Jazzin' at the Cooper Hewitt

Jazzin' at the Cooper Hewitt


If you adore Art Deco—and who doesn’t?—the Cooper Hewitt’s latest exhibit is a don’t-miss. Spanning two floors of the venerable mansion-turned-museum, “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” shows how the colorful, streamlined aesthetic played out across a variety of forms, from flapper frocks and fabrics to furniture and fine art: The visual equivalent, the show argues, of the jazzy sounds and jangled pace of post-World War I life.


Actually, the show’s title is a bit of a misnomer. A lot of the ideas, influences and avatars of the era’s new look actually came out of Europe; they gained attention with the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (from which the term “Art Deco” derived much later), which featured designers like France’s Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Austria’s Josef Hoffman of the Wiener Werkstätte. But Americans were eager to embrace it—given the roaring U.S. economy, they could afford to—and their fast-paced, industrialized, shake-off-the-shackles society helped shape it, influencing of the many artists and designers who immigrated to these shores from the war-torn continent. This interaction of European-trained talent and American-born tastes created a “melting-pot modern” style, as the show delightfully puts it.

 You can see the evolution in a tale of two tea sets—one by made by Josef Hoffman in Vienna in 1923, the other by Peter Müller-Munk (a German émigré who settled in New York) in 1931. Both are made of silver and ivory, but Hoffman’s is more refined and intricate, while Müller-Munk’s is simpler, its industrial look lightened by the ivory handles curling upwards like elephant tusks. The exhibit is divided into six sections. It seems to start off chronologically, with “The Persistence of Traditional ‘Good Taste’”—an ode to reigning classic styles (period repros of colonial, Empire, etc.)—but then proceeds more thematically. In making points about “Bending the Rules,” and “Abstraction and Reinvention,” the sections mix media, often to stunning visual effect. One such standout: an arrangement of a vertical wall textile hung over a gondola-shaped couch with a printed dress posed nearby—all in vivid tones of orange/red/mauve.

Elsewhere, the crossover currents of the era are captured in novelties like Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper Bookcase Desk, a ca. 1928 concoction of California redwood and black lacquer that has a stepped-back series of shelves rising from a semicircular base, and the Zeppelin Airship Cocktail Shaker and Traveling Bar, shaped like a dirigible and containing a small spoon and cup (just add liquor).

 While at the museum, don’t miss the immersion room—a darkened area where you can design your own wallpaper on digital tables, and have them projected onto the walls. The show also contains two technically separate, but beautifully complimentary, exhibits. One is a collection of 100-odd pieces, dated 1910-1938, owned by the Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan—tiny, bejeweled marvels of cigarette cases, boxes, vanity cases, compacts and clocks. The other celebrates “The World of Radio,” a technological innovation which, in social impact and influence, was the Internet of its day. One design drawing depicts a tube-shaped radio with speakers on top; it looks remarkably like a jade-green grandmother to Alexa, Amazon’s personal assistant/streaming device.


Which only goes to prove that Art Deco design may be pushing 100, but remains forever young.



>> “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” on view thru Aug. 20, 2017, at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 E. 91st St., 212.849.8400.




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