. He feels that the collection exists for the enjoyment and education of the public. He sees himself as a preservationist – his job is to save these objects, so that scholars, curators and the public can interpret them and learn from them for generations to come.”
“Deco: Luxury to Mass Market” is an ongoing exhibition. The Wolfsonian FIU is at 1001 Washington Avenue.
For additional information, www.wolfsonian.org or 305-531-1001.
Journalist Karla Klein Albertson writes about decorative arts and design.
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