Currier Gallery of Art

Manchester, NH


Entrance to the Currier, photo by John Hazeltine


American By Design, 1930-1960: Three Decades of lnnovation


Remember when you could see Benny Goodman and his "Let's Dance" Orchestra for eighty-five cents? When the hottest fashion accessory was a plush "trilby" hat? When the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air rolled off the assembly line?

From the escapism of the economically strapped '30s to the excesses of the booming late '50s, Americans today are celebrating the past - by joining swing dance clubs, buying vintage fashion and stocking up on early to mid-century furniture and collectibles. Not only signposts of pop culture's past, these objects are often the work of artists who created unique designs for consumer products, using new materials and revolutionary manufacturing methods. (left: Transitone Radio, 1949, Made by Philco, Collection of Léandre Poisson)

This influential period in American design history is the focus of the Currier Gallery of Art's fall exhibition, American By Design, 1930-1960: Three Decades of lnnovation. While launching the careers of internationally known designers such as Raymond Loewy, Russel Wright and Charles and Ray Eames, this era introduced design icons ranging from Gilbert Rohde's 1933 "Z Stool" to the 1959 Philco "Predicta" television.

"This is the Currier's 'millennium show,'" says Currier Gallery Curator Andrew Spahr, who refers to the three decades spanned by the exhibition as "one of the most important periods in 20th-century decorative arts in the U.S." He adds, "At the start of a new century, it gives us an opportunity to look back on some of the ideas and thinking that shaped the objects Americans lived with on a day-to-day basis, from the Depression to the Eisenhower era." (left: Predicta Television, 1959, Made by Philco, Collection of Léandre Poisson)

The Great Depression

Open to the public from Saturday, Oct. 7, 2000 through Sunday, Jan. 7, 2001, American by Design features more than 135 objects. The show begins with items from the Depression through World War II, showcasing icons of American streamlined design, along with toys, tableware and other familiar objects from the daily lives of Depression-era households. "The development of streamlining is the first truly American design style," explains Spahr.

Before the Depression, American design lagged behind that of its European contemporaries - a point illustrated by the lack of a U.S. presence at the landmark 1925 Paris Exposition. The Exposition, a showcase of world architecture and decorative arts, had set out to prove that a new international style could be formed without relying on tradition, introducing design ideas like France's Art Deco.

Back in America, design took center stage only after the stock market crash of October 24, 1929 signaled the Great Depression. As consumer dollars grew scarce, American manufacturers in the 1930's began to focus for the first time on product appearance. This new emphasis on appearance can be seen in American by Design's presentation of classic streamlined designs like the vibrant "Thermos Pitcher and Tray," designed by Henry Dreyfuss, or the 1941 "Petipoint Iron," designed by Clifford Brooks Stevens and Edward P. Schreyer. And while most U.S. furniture makers continued to rely on traditional styles like Colonial or French provincial, Gilbert Rhode introduced his 1930 "Z Stool" and Wolfgang Hoffman created his 1936 tubular metal and blue "Lounge Chair."


American by Design goes on to highlight the late 1940s and the early 1950s, when American designers and manufacturers were determined to create objects that, they felt, "did not reflect the past in any way," according to Spahr. This era marked the beginning of postwar America's Modern style, which flourished while Europeans were still reeling from the aftermath of World War II. In postwar America, artists like Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen created objects made of molded plywood, metal and fiberglass in designs that celebrated the versatility and appearance of their materials.

The Eames' "LCW," or "Lounge Chair Wood" from 1945 is a prime example. Included in the Currier's exhibition and heralded by Time Magazine in 1999 as the "Best Design of the Century," it uses technology developed during the war to create what Time described as "something elegant, light and comfortable."

The final portion of the exhibition American by Design includes items produced by manufacturers during the mid- to late '50s. As peace evolved into prosperity, Americans flooded the suburbs and set up house. Manufacturers fought to fill these new homes with consumer goods that reflected regularly changing "contemporary" styling rather than the timeless Modern designs of earlier decades. The use of plastics like Formica, and a tendency toward swooping embellishment and intense colors characterize the products of this later period. While most are not attributed to known designers, Spahr believes "these mass-produced consumer products do warrant our consideration as important aesthetic artifacts from a recent past."

American By Design, 1930-1960: Three Decades of lnnovation is drawn from an extensive collection of 20th-century consumer products assembled by pioneering New Hampshire collector Léandre Poisson. Selected prints and photographs from the Currier's permanent collection will provide the backdrop for the presentation of Mr. Poisson's unique collection.

Since its inception in 1929, the Currier Gallery has consistently gathered American decorative arts for its permanent collection. "Frank Lloyd Wright designed the (Currier-owned) Zimmerman House in 1950, right in the middle of the exhibition period" says Spahr, adding "There's certainly a context at the Currier for exploring design."

Major funding for American By Design, 1930-1960: Three Decades of lnnovation was provided by Public Service of NH. Additional support has been provided by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., and Skinner, Auctioneers and Appraisers of Antiques and Fine Arts.

Read more about the Currier Gallery of Art in Resource Library Magazine

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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