Art

The Novelty and Excess of American Design During the Jazz Age

Through over 400 objects, the Cooper Hewitt’s dynamic Jazz Age exhibition highlights 1920s American design.

“Muse with Violin Screen” (detail) (1930) from Rose Iron Works, Inc., designed by Paul Fehér, wrought iron, brass, silver and gold plating (courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art, on Loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections, © Rose Iron Works Collections, photo by Howard Agriesti)

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s is billed as the “first major museum exhibition to focus on American taste in design during the exhilarating years of the 1920s.” Rather than narrow the lens on this era of rapid cultural and technological change, this concentration on the post-World War I United States is a lively, international showcase of design. “We felt very much that European exhibitions of Art Deco had tried to cover a broad swath of things, but definitely from a European point of view, and either left out what was going on in America entirely, or dumped everything in but the kitchen sink,” Sarah Coffin, Cooper Hewitt’s curator and head of product design and decorative arts, told Hyperallergic.

“Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law, Stage 4” (1922), designed by Hugh Ferriss, black crayon, stumped, pen and black ink, brush and black wash, varnish on illustration board; 26 5/16 x 20 1/16 inches (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, photo by Matt Flynn, © Smithsonian Institution)

Coffin co-organized The Jazz Age with Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative art and design at the Cleveland Museum of Art. After closing at the New York museum in August, the exhibition will open in Cleveland this September. The collections of both institutions majorly informed the structure and themes of The Jazz Age. “It was when the traditionally minded Cooper Hewitt had started to acquire contemporary design,” Coffin said of the 1920s at the Manhattan museum. During the Cooper Hewitt’s recent multi-year renovation, these holdings came to light. “We began to realize how much material that we had from the 1920s that had been little exhibited, if at all,” she explained.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Museum of Art has several pieces acquired from the influential Paris 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. Exploring the two floors of The Jazz Age is a bombastic visual experience, and any museumgoer who attempts to read every label, to examine each of the over 400 objects, may quickly find their brain saturated. Of course, decadence, novelty, and a collision of colors, styles, and shapes are part of what made the Roaring Twenties so dynamic. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age“: “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.”

Installation view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Centered on themes like “Bending the Rules” and “Abstraction and Reinvention,” The Jazz Age offers curated tableaux of furniture, flapper dresses, paintings, Prohibition-era cocktail shakers, and all manner of objects to demonstrate influences across media. Many of the featured designers were immigrating from Europe, or having their creations imported to the United States. Others were Americans who went abroad to study and train, picking up tubular metal techniques at the Bauhaus in Germany or ideas for bold hues from De Stijl in the Netherlands. For example, Ruth Reeves studied textiles with Fernand Léger in Paris before she worked on abstracted designs for Radio City Music Hall, and Viktor Schreckengost melded his sculpture studies in Vienna with Michael Powolny with his Ohio pottery background.

“What we were trying to do was show that all this innovation was very much the vibrant conversation of people from many countries coming together in the rising urban environment of New York and places across the country, and interacting across the board in every medium,” Coffin said. She added that the “overall impact of this was an extraordinary amalgamation of designers from a variety of countries who came here with an interest in bringing some of their modern design thinking to American soil.”

“Tissu Simultané no. 46 (Simultaneous Fabric no. 46)” (1924), designed by Sonia Delaunay, printed silk, 18 5/16 x 25 9/16 inches (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, © Smithsonian Institution)
Installation view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The installations in The Jazz Age reflect this rise of international exchange. British designer Wells Coates’s green, circular Bakelite radio, one of the manufacturing innovations being spread to the new middle class, rests on German designer Kem Weber’s sage-hued, streamlined sideboard, which was also intended for serial production. Russian-born craftsman Samuel Yellin’s curling wrought iron fire screen mingles with Lorentz Kleiser’s monumental tapestry showing Newark’s transformation from an indigenous village to an orderly town, both pieces demonstrating the endurance of historical European aesthetics. A towering “Skyscraper Bookcase” of California redwood with black lacquer, all designed by Austrian émigré Paul Frankl, incorporates the zoning-enforced architectural setbacks of the new skyscrapers, something which Erik Magnussen’s Cubic coffee service with its silver angles does on a smaller scale.

“It’s in those conversations where we hope that people can see if we put a beige and gray Jean Dunand enamel vase next to a similarly colored dress that it shows that these colors are the palette of the era,” Coffin said. “You start seeing connections, like an Edgar Brandt screen influencing the Rose Iron Works of Cleveland. It all keeps bouncing back and forth.”

Installation view of The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“The New Yorker” (Jazz) Punch Bowl (1931), designed by Viktor Schreckengost, manufactured by Cowan Pottery Studio (Rocky River, Ohio), glazed, molded earthenware; 11 3/4 x 16 5/8 inches (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, © Smithsonian Institution)
A portrait of Hattie Carnegie by Jean Dunand (1925) with a day dress designed by Marcel Goupy (1919-20) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A trophy designed by Jean E. Puiforcat for a 1923 figure skating competition at the Palais de Glaces in Paris (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Paul Manship, “Actaeon (1925), bronze (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Mystery Clock with Single Axle” (1921), produced by Cartier (Paris, France); owned by Anna Dodge; gold, platinum, ebonite, citrine, diamonds, enamel; 5 1/16 × 3 13/16 × 1 7/8 inches (Cartier Collection, photo by Marian Gerard, © Cartier)
Accessories and barware, including a silver owl-shaped cocktail shaker designed by Peer Smed (1931), a design that hid its function during Prohibition (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
An evening dress and underslip designed by Gabrielle Chanel and produced by House of Chanel, made from blue silk chiffon with applied blue ombré silk fringe (1926) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pair of wrought iron and bronze gates designed by René Paul Chambellan for the entrance to the executive office suite of the Chanin Building in New York (1928) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Tourbillons Vase” (1926), designed by Suzanne Lalique for René Lalique; pressed, carved, acid-etched and enameled glass; 7 15/16 x 6 7/8 inches (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, © Smithsonian Institution)
Installation view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A daybed designed by Frederick Kiesler (1933-35) and Aaron Douglas’s “Painting, Go Down Death” (1934) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A bergere chair designed by Paul Follot after Robert Bonfils, manufactured by Tapisserie des Gobelins and L’Ecole Boulle (1922-25), featuring an airplane (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of a door designed by Edgar Brandt inspired by Persian manuscripts (1923) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Woman’s wool knit striped bathing suit (1920s) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A wrought iron and gilding firescreen designed by Edgar Brandt (1925) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A ten-panel screen made of gilt and lacquered wood with patinated bronze, designed by Armand-Albert Rateau (1921-22) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of a linen textile designed by Thomas Lamb, manufactured by DuPont Rayon Company, with the Diana’s leaping gazelle motif that was popular at the 1925 Paris Exposition (1920-29) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s continues at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (2 East 91st Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 20. 

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