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From Bauhaus To Bakelite

This Modernism world represented in massive exhibit


It's a quirk of history that modernism flourished in America because of Adolf Hitler. When the Bauhaus was forced to leave Nazi Germany, many of the school's designers fled to America, where new schools using Bauhaus principles were developed. This began in the 1930s.

The current exhibition on view at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design addresses the 30s, plus an earlier phase of modernism -- Art Deco -- and while the exhibition doesn't have a lot to say about the Bauhaus, the presence of the movement is felt everywhere.

The inclusive dates of American Modern: 1925-1940: Design for a New Age underline the importance of the French Art Deco style and its role in the making of American Modernism.

In those post-WWI days, of course, everything happened first in Paris -- everything that had to do with art and culture, that is. Before the bold lines of modernism evolved, it was in Paris that a design exposition gave a new decorative style its name: Art Deco (actually coined 40 years later by Bevis Hollier in his 1968 book Art Deco), as shorthand for "Arts Decoritifs," from the name of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoritifs et Industriels Moderns in 1925.

America declined to participate in the Paris 1925 Exposition because of a misconstrued sense that our nation lacked examples of modern design. And because Germany wasn't invited to participate, the Bauhaus was not represented. The prevalence of Parisian influence, therefore, with Viennese and other Euro counterparts, colored the '25 expo with its style and look. Over the next couple of decades, this "look" would cross the Atlantic, merge with American enterprise, and evolve into Modernism. It's noteworthy that many of the American designers featured in this exhibition were European emigres.

You'll notice a lot of metal in American Modern: chrome and steel, electroplated nickel silver, "Monel" metal and spun aluminum, chrome-plated brass, pewter; Corning Glass is represented, too. And new industrial materials, less costly, more machine-friendly and malleable, were being invented: Vitrolite (baked enamel); Naugahyde; Fabrikoid; Bakelite; celluloid, melamine, phenol resin. Also favored for use were aluminum, chrome, and nickel, cork, linoleum.

And you'll notice that some of the designs on display are "classic" and easy on the eye, and as familiar-looking as contemporary objects in your own home, 70 years later. These siphon bottles, clocks, certain pieces of furniture and other functional objects have a timeless quality. You may own some kitchen utensils like those designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1934. Handsome cutlery and earthenware that have inspired whole retro waves of design we use today, can be seen here, such as blue and white "Lamelle" earthenware; a Lurelle coffee maker; Fostoria by George Sakier; and thermos bottles.

One of the most beautiful objects in the show is a clean-lined, masterfully balanced chrome-plated brass water pitcher by Peter Muller-Munk, Normandie (1935), a piece designed with perfect pitch. It leans just so, and is as dramatic and yet subtly streamlined as the Normandie ocean liner it emulates. Exquisite craftsmanship fashions the curve of the handle which in turn mimics the pleasing shape of the mouth of the pitcher. But it doesn't look dated.

While the Normandie pitcher has a "timeless" quality, other pieces look "dated," some charmingly, others awkwardly. A bronze theatre sconce (circa 1935), designer unknown, typifies the American Art Deco style lighting fixture. Bulbous in form, it has a "dated" yet immensely charming look, quick to be classified as "Art Deco."

A famous native-born American, Isamo Noguchi, designed The Radio Nurse (1937) on display, a brown Bakelite radio, "quaint" and dated in a way that his sculptures are not.

Pleasing as these examples are, Ruba Rombic glassware (1928) by Reuben Haley is clunky and chunky in appearance, as is an experimental desk and chair set designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Johnson Wax Building, which is overwrought. You don't have to like the style to recognize it as Art Deco.

What makes Art Deco so easy to spot is often its shape, its swooping curves, discs and stepped-up designs, or its rotund lines, amplified by bold Bauhaus-influenced geometric patterns, motifs from exotic cultures, and striking, contrasting colors.

Though it's tricky to determine "when" Art Deco ends and Modernism begins, materials and ornamentation, or lack thereof, provide clues. American Deco is a more "democratic" style than its posh and luxurious French predecessor which fabricated objects from rich materials: lacquer, ivory, enamel, snakeskin, sharkskin, crystal, imported woods such as ebony, glossy metals, and silk brocade.

While French Art Deco was luxurious, the American style evolved during the Great Depression of the 1930s into a pared down aesthetic, with cleaner lines, a style known as "streamlining." Abandoning the curvilinear design of its precedent Art Nouveau, Art Deco designers stylized abstract geometry into expressive zig-zags and dynamic streamlining, so that everything appeared to be moving; sleek lines symbolized speed and expressed "the machine age."

"Streamline was a distinctly American design style forged in the crucible of the social and economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s," write Steven Heller and Louise Fili, co-authors of Streamline: American Art Deco Design.

If French Art Deco defined the 20s and streamlining, American style, defined the 30s, the roots for Modernist design style actually go back to the British Arts & Crafts Movement of William Morris and Charles Rennie MacIntosh, and to Otto Wagner's Vienna Secessionists -- turn-of-the-last-century movements that contributed to the evolution of Art Nouveau, which later elided into Art Deco.

Utilitarian in most cases, American Art Deco design did incorporate imagery from avant-garde fine art contemporaries: Fauvist, Cubist, Constructivist and Futurist artists influenced Deco designs.

But what did "American" mean during the second quarter or so of the 20th century, when many of the most famous American designers emigrated as youths from Europe: France, Austria, Britain, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Scandinavia? For example, Raymond Loewy, the famous Coca-Cola bottle designer whose cameras, a hood ornament for a contemporary automobile, and many other designs are on display, was born in Paris in 1893. Loewy served in WWI before he emigrated to New York, where he got a job as a window dresser at Macy's. Paul Frankl, another of many such immigrants represented, was born in Vienna in 1887 and emigrated here in 1914. Peter Muller-Munk, born in Germany, moved to New York in 1926. (Besides the Normandie pitcher, Muller-Munk designed the Waring Blender.) These designers were a few of the first wave of talent to flood America.

Other leading American industrial designers on view -- Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Teague, Harold L. Van Doren -- also applied "style" to everyday furnishings. Ken Weber's Naugahyde and wood Airline Chair (1934) and Sakier's sink belonged in everyday lives, as useful, well-designed objects just like the Bauhaus intended.

Perhaps this stripped down "American" style couldn't have happened in "old" Europe. Euro designers and craftsmen had to bring their skills across the ocean to merge with American technology, defining the "Machine Age," and create this aesthetic.

No single element activated the "modern" movement, of course. It took America's advancements in technology -- for example, our expertise and innovation in the construction of skyscrapers and elevators -- that connected with an aesthetic imported from Europe to produce the International style of architecture. "The hero," says one critic, "was not the decorator but the engineer."

The 1934 Machine Art exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art celebrated the manufacturing perfected in the United States. The eventual participation of Americans and Germans in international product design overcame the last vestiges of art nouveau ornamentalism to produce the more muscular, leaner lines of modernism. The magic mixture of manufacturing expertise, good design, and remnants of fine Euro craftsmanship defined the modern appearance of objects, many of which took on the appearance of "table architecture." While some pieces styled in this manner became icons of the 30s, others would be at home in an avant-garde furniture store today.

If you love good design, don't miss American Modern: 1925-1940: Design for a New Age, on view at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, 220 N. Tryon Street, through July 28. The 143 works of art are a treat to the eyes. For more information, call 704-337-2000, or go to *

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