Going Modern: American Design in the 1920s

John Gordon, Yale University Art Gallery

Tuesday, June 11, 2013Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
Walt Disney Museum
Desk designed by Donald Deskey

Desk designed by Donald Deskey, probably made by Schmieg, Hungate & Kotzian, Inc., 1929. Macassar ebony veneer, yellow-poplar, chestnut, ash, plywood faced with mahogany. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Arthur D. Berliss, Sr.

Compote by Erik Magnussen, 1927

Compote by Erik Magnussen, 1927. Sterling silver, ivory and ebony. Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection by exchange.

Pair of candelabra designed by Kem Weber, made by Porter Blanchard, 1928

Pair of candelabra designed by Kem Weber, made by Porter Blanchard, 1928. Pewter and ebony. Yale University Art Gallery, John C. Waddell Collection, Gift of John C. Waddell.

John Stuart Gordon will explore the varied influences and myths surrounding the appearance of modern decorative arts during the Jazz Age. Mr. Gordon’s themes are drawn from his exhibit, “A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery, 1920–1950,” to present a fully-realized view of the influence, concerns, and ambitions of modern design in America from the Jazz Age to the dawn of the Space Age. His exhibition catalogue interprets approximately 300 modernist objects from a wide range of media, glass and metals to textiles and furniture, that embraces all levels of manufacture, from bespoke sterling to manufactured cookware.

Americans, although skeptical at first, eagerly embraced modernist design during the 1920s and applied its aesthetic to furniture, housewares, textiles, silver and glass. Most histories of modern design in America begin with the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs. While this ambitious exposition caused many Americans to realize they were out-of-step with international style, discussions of modern design had in fact been circulating through American design circles since the early 1920s.

The earliest promoters of modern design in America were German and Austrian émigrés. Their influence helped form a quintessentially American version of modernism that borrowed freely from a broad range of European influences.

Modern design was more than merely another decorative style. Modernism became equated with modern life. For many Americans, the idea of “going modern” meant more than simply acquiring curtains in the latest pattern, but implied adopting a new worldview. As a result, modern design became coded with progressive social and cultural issues of the day.

Modern objects were fabricated from newly-discovered polymers, utilized novel manufacturing processes, or adapted industrial materials for domestic use in ways that proclaimed their liberation from past traditions. Innovations in transportation, radio broadcasting and film all became equated with modern design, as did social issues like the evolution of gender norms. Of all the social issues, anti-prohibition sentiments aligned closely with design as modernist designers provided ambitious paraphernalia for the modern culture of drinking.

John Stuart Gordon earned his bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, and his master’s degree from the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture. He was a curatorial intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before he began his doctoral studies at Boston University’s program in American and New England studies, and was a cataloguing and research intern for Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in Boston. His doctoral dissertation will be “Lucelle Gould and the Legacy of the Colonial Revival in American Modernist Design.”

John Stuart Gordon was a guest curator for “Classic Modern; Art Deco Silver from the Collection of John P. Axelrod” at the Addison Gallery of American Art, at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts. He has a been curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery since 2006, where he has curated “The Architect’s Table: Swid Powell and Postmodern Design.” His publications for The Magazine Antiques are “Lucelle Gould: The Historical Modernist” (March/April 2011) and “At Home in Modernism: The John C. Waddell Collection of American Design” (May/June 2012).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Share your sleekly sophisticated Art Deco and streamlined objects.


Walt Disney Museum, Presidio, 104 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. If you are using GPS, also include the zip code—94129—or you will be directed to downtown San Francisco, instead of the Presidio. Parking is plentiful, and free, on the parade ground and behind the museum.