Selling Good Design: Promoting the Early Modern Interior
Excerpts from three reviews:
Selling Good Design: Promoting the Early Modern Interior is a story of the cooperation of commerce and culture that all began in New York City at R.H. Macy's when the store mounted its 1927 "Exposition of Art in Trade" in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That collaboration attracted the attention of other great Manhattan-based merchants who embarked on their own exhibitions and educational efforts. This, in a way, represented a zenith in American design as decorators and retailers banded together with museums to educate the public about the newest trend, Modernism.
Macy's exposition stemmed from a series of lectures on period furniture that began at The Met in January 1914. The project was the brainchild of Donald Porteus, manager of Macy's Bureau of Home Furnishings and Interior Decoration. The lecture series was so overwhelmingly popular that it expanded rapidly to include employees of all the other great stores in New York: Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller, Best & Co, B. Altman, John Wanamaker and Abraham & Straus.
Friedman takes the reader through the series of lectures and exhibits, following the course of the introduction and the ultimate acceptance of modern design in America. Using high quality vintage photographs from periodicals of the era, the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History and the photographic archives of Macy's and Lord & Taylor, she illustrates meticulously the progression of that acceptance.
Room settings and objects of aesthetic and historic interest from American and European designers are pictured in more than 120 photographs of room settings as grand as those designed by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. The reader is presented with the curious blend of the European (primarily French, but also German and Italian) and the homegrown that became American Art Deco and which was so popular with consumers.
Friedman illuminates the transition from the fustian of the late Victorian that had dominated the scene for such a long while to the new, which was sleek, sharp, colorful and jazzy. She also points out the most distinguishing elements of the modern: the well-proportioned furniture was comfortable, cabinet storage was practical and lighting was efficient. These all had great appeal to apartment dwellers, a rapidly growing sector of urban populations.
An antiques dealer in Seagrove, N.C., once laughed when I asked him whether he had any early 20th century Seagrove pottery. "The best is all up there in those fancy apartment buildings in New York City," he said. Tiffany's, Macy's, Lord & Taylor's, B. Altman's and many other department stores had routinely sent buyers into the South looking for the finest local art to ship back to New York. The dealer was intensely aware of a marketing saga long forgotten by New Yorkers - at least until the publication of Marilyn Friedman's splendid book on "Selling Good Design." The department store barons were savvy merchandisers who knew that if they were going to keep selling goods, they had to wean their customers away from their old tastes - and substitute demand for an entirely new look. This they did brilliantly, beginning in 1927, by putting on extraordinary, lavish exhibitions of modernistic furnishings and interior design complete with mock living rooms, boudoirs and kitchens. Friedman says the story of the exhibitions ultimately demonstrates the power of the cooperation between commerce and culture. As New Yorkers walk by the old B. Altman's, now a public university campus, or watch Bloomberg's international headquarters rise on the site of defunct Alexander's, they might ponder the days when department stores ruled the retail world - and made themselves, their suppliers and their city rich.
With excellent period photographs, impeccable prose, and careful scholarship, decorative arts historian Friedman relates the story of the central role of the 1920s department store in shaping public consciousness of design. Equally significant was the role played by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, well before the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art existed. All the more remarkable for the reader is the recognition that these highly original interiors were coeval with the far more ubiquitous revival styles in architecture and design (Georgian, Tudor, etc.). Friedman clearly illustrates how important an integration of the fine arts, applied arts, and architecture can be. Given that most of the illustrations, by virtue of their archival origins, are black and white, the author's excellent verbal descriptions are all the more important.