A multisensory blockbuster of a show at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum here invites visitors to explore Jazz Age design in all its glittering, decadent and innovative glory.
Edgy furniture and tableware; textiles and wallpapers in rich oranges and teals; odes to the New York skyscraper — there’s nothing quietly “decorative” in “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” which is on view in New York through Aug. 20 and then opens at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Sept. 30. It runs there through Jan. 14, 2018.
Visitors should check preconceptions about “Art Deco” at the door. That popular term for 1920s style was coined well after the era ended, says Sarah Coffin, a curator at the Cooper Hewitt, who co-curated the exhibit with Stephen Harrison, a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was co-organized by both museums.
The pivotal era that linked a more traditionalist aesthetic before it to the Bauhaus and midcentury modern eras that came later was more aptly known in its own time as the Jazz Age.
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Through over 400 works, many of them from private collections and never before displayed in public, this show reveals why.
“Exploring the significant impact of European influences, the explosive growth of American cities, avant-garde artistic movements, new social mores and the role of technology, ‘The Jazz Age’ seeks to define the American spirit of the period,” says Cooper Hewitt Director Caroline Baumann.
The show begins quietly with a relatively staid section on the “Persistence of Traditional Good Taste,” focusing on the American colonial and Federalist designs in furniture and tableware (and a monumental tapestry woven by New Jersey’s Edgewater Tapestry Looms) that were favored by traditionalists of the early 1920s. This was a period when early American design found new respect with the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the rise of interior design, led by pioneering women like Dorothy Draper and Nancy McClelland, who helped introduce new contexts for old wallpapers and fabrics.
This section, visible from many of the other galleries, then serves as a point of reference as the decade then lurches from traditionalist to decidedly forward-looking.
“A New Look” reveals furniture and other design pieces of the early 1920s with a more modern sense of style. Works by cutting-edge French designers Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Edgar Brandt and Andre Mare reveal 18th century styles, particularly in furniture, revisited with a luxurious, sleek and modern sensibility. The pieces are paired with ceramics, textiles and wall coverings in bold, bright flora and fauna patterns, particularly in brash teals and oranges.
“Color is a big part of the picture,” explains Coffin.
Around the corner, “Bending the Rules” underlines the revolutionary social context behind increasingly innovative Jazz Age style. Women had earned the right to vote and many cast aside old social customs. Despite Prohibition, an array of glamorous cocktail shakers and glasses reveals rules being, very stylishly, bent.
“There’s a lot more flash suddenly, and a movement away from subdued decorum,” Coffin explains.
“A Smaller World” reveals the huge impact of the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, in Paris. Many influential American designers flocked to see the new designs there after World War l. A selection of 400 objects from the exposition were sent on a tour of American museums in 1926, and U.S. department stores held their own exhibits of imported modern design.
The new aesthetics, coupled with a fascination with industrial design and the powerful symbolism of American skyscrapers, led to skyscraper-inspired wall coverings and bookshelves, desks and even tableware.
The exhibit reveals movement in the late 1920s toward more abstract designs, particularly in architecture, which discovered open-plan interiors. This theme is explored through a gallery devoted to “Abstraction and Reinvention,” highlighting the impact of art movements like Cubism on architecture, furniture and other home goods.
Finally, in “Toward a Machine Age,” we are brought to the end of the ’20s, when machines inspired much of American taste, including the arrival of bent chrome furniture, combining sleek modern forms with mass production.
The show ends in the early 1930s with numerous iterations of Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight told in furniture upholstery, wallpaper and tableware. But the glitzy cocktail party seems to be over, with bold teals giving way to muted shades of sage, and now-mass-produced innovations made in cheaper iterations with the start of the Great Depression.
The show is accompanied by a hefty book by Coffin and Harrison on the exhibit, including over 500 illustrations: “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” (Yale University Press for the Cleveland Museum of Art).