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American Art Deco
An Illustrated Survey
By R. L. Leonard, C. A. Glassgold
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
culture and machine art
Modern industrial design has advanced at a rapid pace during the last ten years. Its successes are no longer confined to objects which, like automobiles and airplanes, are themselves the product of new conditions. Modern design has also begun to conquer the traditional arts, and the feeling for abstract form, first expressed in our time in the works of Picasso, Bracque, Brancusi, Duchamps-Villon in Europe, or Stieglitz, Benton, and Storrs for example in the United States, has finally entered architecture and the decorative arts. Our china and glassware and rugs and chairs begin to show a common spirit: they exhibit the clean lines, the fine sense of fitness, and the exquisite proportions which must always be present in machine work, since lacking these characteristics, it has few other charms with which to seduce the eye or the mind.
One may say, I think, that the canons of machine design have been established: the success of any particular design now rests with the skill and personality of the designer: a tradition is already in existence.
But the problem of design does not end in the studio and the factory. It is plain that the victory which has been achieved in architecture by Wright, Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe, and which has been the product of a hundred almost anonymous designers in the industrial arts, has not yet been consolidated in society. Modern industrial design is based on the principle of conspicuous economy. Unfortunately, the bourgeois culture which dominates the Western World is founded, as our American economist, Thorstein Veblen described in his classic "Theory of the Leisure Class," on the principle of conspicuous waste. The aim of the arts, in this society, is not essentially to serve and enrich life, but to establish the pecuniary position of the patron. This aim is widespread: it is as notorious in the home of the most humble manual worker, who feels that lace curtains are "respectable," as it is on Park Avenue. In fact, a good part of what is called beauty in this society consists of objects which show, at first glance, their costly and luxurious character. The old-fashioned house was a species of private museum; and one of the chief occupations of the housewife was that of curator. If the poorer member of our society cannot achieve this kind of "beauty" at first hand, he demands it in some cheaper reproduction or caricature: America dyed catskin takes the place of ermine; and debased rococo furniture, built out of poorly seasoned wood and carved by the machine, simulates the luxury of the Renaissance.
Now the best industrial designs of today psychologically contradict the standards of this society. They are cheap; they are common; they fulfill their peculiar function; whereas, to satisfy the canons of conspicuous waste, an industrial design should look expensive, should seem unique, and besides performing more or less its essential function should increase the sense of power and self-importance of the owner. This confronts us with a real dilemma. Whatever the politics of a country may be, the machine is a communist! The whole social life and ritual of Western European countries, on the contrary, is built on gradations of financial caste and status; and the business of the industrial and decorative arts in the past has been to label gracefully these social distinctions. Incidentally, these arts have often achieved beauty of form, as incidentally they may also have performed certain functions: but a large animus behind these arts was show.
The machine has revolutionized this condition. By its aid, we now have at our command a store of power which, if properly used, will do away with industrial slavery and create, for every member of the community, an equal share in the essentials of life. The esthetics that goes with this system of production is necessarily different from that which fitted a purely handicraft regime: unless this esthetics is formulated and generally applied, the machine will have no rational and effective ends. In this new economy, there is still a place for individuality, for that is a constant attribute of a developed human personality; and I am far from looking forward to a time when, as Mr. Buckminster Fuller thinks, the whole world will live in his standard Dymaxion house, built on exactly the same design in Brooklyn as in Bombay. Nor do I think that standardization is tolerable without a considerable freedom of choice between standard patterns, and without a flexibility in production which will permit the free creation of new patterns. (The costly standardization of the Model T Ford is a warning, not a happy example!) But the individuality which can be achieved by machine design has precious little to do with social status and financial success. Hence, to put the problem in another way: What place is there in contemporary bourgeois society for our best and most typical industrial art? The answer is that there is very little place. Before modern industrial design can conquer every department of life we shall have to change our standards and attitudes. Industrial design has improved most swiftly in departments of the household, like the kitchen, where practical functions must be performed, and in the construction of cheap workers' houses, where the demands of economy were uppermost, whether the worker himself was pleased with this fact or not. With these two exceptions, the best modern designs, such as those of Djo Bourgeois, have been executed for that handful of the elite,, produced even by bourgeois society, who have oriented themselves deliberately to the modern world, and who have sought to eliminate in their personal lives the vestiges of a more sordid culture, bound by an undue respect for property, financial status, and the things that money can buy.
Our modern industrial esthetics, then, requires for its success, an ethical reorientation to life, and a corresponding change in many venerable habits and institutions. We can enjoy these new forms to the full only when we no longer ask them to satisfy irrelevant interests: the impulse to display oneself, the impulse to dominate one's fellows, the impulse to demand homage, not for what one is, but for what one has. For the lack of such a spiritual conversion, a good part of modern industrial art is so only in name, and in the fact that its eccentric forms and its extravagant gestures have no direct precedent in the art of Baroque or Medieval times. "Modernist" art, though it superficially may take its cue from machine forms and may cling to abstract geometrical patterns, satisfies none of the real conditions of good machine form: it is a luxury art, and the fact that it may be produced by the machine is only an unimportant accident.
If we cannot root out snobbery and caste-assertion, we should find some less offensive outlet for them than that which they now have in the industrial arts. For we stand, perhaps, on the threshold of a new age, and unless we understand the machine and use it to aid in the creation of appropriate standards and modes of life, we will be debased by it. Standardization at a high level will give us freedom and new opportunities for cultural expression. Standardization at a low level, with luxury and sensuous display as its main aim, will give us a culture even lower than that of the Carthaginians, for it will endow a vast servile population with the vices of its masters. Modern industrial design presents a sharp alternative. The road branches: we must make a choice.
THE MODERN SHOP
The modern American store with its necessary requirements is certainly not a place for superficially applied interior decoration nor is it the outlet for artistic temperament.
Its problem is not solved by standardized store equipment corporations who have made no basic change in their solutions for the last twenty years and who cannot consider the individual problems of a store because of their huge stock of standardized materials.
Successful merchandising today is dependent upon the ability of the retail merchant to keep pace with modern progress and to be thoroughly cognizant of the latest developments in relation to the merchandise he sells.
Public acceptance of a newly developed commodity depends upon the consideration and interest the retailer gives to it and upon his effort to awaken public recognition for its advantages. Because of his position as a combination of servant and tutor to the public taste, the modern American retail merchant is becoming more and more an important factor in the cultural development of his country.
It is evident that American merchants have not awakened to the importance of keeping their stores esthetically in tune with the progress made in their products.
Theoretical and practical retail merchandising problems, merchandising efficiency, economy, buying and selling, advertising, etc.,—in fact all of the various phases of store operation are being discussed in conventions, in the trade press, and through professional merchandising advisors.
Innovations are being analyzed and compared, experimented with, and if successful employed everywhere.
This co-operative progress, however, has not included any question of esthetics.
The importance of public reaction towards appearance, the strong psychological influence of well balanced form and color is finding only occasional recognition here and there.
Its vital and direct influence on the success of retail merchandising establishments has never been fully accepted.
Store appearance and store designing, the necessity of attraction, practical store requirements, etc., are being "solved" through a stereotyped method of selling store equipment.
The retail merchant has a limited selection of typical store fronts and display windows which vary in type slightly, depending upon the merchandise to be sold.
There are more or less typical solutions for each of the various branches of merchandise which standardize appearance and which classify any departure as radicalism.
The particular locality of the store, its immediate environments, the individuality of the community and the people the store is to serve, the characteristic methods of operation, which in many cases have been responsible for its success—all of these are being continually submerged in favor of a standardized method of planning and "design."
Store designing has been divided into two functions.
First—store planning which incorporates all the practical requirements and which is based upon a traditional development of business activities.
The "bible" which is followed religiously is a book of knowledge in which is printed in black on white apparently unshakable proof that all stores must always be planned in a fashion which allows standardization to the manufacturer of store fixtures who wrote the bible.
Second—interior decoration which superimposes such forms, details, mouldings or colors on the store plan as happen to be the fashion of the time.
The latest introduction into the field of store designing is the method of employing a store architect who knows the "bible" by heart and in addition an artist designer to attend to the interior decoration.
The store architect knows and can definitely prove traditionally the correct sizes for the heights of a display case, or selling counter, or hosiery drawer. He knows the relation between the different departments and the Lamson tube system, and all other operating requirements according to the "bible."
The artist designer knows all about balance, and form and color and vistas.
The result is a COMPROMISE.
The modern American store has to be a definite departure from heretofore used methods of procedure.
Its design must be based upon the unbiased recognition of its particular purpose and functioning.
The design of such a store must be an effort to accept the machinery of modern merchandising as a basic factor and to develop out of it an expression esthetically beautiful.
Or to phrase this differently esthetic beauty has become an essential function of a modern merchandising machine.
This is not achieved by merely buying the store a new dress. It is only successful if the organization of all its essential parts and details is healthy, well proportioned, and well balanced. Display, service, stock facilities, operating devices, accommodations for customers, air, light, comfort, efficiency, and all the many details necessary for modern methods of selling merchandise must be combined; and the esthetic beauty of the completed store depends upon the quality of these details and the understanding, restraint, and culture employed to formulate the entirety.
The esthetic beauty of any piece of machinery grows with the elimination of nonessentials. It, therefore, depends upon the fineness of the individual parts necessary for its performance and the balance created through the combination of these parts into rhythmic entity.
Our recognition of beauty in commodities changes with the development of such commodities.
The Tudor wood panelings of old England were recognized as an esthetically beautiful design due to the acceptance and understanding of the necessity of putting wood panels into heavier wood frames.
The origin of this "design" was the technical necessity of securing proper performance out of the material used.
The present possibilities of plywood, the product of gluing together three or more layers of wood and changing the direction of the grain in each layer, open entirely new fields for design.
We can now make wood panels of any size without frames. We are not forced, therefore, to depend upon rectangular panels as a decoration and we can show the character of the beautiful graining of the wood itself to much greater advantage.
The elimination of non-essentials does not necessitate crudeness. In fact, proper consideration of the technical and esthetic possibilities of such simplification opens a vast untouched sphere of beauty which is ours to exploit and develop.
Advertisement—lettering—sign—electrical light effects-reflections—movements and other attractions hitherto superimposed upon the classical architectural efforts of our store fronts have now become the basis for store front design—copies of classical columns, pilasters, cornices and antique stone structure are replaced by designs evolved from modern steel and concrete construction, and advertising necessities are the means of enrichment, variation, and character.
The display window ceases to be the annoying open glass plate which interfered with the classical column to maintain its proportions, but becomes the joy and play for the constructive imagination of the modern Michael Angelo. He can design his solution for material, structure, and purpose heretofore unknown.
Escalators, elevators, tube systems, automatic selling devices, moving display, unlimited advantages of lighting, ventilating communication, now support and encourage the conceptions of the designer and instead of being hidden behind unsuitable solutions copied from bygone periods, become the basic features through his acceptance of the esthetic value in their functionings. There is no more room in modern America for the superimposition of falsities under the fake smoke screen of medieval romanticism—there is no excuse for modernized medievalism, for old Spanish elevator cabs, old English wood paneling and Italian chandeliers with cardboard electric candles. This type of poor and ridiculous fake has been the backbone of draftsmen unable to conceive the beauty of modern progress, it has been used as empty chatter to cover this utter inability by the salesman for store fixture shops and by the business men who are afraid of the upward flight of young America.
Some outstanding examples have proven it to be good business to recognize the advantages and further and support an esthetic expression of modern progress in science—technique—and merchandising.
Those store owners, who have accepted the work and advice of such men as are capable of solving these problems, are known today as America's leading retail merchants.
The forming of an artistic self expression of our age is not a matter of temporary fashion, has nothing to do with bizarre, freakish and loud forms and color, but is a sincere recognition of the absolute necessity of discovering and accepting modern progress esthetically.
Excerpted from American Art Deco by R. L. Leonard, C. A. Glassgold. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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