Published: October 10, 2017
By Karla Klein Albertson
CLEVELAND, OHIO – Historians have repeatedly attempted to analyze the American experience in the 1920s, a vibrant epoch that in reality extended from the Great War’s end in 1918 until the full onset of the Great Depression in 1931. While literature and politics present part of the evidence, the dramatic changes in art, architecture and couture provide a visual approach that instantly conveys the dramatic upheaval of society. Relief at having survived the worldwide conflict and an exuberant postwar economy was expressed in new environments for living.
“The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” is a collaborative exhibition with accompanying catalog organized by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art. More than 400 exhibits – ranging from furniture, decorative arts and paintings to fashion, music and film – form tableaux that illustrate the contrasting influences that competed for public attention. After an opening run in New York City, the exhibition is on display in Cleveland through January 14.
The heavy lifting of selecting, borrowing and researching artifacts for the exhibition was shared by Sarah D. Coffin, curator and head of product design and decorative arts at Cooper Hewitt, and Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative arts and design at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Coffin, reexamining the permanent collection during a museum renovation, had rediscovered the extensive representation of 1920s design, including holdings in period wallpapers and textiles. Harrison, who had previously done an exhibition on Lalique, Fabergé and Tiffany at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, had been studying the impact of the 1925 Paris Exposition International des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes, from which derived the designation “Art Deco” for its new design trends.
To portray an accurate picture of the period, the curators had to pull together many contrasting threads. Coffin said, “We took ‘The Jazz Age’ as a title because we felt that it was a period title, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s term for the period. There was this tremendous energy to American design interest at that time. Suddenly Americans began to interact with European design and then create their own. The term reflects the European-American interaction, but also the change in the beat of life, as it can be used metaphorically and also in the actual sense. Certainly, the Paris story is a major story, but it is also very mixed in with the impact of Vienna and Germany and the incredible overlap of European and American designers.”
While Americans were absorbing transatlantic styles, they were exporting the jazz music of the title, along with African American musical stars of the genre, Josephine Baker being the best-known among them. The music had inspired the rise of the night club with dancing and drinking as rebellious recreation. Europeans were also fascinated by the New York skyline, a striking backdrop for the entertainment scene.
Coffin picked up the story, “We wanted to expand the conversation beyond the traditional decorative arts to architectural design. The New York skyscraper outline had been codified by a zoning law of 1916. You could have taller buildings if you included setbacks on them toward the top to let the light in. Cooper Hewitt has the four drawings that architect Hugh Ferriss [1889-1962] made for an article in The New York Times in 1922. These wonderful setback buildings became a source of great admiration for Europeans, who came to see them. An American designer who was trained in Vienna, Paul Frankl [1886-1958] started producing skyscraper-influenced furniture, which is one of the most distinctly American contributions to the design movement of the 1920s.”
Harrison pointed out the contrasting influences of the period: “Museums love to highlight the progress of Modernism in the Twentieth Century, and indeed that is well shown in this exhibition. But I think what this exhibition does – that previous ones have not done – is highlight the contrast that existed in the period between traditional and modern. What I want people to know is that it was not just the Roaring Twenties and Art Deco, there were sharp contrasts. There was an avant-garde, but there was another side to it as well.”
He continued, “If you come to Cleveland and go up and down Shaker Boulevard, there are all these beautiful mansions built in the 1920s. Not one of them looks like Le Corbusier designed it. They are all in the Tudor Revival style. We have a whole gallery that focuses on the Colonial Revival, historic revivals, even the Gothic Revival. There is a glorious renaissance of stained glass that happens during this period, as well as very beautiful metalwork designed by Samuel Yellin in Philadelphia and Rose Iron Works here in Cleveland. These are extraordinary craftsmen who have been left out of the picture – and we have put them back in.”
Because the Cleveland Museum of Art has higher ceilings than the historic Cooper Hewitt structure, the curator pointed out an additional major object that has been put on display there: “That is a grand chandelier that was shown at the 1925 World’s Fair in the pavilion occupied by Baccarat and Christofle. There was a sort of domed foyer between the two rooms, one housing crystal and the other silver, and this chandelier is a marvelous collaboration with the crystals made by Baccarat and the armature by Christofle.” The cascade of glass is around 9 feet high.
“This one object conveys both grand elegance and the Modern spirit of that exposition. This was the exposition that attracted Americans and changed the course of American design. American designers went there, and American museums hosted an exhibition of the works that had been in the fair, so people got to see material shown in Paris, even if they had not gone to the fair. After the fair, this chandelier was bought by an Australian who was building a movie palace in Sydney. The theater was razed unfortunately in the 1990s, but the lighting was packed up and put into storage. No one has seen it since, so it is really its debut in the Western world.”
Another important American contribution to the dissemination of Jazz Age influence was the concept that good design could be mass produced and thus affordable for a broader swath of consumers. Coffin cites as one example the Cubist-influenced Ruba Rombic glass, which was mold blown at the Consolidated Lamp & Glass Company in Coraopolis, Penn. Coffin said, “I hope people recognize the liveliness of the design/art exchange and at the same time the originality of Americans seeing that industrial materials and less expensive production methods did not necessarily mean a diminution of quality of design. You have design that is fashionable turning into economically viable products.”
She continued, “Edward C. Moore Jr, a lawyer who was the son of the head designer at Tiffany’s, gave the Met a fund in 1922 for buying Modern European decorative arts, and suddenly those became accessible for study. The Company of Master Craftsmen [a division of W.&J. Sloane, New York] made Ruhlmann-esque furniture – but not direct copies – in different woods and with some different construction methods, to keep them simply expensive rather than exorbitant. All with the idea that they would measure and get proportions from the originals in the museum. You have the same firm catering to both that market as well as producing Colonial Revival and English drawing room pieces.”
Dressing up the exhibition are dozens of examples of couture and personal accessories – precious jewelry, purses, shoes and fans. Fashionable women of the 1920s stepped out in the beaded French evening cape and the sequined shoes on display. A Cartier scarab belt buckle in the post-Tutankhamun Egyptian taste was owned by Linda Porter, wife of the famous composer, but aspiring fashion plates could buy a reasonable plastic and feather fan that transformed them into Theda Bara for a night.
All the dazzle of the exhibition is captured by the catalog, where essays by Coffin and Harrison are accompanied by further contributions from Cooper Hewitt assistant curator Emily M. Orr. Illustrations include a wealth of additional background material, and the catalog at the back is usefully organized by designer, manufacturer or retailer name. Especially revealing are Orr’s chapters on “The American Woman as Fashion Muse” and “A Thousand Hands: The Art of Department Store Display.”
Above all, the 1920s began a new era in which visual media initiated style changes that rapidly influenced what people wore, drove and sat upon. Viewers went out to buy furnishings and clothing that they had seen at the movies or in popular magazines. Popular retail stores fronted by expansive glass windows both met the public’s demands and created new fashion trends by putting them on display. As Orr writes in her chapter on retailing: “On constant view and in continual flux, department store display incorporated influences drawn from current events, the arts, urban life and popular culture. Its originality – and its ephemerality – provoked ongoing public fascination.” While the tunes may change, music and media continue to set styles as we approach the 2020s.
The Cleveland Museum of Art is at 11150 East Boulevard. For more information,216-421-7350 or www.clevelandart.org.
Journalist Karla Klein Albertson writes about decorative arts and design.
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