The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920sis 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”