That Moderne Feeling

A defining moment for Art Deco design in America occurred at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art during a 1929 exhibition that showcased everything from household furnishings to garden design.

March 9, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt. Between 1927 and 1933, Haupt would illustrate 45 covers for the New Yorker.

Before we delve into the Met’s exhibition, The Architect and the Industrial Arts, a quick note about the New Yorker’s Theodore Haupt-illustrated cover, which referenced the annual Six-Day Cycling Race that was taking place at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome. The event, which began at the old Madison Square Garden in 1891 and lasted until 1950, featured a beer garden (after Prohibition) in the center of the oval and drew such celebrities as Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyck and Peggy Joyce. It was said that Crosby even paid the hospital bills of riders who fell during the race.

THIS MIGHT TAKE AWHILE…The Six-Day Cycling Race at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome, 1932. (Victoria & Albert Museum)

The March 9 issue was lively with another contribution from Groucho Marx (“Press Agents I Have Known”) and an Alexander Woollcott-penned profile of playwright and screenwriter Charles Gordon MacArthur (husband of stage actress Helen Hayes and father of James “Book ’em Danno” MacArthur).

But as the blog title suggests, it was also filled with articles and ads that told of a city embracing all things new and modern, including a piece by architecture critic George S. Chappell on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s eleventh Exhibition of Contemporary American Design, titled The Architect and the Industrial Arts. It was curated by the Met’s Richard F. Bach, who organized 15 annual exhibitions of contemporary industrial art at the museum between 1917 and 1940.

The 1929 exhibition of Art Deco works was the biggest yet, inspired by the Art Moderne movement in Europe and particularly the 1925 Paris Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels). The Met exhibition, wrote Chappell, “should not be missed”…

PORTAL TO THE FUTURE…Entrance to The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed by Joseph Urban. The above exhibition poster (seen mounted on the doorway in the photo) was by W.A. Dwiggins. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Ornaments created by W.A. Diggins for the exhibition catalogue included, from left, “Conservatory,” for a section on  Joseph Urban; ornament on a page devoted to curator Richard F. Bach; “Backyard Garden” for a section on Ely Jacques Kahn; and an ornament that graced the acknowledgements page. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, via paulshawletterdesign.com)
NOT YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S GARDEN…Mosaic semi-circular bench designed by Austin Purves, Jr. was featured in architect Ely Jacques Kahn’s “Backyard Garden” display by at the The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Pencil Points Magazine, January 1929)

Chappell found the exhibit to be “stimulating,” although he hoped designers in the future would “curb cleverness” and focus more on fundamentals:

DINING IN STYLE…A dining room designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen for The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
VISIONARIES…The Cooperating Committee for 1929 The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition were, standing, left to right, architects Raymond Hood, Eugene Schoen and Ely Jacques Kahn. Seated, left to right, architects Ralph T. Walker, John Wellborn Root, Jr. and Eliel Saarinen; ceramist, painter and graphic artist Leon V. Solon; and architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
COZY…Ralph Walker’s “Man’s Study for a Country House” at the The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (architectsandartisans.com)
ALL BUSINESS…Raymond Hood’s “Business Executive’s Office” featured at The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Writing in the February 1929 Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Richard S. Bach posed bold questions for this new age: “What is the tempo of our day? What are the dominant elements of our culture, our activities, our thinking? Is this a speed age or are we sedate? Have we time to be dignified and stately about frills or are we air-minded? Do we wait for months, as once all did, for the silkworm to complete his labors before beginning to make thread from his cocoon…or (do we) make a few bales of vegetable silk out of chemically treated wood fiber between breakfast and lunch as a regular chore of a business week-day? And is this the mechanistic millennium which shrivels the soul and makes mockery of imagination, or are these fabulous industries, these automatic instruments of production, the means of bringing within range of vision the real potentialities of our crowded lives and of interpreting our aspirations and achievements?

Pumping Iron Into the Sky

The architecture firm Starrett & van Vleck saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” when they designed a new Art Deco skyscraper to house the Downtown Athletic Club. Writing in Lost City NewsMary Hohlt cites the architect Rem Koolhaas, who sees the Downtown Athletic Club as “the ideal of a hyper-reality in the burgeoning urban form of hyper-density and congestion.” The Club is “the everything-at-your-fingertips self-improvement incubator for men…It is a place for men to indulge on self-improvement; to better themselves in a place only the constructed, hyper-reality of Manhattan can provide.”

SELF-IMPROVEMENT INCUBATOR…the Downtown Athletic Club by Starrett & van Vleck, 1930. (4.bp.blogspot.com) click to enlarge

Hohlt writes that Koolhaas sees the Downtown Athletic Club as a sterile place: “Towering in the sky, the Club removes men from the rest of the world and allows them a kind of aesthetic improvement that cannot be passed on.” E.B. White took a less jaded view in this “Talk of the Town” segment:

STILL A WINNER…Famous for serving as the site of the annual awarding of the Heisman Trophy, the Downtown Athletic Club closed in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. The club was within a “frozen zone” closed to the public during the long clean-up that followed, and could not withstand the financial impact of such a long closure. It reopened in 2005 as a residential tower. (newyorkitecture.com)

Another New Yorker who saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” was insurance salesman Milton A. Kent, who in 1928-29 erected a brick and terra-cotta Art Deco tower that could park 1,000 cars using an automatic elevator system.

MONUMENT TO THE CAR…The May 1928 issue of Modern Mechanix featured this cutaway illustration of Milton Kent’s high-rise, automated parking garage. (boweryboyshistory.com) click image to enlarge

Once again E.B. White was on hand to render this observation for “Talk”…

HUMAN SCALE…Kent’s fantastic garage still stands at West 61st Street, but today it serves as—you guessed it—an apartment building. (boweryboyshistory.com)

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Death of a Can-Can Dancer

The sad death of Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, was announced in Janet Flanner’s “Letter from Paris” column. Weber was a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and a model for some of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous cabaret paintings. Flanner wrote of La Goulue’s rise to fame…

JUST FOR KICKS… Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, circa 1890, and an 1891 poster by Toulouse-Lautrec advertising the performers La Goulue and “No-Bones” Valentin at the new Paris dance hall Moulin Rouge. (Wikipedia)

…and her sad downfall into a life of poverty among the rag-pickers:

SAD DECLINE…La Goulue, her face freshly powdered, sat on the steps of her small trailer for an unknown postcard photographer in the 1920s. This image is a detail of the original photograph, held at the Wheaton College Permanent Collection.

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From Our Advertisers

An advertisement on page 45 for Mohawk carpets featured two Cockney charwomen admiring the new carpets at the General Motors headquarters:

A corresponding note: Shreve & Lamb’s 1927 General Motors Building was the hub of Columbus Circle’s Automobile Row. A hideous 2012 remodel, which clad the entire structure in reflective glass, has rendered the former landmark unrecognizable:

Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com

Getting back to all things “moderne,” these facing ads on pages 8-9 offered some new looks for spring…

…and in the cartoons, a tongue-in-cheek vision of a modern high-rise by Al Frueh, prompted by the news that Florenz Ziegfeld planned to build a 44-story building in his native Chicago. Thanks to the market crash later in the year, it was never realized.

In drawings sprinkled across pages 24-25, Helen Hokinson examined various approaches to tax season, including these two examples…

…and finally, Peter Arno caught a theatre performer with his pants down…

Next Time: Babbitt Babble…