Published: June 8, 2004
Selling Good Design: Promoting the Early Modern Interior is a story of the cooperation of commerce and culture that all began in New York City at R.H. Macy’s when the store mounted its 1927 “Exposition of Art in Trade” in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That collaboration attracted the attention of other great Manhattan-based merchants who embarked on their own exhibitions and educational efforts. This, in a way, represented a zenith in American design as decorators and retailers banded together with museums to educate the public about the newest trend, Modernism.
Author and decorative arts historian Marilyn F. Friedman confesses straight away in the acknowledgement section to a lifelong love affair with Macy’s. For Friedman it all began when she was a child and her father stopped in the meat department on his way home several times a week to collect the family’s evening meal. Nonetheless, she draws a carefully balanced picture of the voyage to the modern, illuminating all the signposts along the way. Her story is fair and equitable. It provides the reader with a precise detailing of the movement and its many facets.
Macy’s exposition stemmed from a series of lectures on period furniture that began at The Met in January 1914. The project was the brainchild of Donald Porteus, manager of Macy’s Bureau of Home Furnishings and Interior Decoration. The lecture series was so overwhelmingly popular that it expanded rapidly to include employees of all the other great stores in New York: Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller, Best & Co, B. Altman, John Wanamaker and Abraham & Straus.
The Met set up study rooms in which the lecture series students could examine objects and in 1917 mounted the exhibit “The Designer and the Museum,” the first of an annual event focusing on quality in American Industrial Art. Macy’s welcomed the lecture series and exhibits as they enhanced the store’s efforts to improve the design of the products they sold.
Friedman takes the reader through the series of lectures and exhibits, following the course of the introduction and the ultimate acceptance of modern design in America. Using high quality vintage photographs from periodicals of the era, the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History and the photographic archives of Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, she illustrates meticulously the progression of that acceptance.
Room settings and objects of aesthetic and historic interest from American and European designers are pictured in more than 120 photographs of room settings as grand as those designed by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. The reader is presented with the curious blend of the European (primarily French, but also German and Italian) and the homegrown that became American Art Deco and which was so popular with consumers.
Friedman illuminates the transition from the fustian of the late Victorian that had dominated the scene for such a long while to the new, which was sleek, sharp, colorful and jazzy. She also points out the most distinguishing elements of the modern: the well-proportioned furniture was comfortable, cabinet storage was practical and lighting was efficient. These all had great appeal to apartment dwellers, a rapidly growing sector of urban populations.
Selling Good Design: Promoting the Early Modern Interior by Marilyn F. Friedman, Rizzoli International, 300 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010, 2003; 143 pages, $50 hardcover.
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