A Jazz Age Exhibition With a Syncopated Sweep
By BEN SISARIOMARCH 15, 2017
A W.P.A. mural at Harlem Hospital Center, a stop on a walking tour organized by the Cooper Hewitt in tandem with its exhibition “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s.” Hilary Swift for The New York Times
To grasp the history behind “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” a new exhibition opening next month at the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s design museum, there is far more to study and experience than just the 400 pieces of art, furniture and textiles on view.
There is the museum’s Immersion Room, for example, where vintage wallpaper patterns are digitally projected, floor to ceiling; while there, take in a playlist piped in courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center. If your timing is good, you might catch a spontaneous jazz performance in the galleries by students from the Manhattan School of Music.
Or get out of the museum entirely and take a walking tour of Harlem that highlights the nightclubs where artists and designers of the time mingled and drew inspiration.
Those attractions are part of an overhaul in recent years at the Cooper Hewitt, which its director, Caroline Baumann, describes as a self-conscious effort to shake off its reputation as “an elegant, lovely museum on 91st Street you experience once a year.” Under Ms. Baumann, the institution has become more interactive, more high-tech and more collaborative with other institutions — the kind of ingredients that tend to appeal to younger visitors.
“We have blown the dust off the place,” Ms. Baumann said.
“The Jazz Age” is an example of a classic Cooper Hewitt design exhibition — silk, diamonds, gorgeous furniture — given some new juice. The show, which runs from April 7 through Aug. 20, was organized with the Cleveland Museum of Art and has an extensive complement of public programming both inside and outside the museum, extending the themes beyond the Cooper Hewitt’s walls. The walking tour, planned for May 18, is presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, a Smithsonian affiliate.
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The show itself celebrates the ingenuity of designers and architects during a time of rapid modernization, when technology and a fast-changing popular culture — exemplified by jazz music — were reshaping everyday life. Taking a broad look at design and fashion, “The Jazz Age” encapsulates the changes of the era in jewelry, tableware, furniture, posters and architectural fixtures.
Right, detail of a screen depicting a muse with a violin, circa 1930. Left, The “New Yorker” punch bowl from 1931. From left: Rose Iron Works Collections; Smithsonian Institution
Many of the items directly reflect the excitement and novelty of the modern age, like Louis W. Rice’s skyscraper tea service from 1928, with tall, rectangular pots in silver-plated brass. Radios in sleek Bakelite pay tribute to the new medium as a means of instantaneous communication reaching across the planet; one by Raymond Loewy from 1933, called “New World,” is even shaped as a globe.
“The Jazz Age” also looks at developments in manufacturing, when major department stores were studying contemporary trends in European furniture and creating mass-market versions for the rising American middle classes. Those imitations could still be surprisingly avant-garde, like Lord & Taylor’s version of a Jallot dressing table and bench, whose pinched angles make them look like something out of a German Expressionist film set.
“The whole ethos of the 1920s is about innovation,” said Sarah Coffin, the curator of product design and decorative arts at the Cooper Hewitt. “People were using old methodologies and new ones concurrently, to create something new.”
Jazz itself is a loose connecting thread throughout the exhibition. Ms. Coffin said that she chose the Jazz Age as a historical concept tying together trends in art and popular culture from the end of World War I into the 1930s. It was a time when European designers found a new market in the booming 1920s American economy, and black American celebrities like Josephine Baker were likewise finding a new freedom and adoration in Paris. Meanwhile, women were becoming increasingly liberated.
“Jazz is both a metaphor and an actual fact,” said Ms. Coffin, who organized the show with Stephen Harrison of the Cleveland Museum, where it will travel in September.
The metaphor pulsates throughout the show as a kind of new aesthetic rhythm. It turns up in the loose-limbed dancing figures on posters and glass vases, and in the syncopated patterns on textiles like Sonia Delaunay’s “Tissu Simultané́.” Sometimes the influence is explicit, as with Viktor Schreckengost’s “New Yorker” punch bowl from 1931, a riot of cocktails, musical notes and the letters J-A-Z-Z in a turquoise glaze meant to evoke neon lights. (That piece has an appealing origin story: It was ordered by an anonymous client who turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt.)
Right, Hugh Ferriss’s 1922 “Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law, Stage 4.” Left, A Bakelite radio designed in 1932. Matt Flynn/Smithsonian Institution
The connection to jazz was more literal on the streets of Harlem, whose nightclubs were the chic attraction of the time and had a particular draw on young artists, including both white Americans and European transplants, each curious about African-American culture.
The Harlem walking tour will pass by the sites of several historic music venues, like Smalls Paradise and the Alhambra Ballroom, where Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton performed. Some of the most famous clubs of the time, however, have been lost in the churn of redevelopment; the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, for instance, were torn down to make way for a housing complex.
In addition to night-life spots, the tour will also take in some of the cultural and architectural highlights, like W. C. Handy’s residence on Striver’s Row, and the Hotel Theresa, a hub of black life in Harlem (and, in 1960, the site of a press bonanza when Fidel Castro stayed there). It will conclude at a current jazz club for a live performance.
Ryan Maloney, the director of education and programming at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said that the tour was intended not as an architectural study but as a way to delve into the history of Harlem culture, which had its impact on the design of the 1920s and continues today.
“It is based around the idea of vibrations,” Mr. Maloney said. “The musical vibrations, the cultural vibrations, the artistic vibrations that were set into motion here in this neighborhood. When we think about music, dance, fashion and the language we have today, so much of that can be traced directly back to Harlem during the era that this exhibit is highlighting.”
Those kinds of connections, between museums and across the city, are the kind of thing that Ms. Baumann said she wanted the Cooper Hewitt to embrace, with “The Jazz Age” as an example.
“I’m doing everything I can,” she said, “to make this much more than just an exhibition.”