January 31–February 7, 2002
Old Is New
American Modern, 1925-1940: for a New Age
Runs through April 2, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry sts., 215-972-7600, www.pafa.org
Many think the term modern is synonymous with contemporary, yet modern American design is as old as your grandfather.
Europeans, principally the French and Germans, dominated commercial and industrial design in the early decades of the 20th century. France had its art deco and Germany its Bauhaus. American designers (except for Frank Lloyd Wright and a few others) largely followed the fashion trends established in Europe. In 1925, France held an international exposition in Paris inviting the world’s industrialized nations to exhibit the very best examples of their contemporary design. The U.S. had so few original ideas to present that President Herbert Hoover declined the invitation.
"It was a major embarrassment," says Kim Sajet, deputy director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "Soon afterward there was a concerted effort on the part of American designers to find a new and uniquely American expression," she says. "Design became a critical aspect of product development and marketing, and American modern was born." The 15 years between 1925 to 1940 were one of the most creative periods in American design history.
The Academy is currently presenting an exhibit of more than 150 examples, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Federation of Arts, of commercial and industrial design from this period. The exhibit includes everything from household appliances, furniture and textiles to tableware, posters, radios and clocks, from noted American designers such as Norman Bel Geddes, Donald Deskey, Paul Frankl, Raymond Loewy, Isamu Noguchi, Eliel Saarinen, Walter Dorwin Teague, Walter von Nessen and Russel Wright.
Visitors to the exhibit will find many items that have a familiar look. There’s a plastic Thermos bottle and cup designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1935 that looks just like something you would find today, and I think I still have one of Dreyfuss’ Big Ben alarm clocks, designed in 1938 for Westclox and also on display, around the house somewhere. The Manhattan cocktail set designed by Norman Bel Geddes in 1938 for Revere Copper & Brass Co. that looks as good (better than, actually) as anything you could buy today in an upscale gift shop.
Skyscrapers were new in the 1920s, and skyscraperlike designs became very popular. The show reflects this trend with pieces like Paul Frankl’s 1927 bookcase made of maple and Bakelite and scales designed by Joseph Sinel in 1928 (incorporating the skyscraper concept with some art deco decorative touches).
A name well represented in the show is Walter Dorwin Teague, including a 1930 Kodak camera and matching storage box that’s an exquisite example of inlaid wood simulation with a Mondrianlike pattern. One of my favorite objects was the Model M RCA Victor "Special" phonograph made in Camden in 1937. The portable unit designed by John Vassos has an aluminum case accented with chrome-plated hardware. The turntable and inside lid are covered with a bright-red flocked fabric. It’s a beauty, far better than any boom box you could buy today.
The exhibit even has a sink, designed by George Sakier for American Standard in 1938. It has a lovely dark-blue porcelain bowl supported by a chrome-plated metal frame.
While the show features many household items, the 1937 Electrolux Model 30 vacuum cleaner designed by Lurelle Guild and manufactured in Dover, Del., really caught my eye. It looks like a streamlined railroad car and probably was influenced by a train. Trains, airplanes and zeppelins were all large design influences at the time, as evidenced in designer John Morgan’s work for Sears, Roebuck and Co. In 1936, he created the Waterwitch outboard motor. Made of steel, it has a small gas tank on either side of the engine that looks a lot like a zeppelin.
"American Modern" reflects the changes our nation experienced between the two world wars through the creativity of some of its top designers. No longer was the U.S. dependent on Europe to define contemporary design — it had established a style of its own.