The decade of the twenties was a glorious age for art and design. As Europe emerged from the smoke and devastation of the First World War, American patronage and culture helped transform the marketplace at home and abroad. Talent and craftsmanship, urbanity and experimentation flowed back and forth across the Atlantic, with an influx of European designers immigrating to America and a rush of American creative talent traveling and studying abroad. Against a backdrop of traditional historicist styles, a new language of design came to define an era of innovation and modernity—the Jazz Age—that captured the pulse and rhythm of the American spirit.
The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s is the first major museum exhibition to focus on American taste in design during the exhilarating years of the 1920s and early 1930s. Exploring the impact of European influences, American lifestyle, artistic movements, and the role of technology, Jazz Age reveals a decade marked by sharp contrasts. New ideas began to challenge the supremacy of traditional revival styles, but dissatisfaction with the status quo did not occur overnight. Rather, this quest for change had been evolving steadily since the latter part of the 19th century when progressive efforts such as the Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Secessionist movements signaled a desire for a new vocabulary of design—one that responded to parallel efforts in social, political, and economic reform.
The exhibition opens with works that feature new looks on familiar forms, providing updated, modern interpretations of older styles of decoration. Fashionable consumers were eased into modernity through an admiration for sophisticated French elegance, itself infused with Austro-German sensibilities from before the First World War. Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Edgar Brandt, Armand-Albert Rateau, Jean Dunand, and Raoul Dufy were among those who produced extraordinary objects using lavish craftsmanship, exotic materials, and high technical skill, often invoking earlier French styles but with pared-down form. This trend influenced American manufacturers, especially in furniture, while silver and jewelry design forged an important connection between traditional techniques and new influences.
Next is a promenade of galleries exploring transatlantic connections that helped blend influences and cultures to create a seemingly smaller world. American artists, designers, and the fashionable elite were eager to travel to Paris after the war, especially to attend the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art (Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes) where various countries—though not the United States—exhibited significant new designs. It was at this fair that the founder of Cleveland’s Rose Iron Works discovered the Hungarian-born metalwork designer Paul Fehér, who would later come to work for Rose and eventually design the magnificent screen that is a hallmark of their work and this exhibition. Trained designers arriving from Vienna, Berlin, and Eastern Europe brought to the United States new cultural influences and aesthetics, especially an interest in industrial design and the American skyscraper.
However, most American consumers living outside New York and Chicago still preferred recognizable, largely historicist decor. They equated “good taste” and social success with older European styles of design, a trend explored in a gallery showcasing some of the finest examples of these styles produced in America. Early American colonial design found new respect with the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1924), the celebrations surrounding the American Sesquicentennial (1926), and the restoration of colonial-era Williamsburg, Virginia (1926). Antiquing soon became a national pastime and, along with the purchase of historical reproductions, formed the cornerstone of traditional American decor. A new field of interior design emerged, dominated by professional women who helped pair old objects with sympathetic decor such as adaptations of historical wallpapers and fabrics.
Now able to vote and empowered as decision-makers, women cast off old social customs along with their corsets as the 1920s began to roar. A new ideal for the young modern woman emerged, dictating more revealing fashions and calling for colorful jewelry in exotic forms as well as accessories for cosmetics and cigarette smoking that lent additional glamour and adventure to liberated lifestyles. Fashionable people “stepped out” to nightclubs on both sides of the Atlantic to hear jazz music, which transformed traditional concert halls into dance halls and gave the era an exciting new pulse.
While simple shapes and minimalistic floral and figural decoration defined modernism in the first half of the 1920s, a more geometric style took hold in the latter half of the decade. These abstracted and often fragmented shapes were influenced by fine art movements such as Cubism and Dutch De Stijl (The Style), as well as architectural sources as diverse as the stepped shapes of ancient Mayan temples and the setback profile of soaring skyscrapers. By the end of the decade, reinvented form was as important to the designer as abstracted decoration. Extraordinary canvases by Piet Mondrian and Joseph Stella draw the visitor into a gallery signaling parallel motifs at work in rare examples of avant-garde late twenties design.
The exhibition concludes with the early 1930s, when the technological and stylistic innovations of the 1920s became widespread in America. As the Great Depression took hold, European and American designers partnered with industry to combine mass production and affordability with sophisticated forms that made use of tubular steel, rubber, plastics, and chrome. Revolutionary advancements in transportation were accompanied by new aerodynamic forms that emphasized speed. The popularity of this aesthetic naturally informed the look of both luxury goods and everyday objects, heralding a new age of machines.