The Tastemakers

Modernism in interior design gained a wider audience in the 1920s thanks in part to a series of major exhibitions sponsored by some of New York City’s leading department stores.

Sept. 29, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Although the New Yorker continued to feature advertisements for traditional styles of furniture, such as this one from the Sept. 22, 1928 issue…

…it was clear that the appetites of the city’s younger “smart set” were being whetted by retailers such as Macy’s, who in May 1927 hosted an “Exposition of Art in Trade” that included 100 exhibitors of modern European and American silver, pottery, books, textiles and furniture. The following spring Macy’s hosted the “International Exposition of Art in Industry,” where more than 250,000 visitors saw the work of more than 300 exhibitors from six countries. (This blog’s opening photo features a 1928 sideboard by Kem Weber, one of the exhibitors at Macy’s 1928 show. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt Collection).

TRENDSETTERS…R. H. Macy & Co. hosted the International Exposition of Art in Industry in the spring of 1928. At right, an interior scene at the exposition, with a chair designed by Walter Von Nessen. (socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/wright20.com)

Macy’s inspired other exhibitions by such retailers as Wanamaker’s, Abraham & Straus, Frederick Loeser, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co., which advertised its “20th Century Taste in the New Expression of the Arts in Home Furnishings” in the Sept. 29, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

Writer Bertram Bloch reviewed the exhibit in the Oct. 6 issue. Although he suggested that he had some “hard, cruel things” to say about the show, overall he believed it something not to be missed. Excerpts:

THE SMART LOOK…B. Altman & Company showcased designs including, clockwise, from upper left, a dining room by Charles B. Falls; a conversation room by Steele Savage; a bedroom by Charles B. Falls; and a salon section by Dominique. (Art Institute of Chicago)
FADED GLORY…Clockwise, from upper left, The B. Altman flagship store at 34th Street and 5th Avenue and a closer view of the front entrance in 1915; closed in 1989, the flagship store is now used by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, among other tenants. The mahogany-paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact, however the exterior looks a bit hosed-down, with the Ionic capitals removed from the columns as well as the lintels that banded the windows and the cornice on top. (Museum of the City of New York/daytoninmanhattan)

While on the topic of modern furniture, Ilonka Karasz, who painted a total of 186 New Yorker covers from 1924 to 1973, showcased her own furniture designs (along with other artists from the American Designers’ Gallery), at an exhibition the following month.

NEW YORKER COVER ARTIST Ilonka Karasz designed this dining room for the American Designers Gallery Exhibition in October 1928.  (Art Institute of Chicago)

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The Singing Fool

The New Yorker generally detested the introduction of sound in motion pictures, but for some reason didn’t mind it so much when Al Jolson opened his mouth. This time he followed up his blackface performance in The Jazz Singer with another blackface routine in The Singing Fool. E.B. White wrote about the film’s big opening in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and in the magazine’s film review section, yet more praise for Jolson, whose singing apparently compensated for the mediocre dialogue:

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HAM…One of a series of promo slides for The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, child actor Davey Lee, and the saccharine lyrics for Sonny Boy, said to be the first pop record to sell more than million copies. (nitrateville.com)
THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Theatre lobby card for 1928’s The Singing Fool. (IMDB)

The Sept. 29 issue illustrates the dichotomy in how the New Yorker depicted African Americans in the 1920s. Blacks in the magazine’s cartoons and illustrations were often portrayed as minstrel characters, picaninnies or mammies. However, a serious artist like Paul Robeson received a much different treatment. Indeed, the magazine shamed the racism of a fictional character in Dorothy Parker’s short story “Arrangement in Black and White” (Oct. 8, 1927), in which a wealthy, white woman condescends to a black singer who might well have been modeled after Robeson. The journalist and author Mildred Gilman profiled Robeson in the very same issue that praised Jolson’s tired blackface routine. An excerpt, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration:

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Next Time Wear a Disguise

The newlywed Gene Tunney (also newly retired from boxing) was spending some time in Europe, probably hoping to get a break from the adoring crowds back in the States. Upon entering a French café with his friend, the author Thornton Wilder, he soon discovered that adoring crowds awaited him on the other side of the pond, as related by the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner:

NOWHERE TO HIDE…Gene Tunney during a visit to Paris in 1930. (Getty)

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From Our Advertisers

Although by 1928 Americans (and particularly New Yorkers) were flouting Prohibition laws, alcoholic beverages still could not be legally produced or marketed (except for “religious” or “medicinal” purposes). Advertisers, however, found clever ways to market non-alcoholic beverages like ginger ale with the allure of liquor or fine wine. But then again, few were actually drinking straight ginger ale…

And if you formerly grew grapes for winemaking, what’s preventing you from selling unpasteurized grape juice that remains free from fermentation “as long as the factory seal remains unbroken”…? Also, note the not-so-subtle cocktail shaker at the top left of the photo:

And for our cartoons, Barbara Shermund explored the modern ways of love…

…while Peter Arno continued probing the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses…

Next Time: A Bird’s Eye View…

 

 

Age of the Talkies

The Oct. 15, 1927 issue featured the premiere of the film The Jazz Singer. Although the New Yorker found the story a bit dull, it also recognized that the film’s use of sound marked a significant turning point in the short history of cinema.

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October 15, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The Jazz Singer was not the first film to employ sound, but as the New Yorker review pointed out, it was the first to effectively use synchronized sound (the industry standard Vitaphone technique) in a way that improved the motion picture.

The film featured only two minutes worth of sound dialogue, so most of the spoken lines were still presented on intertitle cards commonly used in silent films. But it was Al Jolson’s recorded voice, belting out popular tunes including “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” that really wowed audiences. At the end of the film Jolson himself appeared on stage before an audience “clapping and bellowing with joy”…

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IT SINGS! IT TALKS!!!…Al Jolson as Jack Robin and Eugenie Besserer as his mother, Sara Rabinowitz, in The Jazz Singer. One attendee at the premiere recalled that when Jolson and Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” (wired.com)

It is interesting that as early as 1927, and even with the relatively crude sound of Vitaphone, the New Yorker was already predicting the advent of a new kind of star (and the decline of the stage actor)…

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BLACK TIE EVENT…A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Western Electric engineer E. B. Craft, left, is holding a soundtrack disc, which was essentially a phonograph record. The turntable, on a thick tripod base, is at lower center. (Wikipedia)

As for the movie itself, well, there was Jolson, beloved by many. Perhaps it’s the sound quality, or the 89 years of changing tastes, but I cannot for life of me understand what audiences (or the New Yorker) saw that was so appealing about Al Jolson as a performer.

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THAT WAS THEN…Al Jolson as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer. Although performing in blackface is considered racist today, Jolson’s use of blackface was integral to the film in that it was tied to Jack’s own Jewish heritage and his struggle for identity. Of course that doesn’t make it any less offensive today. (theredlist)

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Absent-minded Ambassador

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” offered some curious observations about the new ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow.

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SON-IN-LAW…Aviator Charles Lindbergh would marry Dwight Morrow’s daughter, Anne, in 1929. in this photo from 1931 are, from left, Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Elisabeth Morrow, and Dwight Morrow.

Morrow has been widely hailed as a brilliant ambassador with a keen intellect. The New Yorker, however, offered some additional perspective on the man:

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Flight of Fancy

In the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, the New Yorker (and the rest of the country) continued its fascination with air travel, which at this point was confined to military and commercial pilots, stunt flyers and the well-to-do.

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The Fokker F.VII pictured above is likely the same plane or very similar to the one owned by Texas oilman William Denning. The interior depicted below is also similar to what is described in the New Yorker article. (aviation-history.com)

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RIP Isadora Duncan

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, wrote of the funeral of famed modern dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Letter from Paris.” Duncan was killed in a freak accident on the night of Sept. 14, 1927 when her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels of the car in which she was riding, breaking her neck.

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Isadora Duncan (ati.com)

Other items of note from the Oct. 15 issue, E.B. White contributed this ditty…

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…and Corey Ford, who gave the fictional Eustace Tilley his persona, wrote of Tilley’s feat crossing Broadway in a parody of adventure stories popular at the time. An excerpt:

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And finally, Peter Arno explored childhood angst among the smart set:

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Next Time: Electric Wonders…

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