John Stuart Gordon, Yale University Art Gallery
LC-52-A lounge chair designed by Kem Weber for the Lloyd Manufacturing Company, 1935, chromium-plated steel, birch plywood and velour. Yale University Art Gallery, purchased by Friends of the American Arts and John P. Axelrod.
Phonograph, RCA Victor Special, Model M, designed by John Vassos for the RCA Manufacturing Company, ca. 1935, aluminum, chromium-plated steel, velvet and plastic. Yale University Art Gallery, gift of John C. Waddell.
John Stuart Gordon’s “Going Modern: American Design in the 1930s and 1940s” continues the themes of his presentation to the Forum in June, 2013, “Going Modern: American Design in the 1920s.” The exuberance of the Jazz Age plummeted, much like the stock market in 1929, with the onset of the Great Depression as new economic and social realities resulted in a dramatic difference in the appearance of objects that filled American homes. Industrial manufacturers introduced new products to bolster their incomes — at a time when Americans spent less on furnishings — and companies increasingly relied upon the talents of freelance designers to give their products “eye appeal.”
Ideals derived from the Bauhaus and the hydrodynamic theory of streamlining merged to create an aesthetic that conveyed clarity, functionality and scientific precision. Simultaneously, a strain of stylized neoclassicism imbued new designs with a sense of historical authority. Americans were introduced to modern design at museum exhibitions and world’s fairs, which often associated modernism with an alluring, gleaming future. The fairs in Chicago, New York and San Francisco were among the 1930s’ most attended events. The sets and costumes of Hollywood movies exposed Americans from all walks of life to modern architecture and design. The commoditization of modernism became a hallmark of the period, vividly exemplified by the cocktail shakers and drinking glasses that flooded the market following the repeal of Prohibition and domestication of imbibing mixed drinks. Even the support given to craftsmen through the Works Progress Administration was often tied to sales.
Many of the design ideas developed during the late 1930s continued after World War II. New plastics and manufacturing techniques were perfected during wartime and, once the war was over, these innovations entered the home. Streamlining evolved into organic design, fusing a range of international references from surrealism to Scandinavian design. By the end of the 1940s, modern design became equated with the very essence of American life. John Stuart Gordon is a Vassar graduate whose master’s degree in decorative arts, design and culture is from Bard. He earned his doctorate from Boston University’s program in American and New England studies. Mr. Gordon’s dissertation also provided material for “Lurelle Guild: The Historical Modernist” in The Magazine Antiques (March/April 2011). He also contributed “At Home in Modernism: The John C. Waddell Collection of American Design” to The Magazine Antiques (May/June 2012). Mr. Gordon wrote A Modern World: American Design in the Yale University Gallery (2011).
January’s speaker was a curatorial intern for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, later a cataloguing and research intern for Historic New England (previously the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in Boston. Following a guest curatorship at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut. Since 2006, he has served at the Yale University Art Gallery as an assistant curator, then associate curator, of American Decorative Arts.