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The Rejection of Art Moderne

Published onApr 22, 2021
The Rejection of Art Moderne

… every effort should be made to encourage the industrial designers now at work and to enable the rising generation of artists to carry on their studies until our achievements in the practical forms of art not only equal but surpass the achievements of other nations.

William L. Harris, 1922 [185]

In 1920 the magazine Arts and Decoration, which had long been the leading American supporter of arts and crafts and the industrial arts, acknowledged that it should no longer deal with the finer arts only, “but also with those accessories to life by which we express our individuality and indulge our personal tastes.” ([99], 28) Editor Matlack Price pointed out that the broadening of design was attracting artists and artisans from many fields and that designers were interpreting the term design as encompassing a broad area of activity concerned with creating objects that were beautiful, expressive of their purpose, and practical in construction and manufacture. For a short time it appeared that American design would take off on a course of its own, away from dependence upon European fashion, toward a recognition of functional needs and mass-production technology. Wrote W. F. Morgan in 1920: “It is gratifying to note that a change of sentiment is taking place. The average citizen is beginning to understand that an article may be useful and beautiful at the same time.… we are realizing that there is really no essential distinction in artistic character between the commonest household objects and the rarest productions of artistic genius.” ([100], 38)

The promise of expanded opportunities for artists and designers brought new life into older organizations such as the Art-in-Trades Club (founded in 1906), the School Art League (1911), and the National Alliance of Art and Industry (1912) and stimulated the establishment of new organizations such as the Gift and Art Association (1921), the Association of Decorative Arts and Industries (1920), and the American Institute of Industrial Art (1922). Though most of these organizations have long since disappeared, they served to point out that conscientious designers, manufacturers, merchandisers, and educators had recognized the importance of design and art in manufactured products, whether decorative or utilitarian or both, and were searching for means of developing a fruitful relationship with one another and advancing public taste and interest in better design.

The National Alliance of Art and Industry became particularly active in 1920 when, with William E. Purdy as its president, it sponsored meetings and competitions to promote the industrial arts in America. The Alliance was especially proud that objects that had won some of its competitions not only had been sold in Paris but had also been passed off as coming from Paris to Americans who would not have bought the products otherwise. Also in 1920, the Alliance formed an Industrial Arts Council, comprising officials of business, design, and industrial organizations, to explore the common bond that they had all found in design. As one of its first actions the Council proposed that an Art Centre be established as an umbrella “organization to which artists might look for aid in placing designs for manufactures, to which manufacturers might look for appropriate designs, and to which both manufacturers and artists might go for the kind of instruction necessary to make industry hospitable to art and art appropriate to industry,” recognizing the fact that it was not easy “to build an efficient bridge over the chasm that has widened between modern art and modern industry in this country.” [182]

More than 100 separate organizations, ranging from the Architectural League through the Art Alliance of America, the Art Directors Club, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Society of Illustrators to trade organizations and craft societies of every type, joined the Art Centre in the hope that the encouragement of the industrial arts among young Americans would make future importation of European art goods unnecessary. For all of these artists and designers the Centre, under the direction of William L. Harris, held conferences and lectures, staged exhibits, and maintained a bureau for placing designers in the various trades and industries in its two houses in Manhattan. Mrs. Ripley Hitchcock, chairwoman of the executive committee of the Art Alliance, in emphasizing her conviction that all of the arts in industry would have a place in the Art Centre, offered the following statement: “Americans must realize that an artistic garbage pail will appeal more strongly to the housekeeper than an inartistic one, even at a slightly increased price, although Americans will soon find that the artistic things are cheaper in the long run.” [181]

The symbol of the Art-in-Trades Club was evidence of the careful position that it attempted to take between traditional and modern influences in design. Club yearbook, 1922.


The Gift and Art Association was founded in response to the remarkable growth of exclusive shops, both independent ones and those that were parts of department stores. The success of these shops seems to have been due largely to the higher wages that for the first time provided people with disposable income with which they could purchase things to brighten their homes, and also to the fact that magazines and newspapers were featuring home decoration as never before. It was also proposed that soldiers had come home from France with positive ideas about more artistic furnishings in the home. Consequently, industry recognized the value of more artistic products, and artists who had scorned commercialization now seemed more willing to design objects to be made by trained craftsmen. Though some artists were fearful that any attempt to make art a paying proposition would lead to standardization, the principal evidence seemed to be that art would play a greater part in the selling of objects and there would be fewer reservations about designing useful as well as artistic products.

The emergence of design as a distinctive calling in the United States seems to have been directly related to the growth of mass production as a respectable source, not only for the necessities, but also for the niceties of democratic life. Although some accused the machine of being the source of modern ugliness—”the machine, for all its services to mankind, is so often represented in the role of Beast in its relation to Beauty in the life of the world that it has come to stand as a symbol of ugliness” ([149], 28)—a shift in sentiment away from the feeling that designers were incapable of designing products for mass production that had any redeeming aesthetic qualities was underway. A general call was being heard for new forms of industrial-arts products that would be accepted as works of art, genuine in their own way, and as capable of raising the “standard of machine work within the scope of its possibilities.” ([139], 333)

Leon Volkmar, in the New York Times, called for a new form of art: “If you must have the machine, evolve a new type of beauty that will express the machine plus intelligent direction.” [186] Volkmar took it as misguided sentiment to attempt to apply hand-originated decoration to machine products. It was important to him that machine-made products, whether they served luxury or convenience, should be acknowledged as respectable symbols of affluence. In this way those who would otherwise have had nothing, since they could in no way afford handmade originals, could now be proud of their material acquisitions no matter what their source or the quantity of their production. Richard F. Bach, however, defended the use of the machine to duplicate handmade historical styles in his comments to the Institute of Art and Science at Columbia University in 1922. It seemed entirely logical to him that modern technology should be used to replicate products and ornaments of the past.

Lewis Mumford was convinced that there was a fundamental difference between the aesthetic aspirations of handmade and machinemade products. It seemed to him that what was a virtue in one was anathema in the other. The craftsman, Mumford believed, was possessed by his work and dissatisfied with it until he had poured himself into every part. As a result, the value of his product was in direct relation to the amount of creative energy that had been consumed in its making. What Thorstein Veblen had termed conspicuous consumption was thus taken as the hallmark of handicraft aesthetics. The craftsman realized that convoluted rather than geometric forms were more logical for handmade forms and that, rather than mechanically pure surfaces, textured and ornamented surfaces could be relied upon to provide an acceptable finish to his work. On the other hand, good machine-made products, according to Mumford, demand “a complete calculation of consequences, embodied in a working drawing or design,” and, as a result, “the qualities exemplified in good machine-work follow naturally from the instruments: They are precision, economy, finish, geometric perfection.” “A good pattern in terms of this mechanized industrialism,” said Mumford, “is one that fulfills the bare essentials of an object; the ‘chairishness’ of a chair the ‘washiness’ of a basin; and any superfluity that may be added by way of ornament is in essence a perversion of the machine process, and by adding dull work to work that is already dull, it defeats the end for which machinery may legitimately play a part in humane society; namely, to produce a maximum amount of useful goods with a minimum amount of human effort.” Mumford proposed that there was a canon of industrial aesthetics by which anything that demands more of a machine than it can logically or freely give “adds to the physical burden of existence.” ([156], 38) Once we refused to accept the norms of handicrafts as absolute, he suggested, there was a new kind of beauty to be achieved in machine-made products. Mumford was concerned about the fact that, although the logic of the machine was being acknowledged as stimulating a modern style, Americans had yet to allow for the “vagaries of human psychology” that would have to be taken into consideration if the style was to have real value. He was convinced that the machine was as “incapable of yielding fresh designs as a mummy is of begetting a family.” ([157], 263)

It is reasonable to believe that, once the freedom to modify an object in the course of its making that had been associated with the handicrafts was replaced by the preplanning and design that is essential for machine production, the forms of manufactured products would come under the control of design instruments (such as compasses and straightedges) and their production surrogates (lathes, mills, and planing and rolling machines). The action of instruments and machines was essentially geometric, as were the forms of the materials available for production (such as sheets, tubes, and wires). As a result, it was natural at the time to presume that geometric forms were most natural to machine production and that such qualities as mathematical accuracy and purity of finish would bring pleasure to those seeking manufactured perfection.

The new sensitivity to the aesthetic potential of utilitarian products and the recognition that machine production imposed unique design conditions were beginning to shape the character of industrial design. This character had found expression, unintentionally at first, in the work of those manufacturers who produced the unassuming vernacular products of everyday life. Its influence was echoed in the growing belief that everything had a rational base, and that the arts as well as social and industrial systems could be expected to operate smoothly and efficiently in order to bring culture and convenience to every citizen. It seemed reasonable to assume that the Americans, in particular, would welcome the new aesthetic of technology in their products and environmental arts. They anticipated a life of electrified ease in steel structures that scraped the sky. Mechanization was rapidly being transformed into an art compressing experience into moving pictures and expanding human capacity with speeding automobiles and airplanes. It seemed inevitable that the American cultural establishment would sense the groundswell of the modern movement and recognize a new kind of expression. But such was not to be the case.

Somehow, despite the overwhelming evidence of the growth of the modernist movement abroad, the American tastemakers looked the other way. As the defenders of democracy abroad in the recent war, perhaps they were inspired to honor their own origins by searching for what they believed to be a uniquely American style. In the process the searchingly original Arts and Crafts movement was aborted, Tiffany’s inspired originality was forgotten, and Stickley’s mission in furniture and furnishings design was transformed into the so-called Spanish Mission or Spanish Colonial and the English-based Colonial styles.

The Spanish Colonial style was the result of a deliberate effort by the newly founded (1920) Association of Decorative Arts and Industries to discover a “native” style and then to promote it into a commercial success as the “most intelligent substitute possible to find for the old, slow-growing development of a style.” [179] The association proposed a truly New World character reflecting the romantic history of some 300 years of Spanish and Indian traditions in the Southwest. In a major promotion to launch the Spanish style, the association exhibited in 1920 at the Grand Central Palace in New York a Spanish-American bungalow that was described as a “laboratory” of home furnishings. Designers, it was presumed, could now “create a new impetus toward the designing of fabrics, furniture, wall paper, etc., which shall be wholly American in spirit and, therefore, more fitting to the purpose of interior decoration for the homes of Americans.” ([111], 35)

The parallel movement in the Northeast in the early 1920s was devoted to rediscovering, preserving, and reconstructing the artifacts and even the environment of the American colonial era. Those who could afford to do so took it as their cultural and patriotic obligation to collect the modest folk arts and artisanal masterpieces of the country’s first century and a half. Many of the major collections of Americana were started in the 1920s. The colonial scene was reborn when the Rockefellers rescued Williamsburg from oblivion. Dupont collected bits and pieces of the era at Winterthur, as did Henry Ford at Dearborn Village. The Vanderbilts created Sherbourne from scratch, just as others did at Sturbridge and Cooperstown. And the manufacturers of furnishings found no design challenge or risk in replicating the furnishings of the colonial era. The offices of the progressive J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in Manhattan’s modern Graybar Building were transformed into a veritable colonial scene. It was, and still is, comfortably assumed that the Colonial style of the Northeast “reproduced the charm of Colonial simplicity without sacrificing the essential comforts and conveniences of modern life.” ([113], 48)

The Spanish Colonial style was a curious blend of Spanish baroque fashions with Indian forms and the Northeastern Colonial, an agglomeration of Jacobean, William and Mary, Queen Anne, Georgian, and rococo influences with traces of German folk art and French and Italian Renaissance, tossed into a cultural salad to nourish the Americans’ transplanted spirit. Its best products were two styles of furnishings that have come to be considered natural to American domestic interiors.

The Spanish or Southwestern style was arbitrarily conceived in a deliberate search for an indigenous American design expression. It traded on the Arts and Crafts mission in furnishings and the Rudolf Valentino brand of romance. This room blithely blends Spanish, English, and Italian ideas. Arts and Decoration, January 1925.


The Colonial style, considered “wholly American” in spirit, enjoyed a popular revival in the 1920s. This 1922 sketch from the Stanton Studios shows a hall and a living room. Art-in-Trades Club yearbook, 1922.


Joseph Urban’s dining room in the Wiener Werkstaette style was as close to a modern expression as the Art-in-Trades annual exhibition ever came. Arts and Decoration, October 1923.


Two exhibitions staged by the Art-in-Trades Club at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in 1923 and 1924 serve best to illustrate the state of mind in the early 1920s with respect to the industrial and decorative arts. Each of the some 50 rooms in the exhibitions was designed and decorated in a different historical style to emphasize the club’s commitment to “beauty of form … in manufactured articles.” ([111], 33) The 1923 show included a Chippendale room (by Harry Wearne, the club’s president), an English Renaissance or Tudor room, a Queen Anne reception room, a Louis XVI boudoir, and a Spanish Colonial patio and reception room. There was a token room in European modern—a dining room by Joseph Urban in the style of the Wiener Werkstaette. The 1924 displays revealed “the adaptation of historic decorative modes to modern usages” by including a Georgian library, an Elizabethan living room, a Spanish-ltalian entrance hall, and, in particular, a Colonial breakfast room and apartment. One visitor to the exhibition somewhat cautiously noted that, although “one might wish for more that is new and unique, expressing the present, rather than finding its roots in the past,” it was quite evident that historic styles still commanded the interest of most Americans. ([112], 62)

In retrospect it is obvious that the American tastemakers and manufacturers preferred to remain fixed aesthetically to the past. A few advocates of the modern movement in the industrial arts warned that there was a desperate need for schools to train designers, but the majority believed that the wiser course was to continue the established practice of letting the Europeans pay for design education and then importing such samples and designers as were needed. America was “the greatest industrial art market in the world,” declared the New York Times. Therefore, there would be a strong inducement for foreign talent to come to the United States. [183]

Those who controlled the cultural establishment were not entirely ignorant that a modern spirit in design was gathering momentum abroad. They had first sensed its coming in the decline of Beaux-Arts eclecticism and the bright but brief flare of Art Nouveau, then had watched the healthy thrust of the Arts and Crafts movement and the awakening of rationalism in design be diverted (at least momentarily) by the Decorative Arts movement, with its fawns, ferns, and fairies. They had sensed that the playful manipulation of natural forms was clear evidence that artisans were incapable of containing the impact of the coming machine age. However, it fell to the most sensitive talents of the time to capture the essence of the modernist movement first. Foreign artists like Picasso, Léger, Brancusi, and Mondrian, by rejecting maudlin sentimentality, found a way from the natural world into the dynamic sphere of abstraction and machinelike expression. Although the Americans had been warned publicly about their conservatism by the unexpected vitality of the Armory show a decade earlier, most still preferred to believe that the modernist movement was no more than a temporary aberration of aesthetic judgment that would be readily forgotten after the World War.

The French designers and decorators, however, realized that their artists had provided them with the substance of a new style. “To create, to build up a style,” acknowledged André Marè, “the broad insight of the informed artist is needed, plus an infinite patience.… The same fire and faith must animate the artistic evolution of a chair no less than that of a painting or a sculpture.” Marè, with his partner Louis Sue and others like Paul Follot, André Groult, Maurice Dufrêne, Mallet-Stevens, Pierre Legrain, Emile Jacques Rhulmann, and Paul Poiret, found a common foundation in geometricity and helped to build it into a homogeneous style in the modern spirit, which proposed that the pristine qualities of geometric forms were more innocent and therefore more honest. Marè found justification for the modernist style in examples from the past: “When we study masterpieces of art and architecture we can see that their harmony is confined to geometry. Certain lines and proportions have peculiar virtue; but not all triangles, squares and ovals are equally beautiful. So, after reflection, we adopt some as the basis for our designs.…” ([109], 331)

In 1922, Leo Randole attempted to explain the modernist movement to his American colleagues: “It is the Gallic soul imprisoned within geometry and informed with the restraint imposed by the intellect through which beauty triumphs in her own way. In a nation where the gift of art is as traditional as it is innate, even the most revolutionary modernist turns constantly to the past for his inspiration, his justification. The modern decorator in his intellectual asceticism penetrates the past through the logic of geometry, which so infallibly defines the equilibrium of all harmony.” ([109], 331) American manufacturers of decorative products, however, remained particularly insensitive to the growing influence of modernism. They were preoccupied with their adaptations of traditional styles, and unwilling to be diverted by threats of a new style—at least until it had become popular enough to make copying profitable.

The French designers found their own manufacturers more receptive. Industries adjusted their manufacturing technologies to suit the radical ideas, thus breaking with their dependence upon established methods and entrenched aesthetics. Furthermore, the modernists took it as their mission to “democratize” modern art, to bring it within the reach of all classes in order to satisfy their craving for the beautiful.” In the process a new collaboration developed between designer and manufacturer that resulted in one of the basic contractual methods now familiar to industrial designers. It became customary in France for the manufacturer not only to pay the designer for his prototype expenses, but also to reimburse him with a royalty for every reproduction of his design. The concept of royalty thus obligated the designer to share in the risk and problems that might be encountered by the manufacturer. The understanding that developed between conceiver and producer was of great benefit in the refinement of aesthetic concepts for machine production. “The mating of creative minds,” it was acknowledged at the time, “imbued with the aesthetic impulse, to the commercial skill which makes possible the wide distribution of beautiful objects is a characteristic of the hour in which we may all rejoice.” ([109], 370)

Paul Poiret was convinced that “new forms exist only in objects which are created for our modern needs, and since nowadays the need of comfort and mechanics dominates everything else, it is only in objects in which art applies itself logically and intelligently to mechanical laws that real beauty and new forms can be found.” “In years to come,” said Poiret, “scientists will probably be able to explain the force that prompts the instinct of the artist to master the equilibrium of masses and volumes in perfect unison with the machine.” ([104], 380) Thus Poiret provided the modernist cause with its basic creed: that art may be used intelligently and rationally in order to achieve harmony between human needs and manufacturing capability.

Though not as many French designers were working in the new style as one might imagine, they had a strong influence. Their geometric style took hold first at the highest fashion level, where its daring forms were easily adapted to decorative patterns for clothing and accessories, to cosmetic packaging, and to the related advertising. One finds a clear connection between the decorative glass of Lalique and Baccarat and the bottles and packages of Francois Coty and other French perfumers, and it was only a short step from the arts of personal adornment to those of the environment. The modernist style began to appear in fabrics, furniture, lamps, and other accessories. Art directors found fame and profit by combining utility and beauty in the modern mode to make their clients’ products attractive to an ever-growing public.

French prestige in the arts of “haute couture” in the United States was given added impetus by an exhibition held in 1924 at the Grand Central Palace that consisted of a series of salons intimes, one for each of the French perfume makers. The most successful exhibit turned out to be the full-scale replica of Coty’s Parisian salesroom at the corner of Place de Vendome and the Rue de la Paix. Thus, the modernist style was familiar to at least one social level in America before the 1925 Paris exposition. In fact, Paul Poiret had already promoted Art Moderne in a successful lecture tour of the United States in 1923 (after which he had announced that he was discouraged to find extensive pirating of his designs by American wholesalers). On the other hand, the few Americans who tried to market their own modernist designs found that American manufacturers were still reluctant to devote any capital to native ideas. Nevertheless, as the mass production of comparatively inexpensive clothing and fashionable accessories was becoming highly organized in the United States, a democratized market for style was beginning to gather momentum in which women did not object to wearing almost identical outfits—providing they were in the latest Parisian fashion.

In an effort to capitalize on the rekindled interest in French styles, France determined to regain her prewar eminence by rescheduling for 1925 the “Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels” that had originally been discussed in 1912 and planned for 1915. “Will we offer to humanity the birth of a new French genius, or will we, ourselves, receive and follow the formula of others?” wrote Edmond Haraucourt, director of the Musée de Cluny in his 1921 call to his countrymen to join the intellectual and artistic communities in the great exposition. ([108], 91) However, in deference to the increasing democratization of design and the growing importance of mass production, the planners of the exposition decided to shift the emphasis from the one-of-a-kind masterpieces that had characterized earlier international expositions to the objects of everyday life, and to reward originality rather than subservience to historical motifs. The French were confident that their creative vigor would stand out above that of other countries: “Let us export our intelligence, our elegance, our art. In the markets of the world let us be the merchants of beauty.… a civilization characterized by the abolition of time and distance, by the reign of electricity and mechanical invention requires art to its liking.” [187] Logic, truth, and harmony were proposed along with science as fundamental to contemporary art. By the time the Paris exposition opened, the conventionalized sentimentality of stylized animals, sexless nudes, and stone roses had been invaded by the modernist geometric forms of the machine-age style. Today the two styles have been, somehow, melded into one—Art Deco—that conveniently uses the abbreviated title of the first to define the forms of the second.

This interior, with furniture and shelving in polished metal by Mallet-Stevens of Paris, displays innovative yet consistent use of rectilinear geometry as a basis for design. J. Prouve, Le Métal no. 9.


Pierre Leg rain’s automatic piano for Auto-Pleyela, not considered outstanding in its time, persists as a valid attempt to turn a functional product into a piece of abstract technological sculpture. J. Prouve, Le Métal no. 9.


René Lalique’s glass sculpture and containers combined the votive nudes of the era with abstractly modern forms. The powder-puff container by Coty is one of the classic cosmetic packages. M. Battersby, The Decorative Twenties.


When the directors of the Paris exposition sent out invitations to participate, every country except Germany received one and all but two countries accepted the challenge. China was not in a position to accept because of its chaotic political condition, and the United States declined because Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce in 1923, had concluded that the Americans could not comply with the exposition’s requirement that only original work could be exhibited. Subsequently, Hoover turned the French invitation over to the Smithsonian for consideration, but again because of the lack of support from commercial interests the State Department did not recommend appropriations. Later, in 1925, Hoover explained his action in a telephone address to the 4th Annual Exposition of Women’s Arts and Industries:

When the United States was invited to participate in this exposition, I canvassed the various interested manufacturers to learn if they thought it advisable for our government to undertake an American building in Paris. The advice which I received from our manufacturers was that while we produced a vast volume of goods of much artistic value, they did not consider that we could contribute sufficiently varied design of unique character or of special expression in American artistry to warrant such a participation. Whether this be the actual case or not, it was their opinion. My own conclusion from this experience was that it was high time that we should begin to develop more design and artistry. Therefore, as Secretary of Commerce I requested a number of men and women prominent in the field of industrial arts in this country to constitute themselves a delegation to visit the Paris Exposition. I am hopeful that this mission may serve to promote the growth of our American industrial arts. I know of no field where women can be of greater service in such design, and in the stimulation of the more artistic presentment of articles of common utility. Art in its more extreme form cannot find a place in every home. We cannot all of us afford galleries of paintings or rare sculpture. But we can see to it that our homes and the furnishings that go to make up those homes shall be in accordance with canons of art and taste. [214]

The refusal of the United States to join its allies and other nations in the first great postwar fair, the Paris Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, shocked the cultural establishment, even though in retrospect this establishment may be held responsible for the fact that America had nothing original to show. And, though Hoover’s decision did not surprise the manufacturing and merchandising industries, the Americans were galvanized into demanding prompt government action—largely, one might suppose, because of the blow to U.S. prestige and the economic threat that was posed by the exposition. As a result, Hoover was obliged to honor a demand from Charles Richards that he delegate a special commission of 100 representatives from interested trade associations, and a few token architects and designers, to visit and report on the exposition for the benefit of American trade. Other American designers, such as Russel Wright, Donald Deskey, and Walter Dorwin Teague, were drawn to Paris and returned as champions of modernist art.

The report of the American commission was self-serving yet apologetic:

As a nation we now live artistically largely on warmed-over dishes. In a number of lines of manufacture we are little more than producing antiquarians. We copy, modify and adapt the older styles with few suggestions of a new idea. It is true that this practice of reproducing the older forms has been an invaluable education to our people. It is also true that the adaptation of old motives when performed with intelligence and skill continues and probably will continue to give us a large proportion of the decorative manifestations acceptable to American taste. It would seem equally true, on the other hand, that the richness and complexity of American life call for excursions into new fields that may yield not only innovations but examples well suited to the living conditions of our times. ([73], 22)

Americans needed to make room for new ideas, the report continued, because they would not avoid the modern movement in the applied arts; therefore, since the movement would reach the United States shortly, Americans should “initiate a parallel effort of our own upon lines calculated to appeal to the American consumer.”

However, the members of the commission did not all agree on the importance of the modern movement. Richardson Wright, the editor of House and Garden, expressed doubt that the modern movement as applied in the home would ever get a strong foothold in the United States. He saw nothing unusual in the fact that there were not enough people in the country who were interested in the new style to justify an American exhibit in Paris. The opposite view was expressed by Leon V. Solon, who wrote in the Architectural Record that the commission’s report represented a change of heart on the part of industry with respect to design and suggested that the new styles did not “proceed from an altruistic impulse, but from one which is infinitely more solid and significant.” “This sudden interest in decorative excellence,” wrote Solon, “is a policy of expediency, compelled by the extraordinary improvement in public taste and the economic value of artistically treated goods.… It is the industrialist who now takes the risk in innovation, not the solitary individual laboring in comparative obscurity.” ([199], 181)

The commission did not seem to recognize that the Europeans had deeper resources from which new ideas could be drawn, that their governments and industries respected and supported innovative design training, and that they saw new concepts in form as signs of creative vigor and not as threats to the cultural status quo as they appeared to be in the United States. Nevertheless, the trauma of Hoover’s rejection, plus the phenomenal success of the Paris exposition, swept away much of the American resistance to the modern movement. Within a year Art Moderne, or modernist art and decoration, was being eagerly duplicated by Americans. Lewis Mumford caustically noted that nothing had changed: “American designers, instead of designing directly for our needs and tastes, are now prepared to copy French modernism, if it becomes fashionable, just as they habitually copy antiques.” ([155], 576)

The Paris exposition became a dramatic showcase for the talent and creative imagination that had been constrained by the austerity of the recent war. It provided a great impetus to the modernist movement in the form of a series of pavilions whose interiors had been subsidized by the French minister of fine arts to be designed and built by the major Parisian merchandisers. Department stores such as the Galeries Lafayette, Bon Marché, and Printemps and the Magazins du Louvre gave their staff designers a free hand to conceive and produce a series of rooms in the modernist style. They were called “ensembles,” in recognition that every item in each room was to be unique and designed to be in aesthetic harmony with all of the others. This provided a homogeneity of expression that is typical of historical styles, and thus helped to make the modernist style comprehensible and palatable to the general public. With their bold geometry in combination with the more sentimental decorative arts and the bright flashes of Bakst’s “Russian Ballet” colors and patterns, the rooms were interpreted as complete happenings—exclusive creations, rather than prototypes of the democratic expression that was claimed for them. Some “ensembles” were purchased in their entirety as unique works of art; others were picked apart for inspiration by visiting designers and manufacturers.

While the pavilions were competing for attention, off in a corner of the exposition grounds stood a small house built by Le Corbusier and his followers, under the banner of “L’Esprit Nouveau,” in the clean machine-age style that would eventually displace Art Deco and other short-lived fashions to become the dominant style of this century. Corbusier’s pavilion was clearly in line with his convictions that “the new dwelling house must be a machine for habitation” (as quoted by Mumford) and that it and its furnishings should be standardized for machine production and be replaceable rather than permanent. ([24], 78) In this respect, French architects and designers were not entirely out of step with the philosophy of design that was taking shape at the Bauhaus at Dessau. Although there was as yet little rapport between the recent enemies, by 1923 Le Corbusier was printing in L’Esprit Nouveau a sympathetic commentary of the work of the Bauhaus and a paper from Walter Gropius asking for support.

The cover of the 1925 Paris Exposition catalog clearly illustrates its original focus on the decorative arts rather than the Art Moderne for which it is best remembered. Report on the International Exhibition, Paris 1925.


The Paris Exposition’s break with the past is reflected in the comment by Helen Appleton Read that passing through these obelisklike silver towers of the Porte d’Honneur was not unlike coming upon a cubist dream or a city on Mars. Report on the International Exhibition, Paris 1925.


The main entrance to the Paris Exposition, the Porte de la Concordetowering pylons and a bronze statue of “Welcome.” Report on the International Exhibition, Paris 1925.


Pierre Patout’s handsome “Pavilion for a Rich Collector,” created for the celebrated French decorator Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, was built of reinforced concrete and was honored as a harbinger of the future for its cleanliness, its beauty, and its labor-saving approach to structure. Report on the International Exhibition, Paris 1925.


Janniot’s group of stone figures outside the Ruhlmann pavilion combined nudes, animals, and flowers in forms that had clearly broken with the past; however, the spirit was classical. Report on the International Exhibition, Paris 1925.


The salon of the “Pavilion for a Rich Collector,” by Jacques Ruhlmann. M. Battersby, The Decorative Twenties.


Although it was hidden away in a corner of the Paris exposition, the small pavilion of L’Esprit Nouveau, by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanne ret, was a landmark. Constructed entirely of standardized elements, it was a prelude to manufactured dwellings. L’Esprit Nouveau, 1925.


The quietly classical interior of the L’Esprit Nouveau pavilion may be taken as a forerunner of the modern style. Its spare monumentality necessitated the visual relief of the paintings, which were by Leger and Jeanneret. L’Esprit Nouveau, 1925.


Le Corbusier’s terrace for a villa at Ville d’Avray illustrates the International Style’s debt to the great ocean liners of the day. J. Prouve, Le Métal no. 9.


The Swedish exhibits at Paris were characterized by a restrained sense of design and a simplicity of form, as in this interior by David Olmberg. Report on the International Exhibition, Paris 1925.


This engraved crystal covered bowl and platter, designed by Simon Gate and made by the Orrefors Glass Works of Sweden, shows the new Stockholm town hall surrounded by classical yet contemporary ornamentation. Report on the International Exhibition, Paris 1925.


It is conventional to credit the new style to the Germans, but the fact is that, for the most part, design in Germany and France was moving along parallel paths, with the Germans committed to the principle of design through craftsmanship and the French convinced that expression through geometry would produce forms that were the true expression of the machine age.

The Swedish pavilion became the center of attention in Paris. The astonishing number of awards won by Sweden, whose Arts and Crafts movement has evolved without a break from the rural folk arts into an urbane aesthetic—35 grand prizes, 46 gold medals, and many other lesser awards—provided the momentum that gave Swedish and other Nordic designers preeminence in the decorative arts for decades to come. To a large extent their success was due to the fact that the Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts had determined that industrial as well as handmade objects must speak the language of the period to which they belong. The result was a freshening of attitude toward design and the development of forms that suggested a new clarity in the decorative arts that was entirely Scandinavian in spirit and vitality.

The Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts decided, after a long history of Swedish crafts (the society was founded in 1845), to challenge tradition and, through the leadership of Gregor Paulsson, director of the society, and Dr. Eric Wettergren, curator of the Swedish National Museum, became insistent on “the need for new art forms to suit our modern age.” (193, 79) The philosophy was directed against the use of machine production to imitate the handicrafts by producing artificial and cheap reproductions of costly objects, and encouraged Swedish handicrafts to develop forms that reflected the precise and pristine forms that one associates with machine-made products. As a result, the modern Swedish handicrafts found a handsome accommodation between the simpler forms of industry and the spare yet rich details that were most logical to the virtuosity of the craftsman. The United States, on the other hand, had not only rejected the modern movement in design but had also denied earlier nourishment to the flowering Arts and Crafts movement before it could come to the level of maturity that it reached in Sweden.

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