Craft and Industrial Design in the 1930s




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CHAPTER 2

The Design Context: U.S., 1940

Craft and Industrial Design in the 1930s

Ideas about design had particular gravitas by 1939, the year Russel Wright conceived of the American-Way program. The design of consumer objects had taken on dimensions of morality from the late nineteenth century, either as an antidote to the perceived evils of industrialization or as the means of harnessing the machine for greater social good. In the early years of the twentieth century, design translated new and intangible phenomena like electricity, jazz, and the New Woman into physical form. From the oak sideboards of Gustav Stickley to the gleaming sunrays of the top of the Chrysler Building, design in America by the 1920s was known to be a pursuit of great social and even political consequence. In the 1930s design added a new dimension of finance to its purposes, becoming—in different ways, for consumers or producers—the way out of the seemingly unending Great Depression. Although the fragility of American capitalism had been demonstrated, by the end of the 1930s, it seemed that the consumer economy was here to stay. Not only that, but the hopes of the nation and, when not preoccupied with political strife, the world, were increasingly pinned on the buying and selling of goods as the way toward a bright future. But now the appearance of those goods became as important as their function.

The role of design as economic and societal salvation supported marketing mogul Ernest Elmo Calkins’ claim that “prosperity lies in spending, not in saving.”1 And, as the world edged toward another major war, spending became nothing less than patriotic. In September 1940, the editorial pages of House Beautiful took the opportunity to remind female consumers that “in the realm of ideals we are at war.”2 The totalitarianism that threatens the world, they continued, is the polar opposite of “the American way [which is] a broad way, a tolerant way…the right of the individual to the utmost freedom.”3 The editors quickly moved to point out the connection between political freedom and consumption, alerting readers that if “these forces were to prevail we could not even build our homes to suit ourselves. The very styles of architecture are dictated under the totalitarian system.” This warning was meant to give “a new determination to cherish and to defend the American way of life,” and the mandate to act on this by purchasing “the fine things you see here…a great responsibility.”4

In a sense, designers were not only designing goods, but designing the future. In a troubled present, the future was a locus of hope, and in the 1930s there developed a generalized faith that industrialization, properly achieved, could play a major role in creating that better future. Nowhere was this seen more succinctly than in the World’s Fairs of the 1930s. In 1933 in Chicago, the Century of Progress Exhibition celebrated the machine and its economic, scientific, and social potential,5 but it was the fair that was almost perfectly concurrent with the American-Way project, the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40, that presented a gleaming, prosperous, consumption-based future in a complete vision. The future was bright, and it was designed. Portraying themselves as purveyors of all that was hopeful and new, major corporations usurped the role played by governments and social institutions at previous world’s fairs, becoming the experts responsible for the nurturing of the future. At Flushing Meadow, the world, and particularly Americans, saw that there was a new organizing and propelling force: industry. Just as the dramatic portal of GM’s pavilion led to a rosy “Futurama,” so did the fair as a whole seem to indicate that the way forward was through the archway created by business in partnership with design.

The period between the two World Wars, called by historian Jennifer Downs “the zenith of overheated capitalism,”6 created a new American profession, the industrial designer: aesthetic professionals who were also businesspeople. In this context, art-in-industry, as these somewhat strange bedfellows were called, changed the nature of what was considered good design. Raymond Loewy famously commented that for designers a “conception of aesthetics consists of a beautiful sales curve, shooting upward,”7 indicative of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between design and business. The sense of treading uncharted territory, of working out matters of grave importance without models, gave the small group of industrial designers of the 1920s and 30s the self-perception of being “pioneers”—and what could be more American? The industrial designer inherited the mantle the late-nineteenth century had given the artist, as leader and prophet: a “different breed from ordinary mortals.”8

At the same time that all eyes seemed to be on the designed future, there was a very different response to the times. In the first half of the twentieth century, interest revived in objects made by hand, compartmentalized and quite distinct from the focus on machine-based industry. More than objects, though, the blossoming of craft in this period was about ideas. In the realm of the hand-made, in fact, the moral dimension of design was as prominent as in industrial design. The work of the hand had long been seen primarily as an alternative to, or in opposition to, industrialization. Articulate and influential thinkers and practitioners, from William Morris and his “joy to the maker,” to Frank Lloyd Wright’s lavish patronage of craft in his architectural designs, had defined and demonstrated the hand/machine dichotomy in multi-faceted ways. In the 1920s, beginning in France and to a lesser extent in the U.S., craft was associated with luxurious Art Deco objects, where the work of the hand, paired with expensive materials, created precious products for a privileged few. The Depression brought attention to a more grass-roots type of craft, and began to assign the same type of economic hopes to it that were ascribed to industry, although on a smaller scale. Craft began to be seen as another way to stimulate the economy and provide employment, like producing new models of refrigerators every year. The way into the future might be, at least partially, through the past.

In order for craft to find a market, however, there was tremendous pressure to coordinate with American industry. In a 1980 interview, industrial designer, craftsman and historian Arthur J. Pulos commented that in the late 1930s “craftsmen had to become designers, and they had to get with it…they shouldn’t be quite so self-indulgent” by continuing to define themselves in historic traditions and “practice the art as a hobby.”9 It was a commonly held opinion that craft would have to be redefined in terms of the “mainstream,” which meant in terms of large-scale production. The studio crafts movement, involving the creation of one-of-a-kind artisanal products, was seen in this light as a byway on the road to economic and social betterment; only a significant number of objects in the marketplace would produce the desired goal.

The notion of the potential economic force of craft led to the formation of craft cooperatives, such as The Handcraft Cooperative League of America in 1939, a vehicle for craftspeople working to make their own financial destinies. In October, 1940 the Cooperative League opened America House, on East 54th Street in New York, to provide a retail conduit for handcrafts; handcrafted items were also beginning to appear in department stores and smaller retail outlets. New schools focusing on the “art” of craft formed; some, like Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, also tried to synthesize hand- and machine-work. The government, through the Works Progress Administration, sought to bring New Deal aid (and its oversight) to localized American craftspeople. The Federal Arts Project worked with craftspeople on, among other things, finding ways of using crafts as “design sources for American manufacturing.”10 Eleanor Roosevelt’s sponsorship of specific crafts organizations like Val-Kill, where faithful reproductions of colonial and vernacular furniture were made at her upstate New York estate even before the Depression, starting in 1926, or that in Arthurdale, West Virginia, for out-of-work coal miners, was a very public endorsement of the ameliorating effects of craft in the midst of the Depression.

In efforts to stimulate the economy and promote American-made products, definitions of craft and industry were shown to be difficult to delineate, and lines between them blurred. In their seminal 1936 book on the future of industrial design, Art and the Machine, Sheldon and Martha Cheney declared that the very future of industrial design depended on its separation from all aspects of handcraft; their concern over the blending of the two underscores the fact that American consumer goods were still being made by a range of production methods.11 Crafts could be made as studio objects, or in multiples in small production facilities; they could have one creator from beginning to end, or be the product of many hands. This range of craft production methods, along with the increasing involvement of designers (many of whom came from hands-on art forms) in industrial processes, meant that where the realms of craft and machine began and ended was not always clear. The conflation of craft and industrial design was evident, for example, in the 1931 exhibition of the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen at the Brooklyn Museum. The group of “architects and artists” working “through industrial decorative and applied art” displayed mass-produced furniture by Kem Weber alongside art prints, hand-made pottery, and Russel Wright’s pewter highball glasses, made by hand in his Manhattan carriage-house studio.

Although production methods were in actuality not mutually exclusive, the machine-made was largely associated with a future orientation, and crafts with tradition. Aesthetically, these seemed to be the two poles of design in the late 1930s, both incorporating responses to the modern industrialized world. Grappling with the “modern” is always a complicated business, with acceptance, rejection, fear, and faith all present in varying degrees, and particularly so in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when so much seemed to ride on modernity in all its forms. Americans needed to believe in a shiny future, but they were also comforted by turning away from these fraught issues, toward a history of perceived simplicity. It is no coincidence that the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (1924), Colonial Williamsburg (1932), Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village (1929), and Wallace Nutting’s exact reproductions of colonial furniture and interiors all emerged in the decades between the two wars, along with other evidence of Americans’ search for and embrace of their common past. The revival of interest in craft during this period may also be linked to a national ambivalence about modernity. 12 But that does not mean that all craft was traditional in its visual language; in fact, often in this period, “crafts were hybrids of past and future.”13 Convictions about whether goods should be produced by hand or by machine, were in the end not so much opposite views, but different approaches to the same situation: the industrial present.14

Styles and Tastemakers

It was generally accepted that modern American life required modern goods, but what was meant aesthetically by the term “modern” caused strife. In the 1920s, the Americanized version of French Art Deco, with its visual language of “streamlining,” symbolized all that was modern. It was acceptable to Americans, as Jeffrey Meikle notes, because it “avoided both the hothouse excess of French Art Deco and the cold precision of Bauhaus design.”15 By the time of the influx of European Bauhaus ideas in the 1930s, “modern” was beginning to look quite different: now, instead of jazzy and energetic design ideas, Americans were asked to equate clean-lined and even spare designs with what it meant to be up-to-date. As historian Alan Gowans points out, the ideology of the Bauhaus was never largely appealing to Americans, but the economic chaos of the Great Depression had made the Gilded Age, its excesses and its aesthetics, repulsive.16 Americans who wanted to furnish their homes for modernity with no association with recent history, but were reluctant to embrace distinctly European styles, had two options. First, the traditional, usually meaning colonial (a misnomer that included post-Revolutionary War styles such as the Federal and the Greek Revival,) or something else defined as “modern.”

This dichotomy, though, did not sit well with average Americans, who weren’t sure if they had to choose, or how to do so. Those who were designing for and selling to them were attuned to their dilemma. What Americans wanted was a “middle way.” That term and ones similar, formed a leitmotif of advertising and design, particularly that which was aimed at the American middle class. Raymond Loewy’s famous MAYA, or “most advanced yet acceptable” mantra expressed one aspect of the delicate balance required for designing new products. Another solution was to combine traditional and modern objects in one space. In November 1940, the Lord and Taylor department store advertised in House Beautiful :

It is no longer smart to have strictly period rooms. Today’s decoration mixes the charming things of the past with good modern pieces—not the heavy handed, bulbous modern of the last decade but the pure beauty of line that is contemporary design today. We invite you to see our new rooms. Perfectly representing—Décor, 1940.

Finding that right blend, that line of comfort with Modernism, was the quest of the design/

manufacturing/retail establishment.

Scandinavian design, beginning to find its way to the U.S., was often praised as fitting the need for a bridge between traditional and Modern, being made of organic materials like wood and wool, and with soft curving lines, but still clean-lined and without applied ornament or veneers. On a populist level, objects such as Fiesta Ware and Russel Wright’s “American Modern” dinnerware found a combination of warmer, organic sensibilities with the clean lines and machine production of the modern age. The search for a “softer” modern for the American consumer culminated, somewhat ironically, in the 1940 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition and exhibition, in that bastion of high-culture taste, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and others in the exhibition gave the public a Modernism that was looking more “middle way” than had any previously.

With a bewildering array of choices, and a societal imperative to choose the right thing to be tasteful, modern, and patriotic, American consumers felt the need of advice, and the early twentieth century complied by providing a phalanx of tastemakers to guide (often, direct) them. Designers, stores, industry, media, and museums all stepped into the role of leaders of consumption, with cooperative ventures between them that were unprecedented. Beginning in the 1920s, art and commerce came together around a common cause: to sell Modernism to the American public. New York’s Macy’s, one department store of many that began to use new techniques to sell new types and styles of merchandise, was perhaps the leader of the concept. Ideas like using model rooms to suggest how this merchandise could look in buyers’ homes, and exposition-style events to give Modern goods distinction, began to be seen in department stores starting in the late 1920s.17 Expositions with names like “Art in Trade” (1927) and “International Exposition of Art in Industry” (1928) showed goods in museum-like settings but were held within the walls of the emporiums trying to sell those goods.18

Lending artistic credibility to these efforts, art museums partnered with department stores in these types of merchandizing schemes. The Museum of Modern Art mounted a series of exhibitions between 1938 and 1940 of “Useful Household Objects Under $10,” held during the holiday shopping season and unabashedly aimed at selling these consumer products, literally and figuratively. Indeed, museum exhibitions with consumer goods as emphasis were commonplace, adding the imprimatur of good taste to the reasons that American should buy these objects. Elitist attitudes of art as on a separate plane from the sullying influence of commerce were minimized in the interest of improving public taste and selling goods. Easel painters and sculptors had no compunctions about crossing into more commercial media; two examples of many were Alexander Archipenko’s design of abstract figures for department store windows19 and Grant Wood’s distribution of inexpensive prints of his paintings.

Department stores and museums together formed a formidable new influence on consumption: the tastemaker. Still insecure in matters of design, Americans were hungry for and receptive to guidance on what to think about consumer objects. Shelter magazines and popular decorating books stepped into this role as well as museums and department stores, taking on an increasingly pedantic, even patronizing tone:

Dinky accessories should be avoided. […] Psychologists tell us that when adults collect minute things two subconscious elements are involved: the fear of making a mistake, and a yearning to revert back to the protection and comfort of childhood. In any case, small trinkets are hard to dust and care for, and they are worth nothing from a decorative point of view.20

This advice, in a tome called All About Modern Decorating—otherwise full of “trust-yourself” motivation—underscores the message about the fundamental untrustworthiness of the American public to decorate their own houses, creating the continual cycle of insecurity leading to guidance-seeking.

As the U.S. government, too, under the aegis of the New Deal, began to promote crafts production, design, and marketing, it was acting as an implicit tastemaker, influencing the direction and design of goods being produced. Under the Federal Arts Project, the “Index of American Design” was conceived in 1935 both as an inventory of traditional design and as a resource for use by American industrial designers, thereby encouraging established modes of design.21 Working through numerous federal agencies, the government even became a patron of the arts, commissioning public murals, lodges, and their furnishings for National Parks, and requiring the sale of regional handcrafts in their gift shops.22 Convinced that standardization and design oversight were necessary ingredients in the bringing of handcrafts to larger markets, bureaucrats tried to reshape tradition as a commodity by preserving its essence within new designs and forms targeted to the consuming urban middle class.23

Thus, Americans had a multitude of tastemakers to whom they could look for guidance. And look they did, because through the cultural upheavals of the past twenty years, they were also re-forming many aspects of how they lived in their own homes, with resulting anxiety and unease. Changing family dynamics, including women’s increasing freedom, leisure, and educational opportunities, led to changing lifestyles. New economic realities meant smaller, simpler, less servant-driven houses. As Martin Greif has noted, in “trying to simplify their lives, Americans were trying to become more efficient. And of their new surroundings they were now demanding honest value, simplicity, sturdiness, and new innovations pertaining to comfort.”24

Less formal ways of living, changing roles of family members, and new technologies forced Americans to grapple with the idea of what it meant to be modern. The home was the “final frontier” for revolutionary design ideas, and the most intimate stage for acting out their dilemmas. The centrality of the domestic interior to American life was a growing force in the design context of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. As Kristina Wilson has pointed out, designers worked to create what she calls “livable modernism,” a range of home furnishings “centered on achieving affordability and alleviating the apparent coldness of industrial materials and manufacturing processes.”25 In other words, if modern design could be brought home, it would be fully successful in its aims.

While Americans wrestled with how to furnish their homes, outside the walls of those homes were uncertainty and chaos, with war in Europe, economic turmoil, and ever-more-obvious class divisions, causing great unease. Many, like photographer Margaret Bourke-White in her 1937 “At the Time of the Louisville Flood” (Figure 1), saw the irony of a cheerful, continuing insistence on the superiority of the American economic system. But an equally strong response was a circle-the-wagons mentality, to protect and defend. Boosterism of all things American edged into rejection of all things not. When it came to design, the call from some quarters was to reject European models and forms, while nurturing and encouraging what was native to this country.

Protecting “American-ness,” seemingly a simple notion, opened up debates about what, exactly, that was. Class divides surfaced also in the quest for “American style,” as only certain notions of native design were deemed acceptable by high-style tastemakers. American industry, the darling of the elite as a concept, was not the white knight for all involved.26 Native handcrafts, increasingly associated with rural pockets of surviving tradition, were undergoing a new appreciation, but the attention was often overtly patronizing in form and tone.

The central question around which all of these threads began to be wound in the 1930s was whether there was some kind of a distinctly American design, and if so, what it looked like and what kind of a social and economic force it could be. Within this context, where the design of objects for the American home had particular resonance for the culture at large, designers in general, and Russel Wright in particular, brought their aesthetic creeds to bear on the goods available to Americans. Across a forty-year career, Wright’s work engaged with the important design questions of his day; nowhere is this more visible than in his American-Way program and its relationship with the particular issues of the late 1930s.



FIGURE 1.

MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE, “AT THE TIME OF THE LOUISVILLE FLOOD” (1935)


1 Calkins quoted in Jeffrey L. Meikle, “Designing the Machine Age,” in Design in the USA (NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 107.

2 Kenneth K. Stowell, “To Talk of Many Things,” House Beautiful, September 1940: 42, 43.


3 Ibid.


4 “The Bride’s House, Fall 1940,” House Beautiful, September 1940: 42, 44.


5 Jennifer M. Downs, “The New Modern Feeling,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies (February, 2001): 45.

6 Gabrielle Esperdy, "American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age,” Exhibition Review, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, March 2001: 82.

7 Loewy quoted in Meikle, “Designing the Machine Age,” 112.


8 Alan Gowans, Images of American Living: Four Centuries of Architecture and Furniture as Cultural Expression ( New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1976), 415.


9 Arthur J. Pulos interview, 1980 July 31-1982 December 5, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

10 Jane Becker, Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 114.

11 Sheldon and Martha Candler Cheney, Sheldon, Art and the Machine: An Account of Industrial Design in Twentieth-Century America ( New York: Acanthus Press, 1936), viii, 188, and Chapter 3, among others. The Cheneys further prescribed the sphere for crafts as being separate, small-scale, and a therapeutic pursuit in leisure time.

12 In his review of the 1996 exhibition “Craft in the Machine Age: 1920-1945” (American Craft 56:2, p. 35), Paul Mattick points out that “we are dealing in this period with elements of a complex transformation of material culture throughout society” which had to do with the “conversion of modernism from a set of doctrines and programs into a collection of styles.” As such, craft becomes a stylistic choice among others, and “modern craft” becomes, as it largely is in the American-Way program, a set of visual cues.



13 Jane Kessler, “From Mission to Market: Craft in the Southern Appalachians” in Janet Kardon and Ralph T. Coe, eds., Revivals! Diverse Traditions, 1920-1945: the History of Twentieth-Century American Craft. (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1994), 29.

14 Gowans, 363.


15 Meikle, “Designing the Machine Age,” 124.


16 Gowans, 433.

17 Marilyn F. Friedman, Selling Good Design: Promoting the Early Modern Interior. (New York: Rizzoli, 2003), 42. Although model rooms had appeared as early as the late nineteenth century, it was in this period that they became a more commonly used merchandising tool.

18 Ibid.


19 Rudoph Rosenthal and Helena L. Ratzka, The Story of Modern Applied Art (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1948), 188.

20 Mary Davis Gillies, All About Modern Decorating (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942), 138.


21 Hildreth J. York, “New Deal Craft Programs and Their Social Implications” in Kardon and Coe Revivals! Diverse Traditions, 1920-1945: the History of Twentieth-Century American Craft, 60.

22 Elaine Levin, The History of American Ceramics, 1607 to the Present: from Pipkins and Bean Pots to Contemporary Forms (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1988), 164.

23 Becker, 94.


24 Martin Greif, Depression Modern: The Thirties Style in America (New York: Universe Books, 1975), 44.

25 Kristina Wilson, Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 9.

26 In 1925, for example, even as the U.S. was perceived to have nothing sufficiently “modern” to send to the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, American industrial forms and products like grain silos and plumbing fixtures were being praised by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. MoMA promulgated the machine as aesthetic and as democratizing design force.


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