The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s
Exhibition TextA creative explosion in design and art lit up the 1920s. The Jazz Age explores the dynamic changes in American taste and lifestyles during this period through a broad range of furniture, jewelry, fashion, textiles, decorative arts, and architecture, as well as art, film, and music. The influences that fueled this burst of innovation, exoticism, and modernity were manifold and flowed back and forth across the Atlantic. Jazz music, a uniquely American art form that sprang from African American musicians who preserved and improvised on its historic roots, also found a ready audience in Europe. An apt metaphor for the era’s embrace of urbanity and experimentation, jazz captured the pulse and rich mixture of cultures and rhythms that brought a new beat to contemporary life.
Significant influences from Europe included avant-garde artistic movements; the Paris 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes; recent immigrant designers, primarily from Austria and Germany; traveling exhibitions featuring the latest designs, many available for sale; and fashion and jewelry acquired overseas. At home, new modes of transportation and the development of industrial design with its impact on consumer products and the interior profoundly shaped American taste. Equally exciting and important as these influences were the rapid growth of American cities and architecture—most notably the soaring American skyscraper—which awed Americans and Europeans alike and inspired unprecedented dynamic forms in design.
New freedoms abounded. Women gained the right to vote in 1920 and enjoyed more independence, bending traditional social rules of decorum and engaging in new professions such as interior design. This freer spirit also appeared in art and design through vibrant colors, bold geometric forms, and the use of new materials and experimental production methods. These changes became increasingly visible as the decade progressed and are explored in the exhibition’s six thematic sections: The Persistence of Traditional "Good Taste," A New Look for Familiar Forms, Bending the Rules, A Smaller World, Abstraction and Reinvention, and Toward a Machine Age.
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A Smaller World TextAfter World War I, American artists, designers, and patrons eagerly traveled to Paris, attending the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes where various countries—though not the United States or Germany—exhibited significant new designs. An American government committee selected 400 objects from the exposition, many for sale, to tour US museums in 1926. Department stores followed suit with exhibitions of imported modern design. Other influences came through the immigration of trained designers, particularly from Vienna and Berlin, to the US. These designers brought new aesthetics and an interest in industrial design that they combined with a fascination with American skyscrapers. The interaction of European-trained and American-born designers created new energy and a style that might be called "melting-pot modern."
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Bending the Rules TextThe 1920s abounded with new lifestyles. Now able to vote and empowered as decision-makers, women cast off old social customs with their corsets. Their more revealing fashions necessitated exercise and dieting, and called for colorful jewelry in exotic new forms, accessories for cosmetics, and cigarette smoking paraphernalia for additional glamour and adventure. The fashionable "stepped out" to nightclubs first in Paris and then in the US to hear jazz music that gave the era a swinging beat and new excitement. Prohibition reigned throughout the 1920s—but creative designs for cocktail shakers and cups showed the rules being stylishly bent.
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A New Look for Familiar Forms TextIn the early 1920s, new ideas challenged the supremacy of traditional American "good taste" in design. Although wary of the socialistic fervor associated with radical design movements such as Russian Constructivism, the fashionable consumer was eased into modernity through an admiration for France. Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Edgar Brandt, Louis Süe, and André Mare were among those who produced works using lavish craftsmanship, exotic materials, and extreme technical skill; invoking 18th-century French styles, but with pared down form and decoration. This trend influenced American manufacturers, especially in furniture. Silver and jewelry design created an important connection between traditional metalwork techniques and new influences.
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Toward A Machine Age TextDesign that took its inspiration from machinery became an important part of American taste in the 1920s, moving from the factory into domestic interiors. While aesthetic and technical innovations of Europeans Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier involved limited production of chrome-plated bent metal furniture, Americans Donald Deskey and Gilbert Rohde partnered with industry to expand furniture production and affordability. Similarly, George Sakier’s Fostoria Glass designs combined mass production with sophisticated forms. This exhibition concludes in the early 1930s, showing how the technological and stylistic innovations of the 1920s—that had originated as fashionable alternatives to the past—became widespread in America after the 1929 stock market crash.
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The Persistence of Traditional "Good Taste" TextBy the early 1900s, many Americans equated "good taste" and social success with historical European styles, a trend that continued through the 1920s. Imported architectural elements from French châteaux and English manors were enhanced by correspondingly styled furnishings. Early American design found new respect with the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1924) and the restoration of colonial Williamsburg (1926), and the buying of antiques and antique reproductions. The new field of professional interior design—many pioneers were women such as Dorothy Draper and Nancy McClelland—helped introduce new sympathetic contexts for old objects, including wallpapers and fabrics.
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Abstraction and Reinvention TextThe abstract and often fragmented forms that appeared in 1920s design were influenced by fine art movements such as Cubism, but they also emanated from the profound impact of abstraction in architecture particularly the stepped, set-back profile of soaring skyscrapers and in the open-plan arrangements of interior spaces. Designers’ use of bold geometric shapes that became pervasive by the 1930s—from the zigzags of Reuben Haley’s Ruba Rombic glass and Ruth Reeves’s Electric pattern textile to the spheres of a Lobmeyr glass candy dish and a Puiforcat silver tea set—reflects an overall trend of paring down to pure form that had its root in the 1920s.
See all the objects in the Abstraction and Reinvention section.