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Collecting the American Dream
by Bob Brooke


Through the 1920s and 1930s, America was in a state of chaotic confusion. The highs of the early 1920s came crashing down on that fateful day in 1929 when it seemed the rug had been pulled from under everyone. It took a long while to recover, but during the 1930s, the country saw the light at the end of the tunnel—at least they thought they did. Then came World War II.

During this time, politics inescapably influenced art and design. It was a time of great social and artistic upheaval. The catastrophic effect of two world wars profoundly affected art and design and people’s reaction to them. While Modernism and Art Deco were a reaction to the horrors of the First World War, artists and designers later responded to the end of World War II with fear and suspicion brought on by the Cold War tensions between East and West.

Art Deco appeared as an international design and art movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Influenced by such varied sources as the Cubist paintings of Georges Braques and Pablo Picasso, Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and the architectural style of the Bauhaus School in Germany, The Art Deco style was a rejection of the organic, naturalistic sensibility of Art Nouveau. Avant-garde artists and designers dreamed of a new world order free from history and tradition.

Art Deco was a machine-made aesthetic for a fast-paced industrial age, using symmetry and line to bring order to the natural world and suggest movement in objects as inert as chairs and bookends. Even the cinema echoed and inspired the trend, most famously in Fritz Lang’s 1927 vision of dystopia, “Metropolis.”

For a time, no object escaped the streamline touch of Art Deco. Frank Lloyd Wright filled his geometric buildings with equally angular lamps, tables, and stained-glass windows. Indeed, Art Deco architecture is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the style.

The 1930 Chrysler Building, an Art Deco masterpiece, is one of the most famous landmarks in Manhattan while the 1937 Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco triumphed on the country’s western shore. Then there’s Ocean Drive in the South Beach section of Miami, home to some 800 preserved Art Deco structures. Inside all those Art Deco buildings was furniture by the likes of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, who equipped his armchairs with assertive, mesa-flat armrests. Elsewhere in modernist houses, a host of decorative and functional objects set an elegant tone.

Because of mass production, many early 20th-century objects survive today, making them fine and often surprisingly affordable collectibles. Industrial designers Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfus created many functional objects, such as clocks, radios, and telephones, with the classic Art Deco angular, streamlined look. Manufacturers produced statuettes and figurines, frequently of female nudes, in plastic, bronze, and ceramic. Glass objects from vases to perfume bottles were also popular, with René Lalique, Antonin Daum, Henri Navarre, and Maurice Marinot among the most prized designers.

Porcelain figurines created for Robj, Rosenthal, and Lenci often depicted characters and caricatures dressed in the fabrics of the day, with Art Deco costume jewelry on their necks and Art Deco watches on their wrists. By the bed would be a bronze and mahogany clock, in the dining room a china service emblazoned with geometric patterns, and in the living room silver and enamel cigarette cases leaning against ashtrays made of Bakelite.

While Art Deco lasted for a fairly long time, by 1939 the movement had run its course, giving way to World War II and what we now know as the Mid-Century Modern style.

Scandinavian design also gained influence at this time, with a style characterized by simplicity, democratic design and natural shapes. Glassware by Iittala and ceramics by Arabia, both of Finland, tableware by Georg Jensen and lighting by Poul Henningsen, both of Denmark, and Danish Modern furniture were some of the most well known names. In America, east of the Mississippi, the American-born Russel Wright, designing for Steubenville Pottery, and Hungarian-born Eva Zeisel designing for Red Wing Pottery and later Hall China created free-flowing ceramic designs that were much admired and heralded in the trend of smooth, flowing contours in dinnerware.

Graphic design documented mid-century transformations in urban development, architecture and design include Linen Type postcards from the 1930s to the early 1950s. These consisted primarily of national view-cards of North American cities, towns, buildings, monuments and civil and military infrastructures. Mid-century Linen Type postcards came about through innovations pioneered through the use of offset lithography. Publishers produced them on paper with a high rag content, which gave the postcard a fabric type look and feel. At the time this was a less expensive process. Along with advances in printing technique, Linen Type cards allowed for very vibrant ink colors. The encyclopedic geographic iconography of mid-century Linen Type images suggests popular middle class attitudes about nature, wilderness, technology, mobility and the city during the mid-20th century.

Vintage 20th-century objects are above all most collectible for their design, but they also have a strong tie to the culture of America at the time. A collector can find all sorts of items from a few dollars to thousands. It all depends on what holds his or her interest. But whatever a beginning collector chooses to collect, the collection will be vibrant and fun.

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