The Enchanting Modernist

If you’ve been following the cover credits of the 113 issues I have featured so far, you’ll notice that many of the covers were illustrated by Ilonka Karasz, including the cover of the April 16, 1927 issue featured in this post.

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April 16, 1927 cover by Ilonka Karasz. She would design 186 covers for the New Yorker between 1925 and 1973.

During her long and varied career Karasz would design 186 covers for the New Yorker. A native of Hungary, she moved to the U.S. in 1913 and settled in Greenwich Village, where she quickly rose to become a prominent practitioner of modern design and the decorative arts.

She created paintings, prints and drawings in her early years before moving on to a variety of machine- and hand-made objects rendered in silver and ceramic. She designed furniture strongly influenced by the European De Stijl movement, and was also a pioneer of modern textile design, even developing textiles for use in airplanes and automobiles.

Beginning in the 1940s Karasz would emerge as one of the country’s leading wallpaper artists. Her younger sister, Mariska Karasz, would also become a noted American fashion designer and textile artist.

The range of Ilonka Karasz’s work is astonishing — from homespun images of rural America to the sleek, hard edges of modern design; from textiles and wallpaper to silver sets and large-scale furniture. Now I will get out of the way so you can see for yourself:

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Ilonka Karasz’s first and last covers for the New Yorker: April 4, 1925 (left) and Oct. 22, 1973.
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Many of Karasz’s covers were scenes of bucolic Americana–small towns, villages and farms. From left to right, covers from Dec. 9, 1950, July 5, 1952, and March 28, 1953.
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Ilonka Karasz, circa 1920s. At right, an illustration from her 1949 book, The Twelve Days of Christmas.
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TEXTILE ARTIST…Karasz’s cover design for the Aug. 19, 1944 New Yorker (left), and an oak leaf-pattern textile in Mohair, 1928 (RISD)
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WALLPAPER…“Wisconsin,” a mid-century wallpaper design by Ilonka Karasz (left), and her “Ducks & Grasses” wallpaper from 1948.
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Candlestick and small bowl by Karasz from a set designed for Paye & Baker, 1928. (Cooper Hewitt)
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Karasz’s mahogany desk from 1928 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

For more on Ilonka Karasz’s amazing career, see the Core77 article, Ilonka Karasz, 20th-Century Design Polymath, by Rebecca Veit.

Next Time: The Castle Builder…

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The Dinosaurs of Upper West Side

New York’s American Museum of National History unveiled its new Hall of Dinosaurs, and it was so impressive that even the New Yorker set aside its usual blasé tone toward popular attractions…

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April 2, 1927 cover by Toyo San.

…and found its “Talk of the Town” editors to be quite taken with “sacred bones:”dinosaurs

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NEW DIGS…Children studying a Brontosaurus skeleton in the American Museum of National History’s Hall of Dinosaurs, 1927. (AMNH Research Library)

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Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the Hall of Dinosaurs, 1927. (AMNH Research Library)

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The April 2, 1927 issue also found New Yorkers to be agog over “French-style” telephones:
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FRANCOPHONE…Trendy New Yorkers were switching from their old reliable candlestick telephones (left) to “French-style” phones (center) that were common throughout Europe. Western Electric answered their call with a sleek American version in 1928, right.

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The April 9, 1927 issue featured the second of Peter Arno’s 99 covers for the New Yorker. His first cover appeared eighteen issues earlier (Nov. 22, 1926) and featured the same gardener, but this time he was inspecting a newly budded leaf rather than the last one to fall:

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Note the difference in style between the two covers–the April 9 cover is rendered with more detail, depth and texture. These would be Arno’s only covers with rather sedate subjects. Subsequent covers would have more action and humor, such as this one from 1954, one of my favorites:

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And now for a note about Paul Whiteman. One cannot write about the Jazz Age without mentioning the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. It was Whiteman who in 1924 commissioned George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered with Whiteman’s orchestra (and with George Gershwin himself at the piano).

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This ad in the Feb. 26, 1927 New Yorker announced the much-anticipated return of Whiteman and his orchestra. The caricature of Whiteman was his trademark.

Even Lois Long, who seemed to be growing bored with New York nightlife, found reason to celebrate Whiteman in this column that appeared alongside the ad:

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Whiteman had 28 number one records during the 1920s and dominated sheet music sales. He provided music for six Broadway shows and produced more than 600 recordings. Dubbed “King of Jazz” his style was actually a blending of jazz and symphonic music.

The folks at Victor Talking Machines played on Whiteman’s fame with this advertisement for their latest “Orthophonic” Victrola. Although it was the first consumer phonograph designed specifically to play “electrically” recorded discs and was recognized as a major step forward in sound reproduction, the claim that the machine would reproduce sounds “exactly as you would hear them at the smart supper clubs” seemed a little far-fetched.

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And finally, in celebration of spring, Constantin Alajalov illustrated an April day in Central Park, which was featured in a two-page spread in “Talk of the Town.”

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(click to enlarge)

Next Time: The Enchanting Modernist…

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The Garden City

The last days of winter on the streets of 1920s Manhattan — remnants of snow and slush mixed with coal soot and car exhaust — were quickly forgotten with the advent of spring. The New Yorker (March 26, 1927) turned its attention to more pleasant diversions including the annual Madison Square Garden flower show…

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March 26, 1927 cover by unknown artist.

…and to the people it attracted, rendered in illustrations for “The Talk of the Town” by Alice Harvey…

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Backyard gardens and window boxes also welcomed spring, as did a two-part feature that offered helpful advice to amateur urban gardeners. An excerpt:

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No doubt the writer saw something akin to what we can see in Frances Benjamin Johnston’s rare color photographs of backyard gardens in the early 1920s Manhattan (all photos courtesy Library of Congress):

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Turtle Bay Gardens, 227-247 East 48 Street and 228-46 East 49 Street. View east to common garden.
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George Hoadly Ingalls house, 154 East 78 Street.
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Laura Stafford Stewart house, 205 West 13th Street.
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“Jones Wood” townhouses, north terrace fountain.

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Let’s look at a couple of advertisements from March 26 issue…why fight the crowds on the commuter train? — you could live a life of ease and convenience in the new Tudor City…

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…and perhaps you could afford a car almost as prestigious as a Cadillac…introducing the new LaSalle, manufactured by Cadillac but priced lower to “satisfy that other great market”…

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For industrial design buffs, the 1927 LaSalle in many ways marked the beginning of modern American automotive styling. The LaSalle line, designed by Harley Earl, would be eliminated in 1940, but Earl’s career as the man in charge of design at General Motors would last into the late 1950s.

Earl was a pioneer in auto design, one of the first to use modeling clay to develop forms for cars. He also established an “Art and Color Section at GM,” a radical notion at a time when American automobile manufacturers paid little attention to the appearance of automobile bodies, which were merely engineered for functionality and cost.

Earl also pioneered the idea of planned obsolescence in cars (which he termed “Dynamic Obsolescence”) in which annual model changes were used to induce sales. It was Earl who convinced GM to build a sports car–the Corvette–and it was Earl who also oversaw the introduction of the tail fin — culminating in the 1959 Cadillac — the year he retired from GM.

In the course of just 32 years, Earl’s designs went from this…

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Harley Earl at the wheel of a 1927 LaSalle Series 303 Roadster. (carbodydesign.com)

…to this…

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Harley Earl’s swan song, a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. (photobucket.com)

Next Time: Dinosaurs of Upper West Side…

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Nothing Like the Roxy

Jazz Age New York City was all about the big and grand, and nothing was bigger and grander than the new Roxy Theatre near Times Square.

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March 19, 1927 cover by W. Beothling.

The nearly 6,000-seat theatre was such big news that the March 19, 1927 edition of the New Yorker heralded its arrival in three separate columns.

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OPENING NIGHT at the Roxy Theatre. (elixinhollywood.blogspot.com)

The Roxy opened with the silent film The Love of Sunya, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson. The film, naturally, was panned by the magazine. Perhaps the critic’s distaste for the film also prompted a certain aloofness about the theatre itself:

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NOT EXACTLY YOUR LOCAL CINEPLEX…The Roxy Theatre lobby featuring the “world’s largest oval rug” manufactured by Mohawk Carpets. The theatre was torn down in 1960 and replaced by an office building. A TGI Friday’s restaurant is now located in the space that once housed this grand lobby. (screensonhigh.wordpress.com)
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NOT ANOTHER BAD NEW YORKER REVIEW?…Gloria Swanson consults a crystal ball to learn her future with three different men in The Love of Sunya. (gswanson.weebly.com)

“The Talk of the Town” described the Roxy in similar dispassionate terms, tossing a wet blanket not on the film but rather on the rude, gawking masses who shelled out 11 bucks apiece (equivalent to $150 today) for a seat on opening night:

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THEY WERE AWESTRUCK…The stage and orchestra pit of the Roxy Theatre (elixinhollywood.blogspot.com)

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (pen name “T-Square”) was a bit more generous in his column “The Sky Line.”

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DUBBED ‘THE CATHEDRAL OF THE MOTION PICTURE’ by creator and namesake Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel, the Roxy was located at 153 West 50th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It was torn down in 1960. (nycago.com)
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COMING FULL CIRCLE…Gloria Swanson was photographed by Eliot Elisofon in the ruins of the Roxy Theatre on October 14, 1960. (Life Magazine)

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The magazine took an unusual approach to its “Profile” section by featuring an autobiographical profile of poet Elinor Wylie in verse, a portion of which is shown below with an illustration by Peter Arno:

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Morality-themed books got the attention of New Yorker book reviewer Ernest Boyd (pen name “Alceste), who devoted considerable ink to Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord by Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech (both of Algonquin Round Table fame). Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector and politician known for the “Comstock Law,” which sought to censor materials he considered indecent and obscene. That included birth control information, which led to famous clashes between Comstock and family planning advocate Margaret Sanger.

An advertisement for the book appeared in the back pages of the magazine:

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Boyd also reviewed Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, a controversial novel that exposed the hypocrisy of some 1920s evangelical preachers:

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This advertisement began to appear in the pages of the New Yorker for a new restaurant that claimed to replace the beloved Delmonico’s. Despite its status as a New York institution, Delmonico’s had fallen victim to the changing dining habits of Prohibition New York and had closed its doors in 1923:

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The restaurant was operated by the Happiness Candy Stores chain, which according to the ad also operated restaurants in two other locations in the city. The restaurants must have been short-lived, as I could find no record of them apart from the ads.

Next Time: The Garden City…

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World of Tomorrow

The much-anticipated German expressionist film, Metropolis, opened at Manhattan’s Rialto Theatre. Although considered today to be a classic of the silent era, the March 12, 1927 New Yorker found the film to be overlong and preachy despite its fantastic setting and complex special effects.

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March 12, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Set in a futuristic dystopia in which the wealthy ruling classes lived high above the toiling masses, the film followed the attempts of a wealthy son of the city’s ruler and a poor working woman named Mary to overcome the city’s gaping class divisions.

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The city of tomorrow as portrayed in the opening scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The New Yorker encouraged readers to see the film mostly for the special effects, but lamented its “Teutonic heaviness” and uninspired acting. (archhistdaily)

An excerpt from the New Yorker review:

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The working masses toil in the dank world beneath the city in Metropolis. (myfilmviews.com)
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Brigette Helm’s duo portrayal of the noble Mary and her robotic double (here being created through cinematic magic) in Metropolis was praised by the New Yorker, which otherwise found the film’s acting subpar. (cinemagraphe.com)

Considered one of the most expensive movies of all time, Metropolis cost $5 million to film in 1925 (roughly about $70 million today).

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The famous 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson had been holding a series of revival meetings in New York, which were often (and derisively) noted by the New Yorker editors. In the previous issue “Talk of the Town” observed:

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And in the March 12 issue they offered this parting note in “Of All Things”….

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Aimee Semple McPherson (Corbis)

A pioneer in the use of modern media, McPherson was in New York on a “vindication tour,” taking advantage of the publicity from her alleged kidnapping  a year earlier that led to investigations that she had staged her disappearance to bolster her flagging ministry.

In other diversions, bicycle racing had come to Madison Square Garden, as noted in “Talk of the Town” with an illustration by Reginald Marsh:

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click to enlarge

Advertisements in this issue included this announcement for the opening of the Park Central Hotel, still a grand landmark on 7th Avenue…

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…and this ad from Nestle touting the latest method for achieving success in the latest hair style…

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Next Time: Nothing Like the Roxy…

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