Deskey’s Deco

Above, Donald Deskey's Design for a Sportshack, 1940 (Cooper Hewitt)

If you’ve never heard of Donald Deskey, you’ve most likely seen his work.

Feb. 25, 1933 cover by Rea Irvin.

Cultural critic Gilbert Seldes featured Deskey in the Feb. 25 profile (“The Long Road to Roxy” — with illustration by Al Frueh), noting that his subject had come to his profession as an industrial designer in a rather roundabout fashion. Here is a brief excerpt:

Deskey (1894 – 1989) was locally known in the late 1920s for his window displays at New York’s Franklin Simon Department Store, but it was his work at Roxy Rothafel’s new Radio City Music Hall that made him a marquee name in the design world. Although known for popularizing the Art Deco style, his interior designs for RCMH were noted for their restraint, signaling a break from the lavish, ornate designs of the city’s earlier performance spaces.

FEAST FOR THE EYES…Donald Deskey designed more than thirty spaces in Radio City Music Hall, including the Grand Foyer (left) and several lounges, each featuring a distinct visual motif. At bottom right, auditorium’s “Singing Woman” carpeting. (archdaily.com/drivingfordeco.com)

Original Deskey creations are highly prized today by collectors and museums…

DESIGN IN MOTION…Clockwise, from top left, Deskey’s “Guest Bedroom for Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.” (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller), on display at the 1931 American Union of Decorative Artists exhibition; Deskey table lamp, circa 1927; linen panel, circa 1930s; Deskey desk, circa 1930. (brooklynmuseum.org/artic.edu/Pinterest)

…and if that wasn’t enough, Deskey also designed logos for many consumer products in the late 1940s and 1950s…

THE TOTAL PACKAGE…Deskey designed some of the most iconic logos of midcentury America, including, clockwise from top left, Tide laundry detergent (1947); Gleem (1956) and Crest (1955) toothpastes; Cheer laundry detergent (1952); JIF peanut butter (1956) and Joy dishwashing liquid (1950).

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From Our Advertisers

It seems appropriate to follow Mr. Deskey with some words and images from our sponsors, including the folks at Cadillac who continued to hammer home the snob appeal of their motorcar while also giving a nod to those hard times by emphasizing the car’s economy

…meanwhile, Studebaker was back with another full page ad — again featuring the admiring giant woman — in a vain attempt to push their fledgling, and unpopular line of Rockne automobiles…

…and Helena Rubenstein continued her series of ads disguised as advice columns…the advice here was to shame women into buying her products…

…after Helena removed your wrinkles you could restore them with GE’s Mazda sunlight lamp…

Otto Soglow, on the brink of becoming a very wealthy man thanks to his Little King cartoons, continued to lay down some ink on behalf of the makers of Sanka decaf…

…and we move along to Soglow’s fellow cartoonists, beginning with Gardner Rea and a cartoon sequence spread across pages 24-25…

…here it is again, rearranged for closer inspection…

…and we have another terrific “Fellow Citizens” drawing by Gluyas Williams, which originally ran sideways on a full page…

…I like this James Thurber drawing for its utter disregard of scale — but of course (and thankfully) it wouldn’t be a Thurber if he cared about such things…

William Crawford Galbraith was still hung up on showgirls and sirens…

…while Peter Arno explored his spiritual side, as only Arno could…

…and we move along to March 4, 1933…

March 4, 1933 cover by Rea Irvin.

…in which The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner (“Genêt”) wrote about a new book of “extreme interest to both sides of the Atlantic”…

BOOK OF REVELATION…Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein were well known in the ex-pat community of 1920s Paris, but the publication of the American edition of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by Stein) brought them fame in the wider world. Stein claimed she wrote the book — now considered a 20th century classic — in six weeks to amuse herself and to make money. At right, Toklas and Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus in a portrait by Man Ray, 1922. (Library of Congress)

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Hope Springs Eternal

Even in the deepest depths of the Depression signs of hope abounded in works of public art, including a mosaic of one million hand-cut and hand-set glass tiles being prepared for the Sixth Avenue entrance to Rockefeller Center. Intelligence Awakening Mankind, by Barry Faulkner, celebrated the triumph of knowledge over the evil of ignorance. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

GOOD VIBES…Details of Intelligence Awakening Mankind include the central figure of Intelligence (top) sending knowledge into the far corners of the world. (Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

The folks at luxury brand Packard continued to counter their stodgy image with ads that emphasized other qualities including speed, durability, and here, serenity…despite the lengthy text, the ad also suggested modernity, with the sliced-off image and the single word “Hush!” to entice prospective buyers…

…if you couldn’t afford $3,720 for a 12-cylinder Packard, then you might have considered a Buick, “livable as a fine home” this ad claimed. And look at that back seat — you could comfortably fit three adults and a baby elephant in there…

…and then there’s Hupmobile — for the price of a Packard 12 you could have purchased three Hupmobile Victorias (pictured below) with a good chunk of change left over…here the company celebrates its silver anniversary…a couple of odd facts: in 1914 a Minnesota Hupmobile salesman used an unsold vehicle to found Greyhound bus lines…the National Football League also traces its origins to Hupmobile — the league was created in 1920 at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio…both Greyhound and the NFL survive Hupmobile, which went belly up in 1939…

…and now we move to the world of fashion, and some cultural appropriation by Lord & Taylor…

…in 1929 J. Walter Thompson President Stanley Resor observed how people instinctively wanted to be told what to do by authorities they respected. Applying this thinking to the marketing of Pond’s cold cream, Resor’s firm hired famed photographers to create idealized portraits of society women…

…Writing for Indy Week (July 7, 2010) Amy White observes that a 1933 portrait (above) of Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt, aka Gloria Mercedes Morgan, reveals patrician eyes as “languid jet pools, her lips full and dark, her finely coiffed hair oiled to ebony perfection. However, a bit of backstory might explain the painful and hollow look Mrs. Vanderbilt can barely suppress. In that same year, she was declared by the courts to be unfit as a parent, and her young daughter was placed under the guardianship of her sister, Gertrude.” That young daughter, Gloria Vanderbilt, would later find fame for her designer jeans, her glittering lifestyle, and as mother of newscaster Anderson Cooper. White concludes, “I wonder if somehow, subconsciously, those consumers saw the pain in the eyes of some of those upper-crust spokeswomen, and it was basic humanness and empathy, as well as desire for wealth and beauty, that won them over”…

Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt, aka Gloria Mercedes Morgan, and her daughter, “Little Gloria,” in 1928. (Wikipedia)

…and we move along to the toasted pleasures of Luckies, and Howard Chandler Christy’s “Christy Girl” looking the picture of health and vitality in this back cover ad…

…we make an abrupt switch to the cheaper ads in the magazine’s nether pages…here “Miss Eleanor, formerly with Mme. Binner,” announced her selection of modern corsets for the “debutante and young matron”…and below, in a sign of the times, repossessed homes for sale…

…looks like Fifi had a bit too much of the Green Ribbon-flavored bootleg…

…and if you thought taking probiotics was a new thing…

…the French Line once again featured the art of James Thurber to promote its Mediterranean cruises…

…and Thurber kicks off our cartoons with spot art that headed the “Goings On About Town” section…

…and this gem with one of Thurber’s beloved dogs…

…below is the second New Yorker cartoon by Gruff with the “Buy American” slogan juxtaposed with an ethnic stereotype…I have no idea who this artist is, or if “Gruff” is a pen name — the style looks familiar but I haven’t had any luck chasing this artist down…

…here is the first one from the Feb. 18 issue…

…but we all know Al Frueh, who contributed this delightful bit of art to the theater review section…

Daniel ‘Alain’ Brustlein gave us an enterprising Frenchman offering peeks at exiled New York Mayor Jimmy Walker sunning on a beach at Cannes…

…and we close with Peter Arno, and the first signs of spring…

Next Time: Beauty and the Beast…

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

4 thoughts on “Deskey’s Deco”

  1. Deskey also designed some streetlights for NY.The city bought a bunch of them.
    I loved Peter Arno when I was a kid cuz he was the one NYer artist who drew the most nekkid ladies in his cartoons.Chorus girls etc.

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  2. My parents used to get Walker-Gordon acidophilus milk delivered by a milkman to our Queens apartment. They added a tablespoon to the unpasteurized regular milk (I think) the milkman also delivered. The metal insulated milk box stayed outside the door for decades after delivery ended, used for wet umbrellas.

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