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Designing Deco

This 12-video companion to our major exhibition Deco: Luxury to Mass Market takes you into the minds, methods, and mastery of Art Deco designers and fabricators. In 1-minute bite-sized examinations of select Wolfsonian collection artworks and even gallery display choices, Designing Deco invites the eye to linger on the subtleties of 1920s/'30s design. Look closely, look longer, and listen up—you might be surprised what you learn!

Designing Deco is hosted on Instagram at @designingdeco_en. Narration by Barbara Alvarez; Spanish version coming soon.

1 | Intro 

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  • Transcript
    What makes something Art Deco? This audio guide considers the hundreds of decisions that go into the design of every Deco object. What color is it? What shape does it have? What is it made from? Is its style complex, or simple? In these clips, we're decoding the visual language of select works from the Wolfsonian exhibition Deco: Luxury to Mass Market, a show that tells the story of how Art Deco evolved in the 1920s and '30s. Follow along as we examine pieces of furniture, decorative art, and mass-produced appliances to focus on the unexpected and overlooked details that help us see these objects in new ways. We hope you enjoy this peek inside the minds of artists, designers, manufacturers, and of course, our curators.
  • Credits

    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :25 | Photograph, Radio Row, 1936. Berenice Abbott, for the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, photographer. The New York Public Library, Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs. 

2 | Vase

Vase with lid, Mappemonde [Globe], 1932. Henri Rapin, form designer. Victor Menu, décor designer. Adrien Leduc, decorator. Manufacture nationale de Sèvres, France, manufacturer. Glazed soft stoneware. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 85.7.383a,b.

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  • Transcript
    A blue and bronze vase called Mappemonde, or Globe, opens the Deco show. It comes from the heyday of world fairs and expos, where makers exhibited objects to show off their country's craftsmanship and traditions. Made by the national porcelain factory of France, the vase is full of detail that demonstrates skill but also tells a very colonialist story. European explorers' sailing ships are depicted heading overseas to exotic lands, which are shown filled with elephants and other wild animals. Do you think the vase's European creators held a certain view of modern progress? Let's keep this lesson in mind as we look closely at objects to discover more about the values and beliefs of the cultures behind them.
  • Credits

    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU.

3 | Plaques

Plaques, 1930–33. From the FIAT showroom, Florence, Italy. Mario Moschi. Brass plate. The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Private Collection, Miami, Florida, 84.9.20.1–.2 NC.

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    The women on these two polished brass plaques probably remind you of Greece or Rome—they're nude and beautiful, and they sit on top of column capitals from ancient architecture. But in their hands are icons of the machine age—a car and an airplane—and their slim body type is a 1920s ideal. The artist, a sculptor and medalist named Mario Moschi, made these plaques for the FIAT showroom in Florence to express the company's range of production, which until the 1960s included aircraft. There are a couple of other, more subtle, Art Deco trademarks as well: blending different periods of time, through references to both history and technology; and highly stylized (or unrealistic) acanthus leaves on the Corinthian columns. Look closely, too, to see that the women are wearing jewelry, which is definitely a modern touch, and not something you'd find in classical sculpture.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :09 | Marble column with base and capital, c. A.D. 117–138. Rome. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    :28 | CR42 Falco Fighter by FIAT. National Museum of the United States Airforce.
    :51 | Statue, Aphrodite, 1st or 2nd century A.D. [copy of Greek sculpture, 3rd or 2nd century B.C.] Rome. Marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

4 | Tea Service

Tea service, 1920–29. Narotamdas Bhau, Bombay (Mumbai), India, manufacturer. Silver, celluloid. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 85.9.24.1–.3. 

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  • Transcript
    This tea set from Bombay, or modern-day Mumbai, speaks volumes about the spread of Art Deco around the world. Here we see an Indian manufacturer using some distinctly Deco trademarks to reflect a cosmopolitan style: there's an interest in symmetry and geometry, with curving circles and semicircles; and the main decorative element used is the gazelle, a motif favored by European designers. The teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl each have silver bodies, and the finials and handles are made from celluloid. Developed in England and the United States, celluloid was a precursor to modern-day plastics meant to mimic more expensive materials like ebony or tortoiseshell. Reading between the lines, there's a story here of colonialism­­—while you can trace the history of tea back to ancient China, tea culture became appropriated by England later and was then introduced to India through the British, who held the region under their control.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :46 | Print, Tea, from Scenes de la vie Chinoise [Scenes of Chinese Life], c. 1740. Gabriel Huquier, after François Boucher. Etching and engraving. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953.
    :50 | Photograph, Indian servant serving tea to British woman, c. 1915. George Rinhart, photographer. Underwood & Underwood/Corbis.

5 | Gate

Gate, 1933. Ernesto Puppo, designer. Officina Matteucci, Faenza, Italy, manufacturer. Exhibited in the 1933 Mostra dell’ENAPI, Terza Fiera Nazionale dell’Artigianato, Florence. Aluminum. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 87.1569.17.2.1–.2.

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  • Transcript
    If you guys had to guess, who was this gate with four faces designed for? What type of room, or business, can you see it in? This object has a classical reference in the abstracted arches of the geometric frame—mostly, though, the gate embraces the sleek, modernist style we think of as iconic Art Deco. The heads have long necks and fine facial features, and they're arranged like sculptural busts on display. But the area of greatest detail, the hair, gives you a hint at the gate's intended setting: it was made for a beauty parlor. We can imagine it as fitting décor for a salon, providing high-end, alluring ornamentation that appealed to customers on the hunt for a sophisticated makeover. The Italian firm that created the gate worked with an architect to achieve an industrial effect, which was increasingly in vogue, and they used aluminum, a stylish Deco material.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :10 | Drawing, View of Ancient Roman Ruins, an Arch and a Triangular-Pedimented Doorway, 18th century. Filippo Mochi. Ink, wash, leadpoint. Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Flora E. Whiting, 1971.
    :32 | Photograph, Women Getting Their Hair Done at Chez Marie Beauty Shop, Miami, FL., August 7, 1939. William A. Fishbaugh, photographer. State Library and Archives of Florida.

6 | Secretary

Secretary, c. 1938. Henri Percival Pernet, designer. Gabriel Weber, Geneva, Switzerland, maker (attributed). Macassar ebony, maple, veneer, brass. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, TD1991.179.1.

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    Next is a piece that you might not recognize at first as Art Deco: a secretary desk from the late '30s. We see a mashup of moments in time: the classical figures recall ancient Greece or Rome by way of avant-garde painting, the turned-wood sides are 17th-century inspired, and the heavy base is Baroque. Inspect the sketched-out figures on the front. You might think their rough look means that the designer wasn't a very good artist, but if you pay attention to the wood, there's actually a high level of skill here. The veneer is book-matched, meaning the horizontal lines run continuously across the two doors. A detail like this is difficult to achieve, and not done without care and purpose. There's also a surprise inside: the fall-front desk is wired for electricity and contains a lightbulb, which is a modern inclusion we wouldn't expect from the history-based exterior.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :11 | Statue, Wounded Amazonian, 1st to 2nd century A.D. Rome. Marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932.
    :13 | Drawing, Standing Nude, Facing Right, 1918. Egon Schiele. Charcoal on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982.

7 | Desk + Chair

Desk and chair, 1928–29. For the J. W. Bissinger residence, San Francisco, California. Kem (Karl Emanuel Martin) Weber, designer. Lacquer, wood, silver leaf, leather. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 87.11.2.1–.2. 

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  • Transcript
    This furniture set tells us quite a bit about the taste and specifications of its private commissioner, a wealthy American man named J. W. Bissinger. Bissinger hired Kem Weber to design an Art Deco bedroom set for his modern San Francisco apartment. Urban homes like Bissinger's couldn't fit a separate study like older, larger houses, so Weber squeezed the writing space into the same room as a matching bed, vanity, sitting chair, and bookcase. Find hints that comfort and convenience are the priorities here: there's a padded chair seat, the black leather panel provides a softer writing surface on the desk's center, and Weber included storage space for paper and documents. Bissinger's initials (JWB) are tooled in silver leaf on the center panel, indicating that the client wanted a special, personalized detail suitable for a person of his means and significance.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :10 | Photograph, Kem Weber, date unknown. Karl Emanuel Martin (Kem) Weber papers, Architecture and Design Collection; Art, Design & Architecture Museum; University of California, Santa Barbara.

8 | Bedroom Suite + Backdrop

Walls inspired by designer Donald Deskey, featuring:

Bedroom suite, 1931–35. Donald Deskey, designer. Estey Manufacturing Co., Owosso, Michigan, maker. Burl walnut, holly, beech, poplar, plywood. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 87.967.11.4.1, .3–.4.

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    These bold, striped walls are a focal point of the Deco display, a true "feast for the eyes." Here the show's two curators worked closely with the exhibition designer to create a suggestion of a room. The team knew this Donald Deskey bedroom set didn't come from a single place they could recreate; instead, they envisioned an environment the set could be at home in, one true to Deskey's practice, perhaps like a window display at a department store. By researching historic photography of Deskey interiors, the curators began to see fat, horizontal stripes appear over and over. Problem was, these photos were black and white. So the team turned to the 3D objects Deskey designed (screens, textiles, other household items), for clues on his preferred color combos. They settled on one they knew he used and liked: orange, rust, and green. It's a daring backdrop for Deskey's glossy furniture, but one that we feel faithfully captures Deskey's style and the drama of Art Deco.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :27 | Photograph, Man’s Room at the 1928 American Designers' Gallery exhibition, New York City. Donald Deskey, designer. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum: Donald Deskey Collection; Gifts of Donald Deskey.
    :38 | Wastebasket, 1928. Donald Deskey, designer. USA. Painted wood with silver leaf. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler.
    :42 | Textile, c. 1930. Donald Deskey, designer. USA. Block print on plain weave. Cooper Hewitt, Museum purchase from Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program Fund.
    :44 | Design drawing, Lysistrata Screen, 1935. Donald Deskey, designer. USA. Brush and gouache, brush and silver paint, graphite on illustration board. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
    :48 | Design drawing, Hooked Rug with Geometric Pattern, 1930s. Office of Donald Deskey. USA. Brush and gouache, graphite on cream illustration board. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

9 | Radios

Radio, Air King 66, 1935. Harold L. Van Doren and John Gordon Rideout, designers. Air-King Products Co., Inc., Brooklyn, New York, manufacturer. Plaskon, brass, glass. Loan, Harvey Mattel Collection of Industrial Design.

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Radio, Sparton, model 558-C, 1937. Walter Dorwin Teague, designer. Sparton Corporation, Jackson, Michigan, manufacturer. Glass, brass, wood, Bakelite. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XX1990.1484.

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  • Transcript
    Let's compare these two radios. Each shows how American makers applied contemporary styling to everyday objects of the 1930s. On the left, the red Air King 66 brings to mind a skyscraper—take a look at how vertical the form is, how it seems to reach upwards. The stepped design near the top mimics a technique called "telescoping," which builders used to help more sunlight reach city streets that had been darkened by the shadows of early skyscrapers. The Air King is very different from the mirrored Sparton radio beside it: notice this one is long and low, with horizontal lines that give you a sense of speed, an effect called "streamlining." If you've ever been to Miami Beach's Art Deco district, home of The Wolfsonian, you've seen this style of architecture all around the neighborhood.
  • Credits

    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU.

10 | Phonograph

Phonograph, RCA Victor Special, model M, c. 1937. John Vassos, designer. Alfred Weiland and Selden T. Williams, engineers. RCA Manufacturing Company, Inc., Camden, New Jersey, manufacturer. Aluminum, chrome-plated steel, velvet, plastic. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XX1989.415.

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  • Transcript
    The red Model M Victor Special phonograph is an early record player. There's a turntable, a stylus needle, and speakers in the front to project sound. But picture the device closed—as you can tell from the outside handle, it resembles a briefcase or luggage when shut. Considered groundbreakingly compact for the mid-1930s, this phonograph was one of the first ever designed to be portable. The brand, RCA, was the Apple of its day, and its longtime lead designer John Vassos was like Apple's Jony Ive. For over 40 years, Vassos designed RCA store displays and hundreds of products like radios and television sets. The Model M became a fashionable choice for its streamlined curves, chrome finish, and easy mobility thanks to a hand-crank and battery power, but it wasn't exactly an iPod. Each 78-rpm record contained only about 3 to 5 minutes of music per side, so just a handful of songs could come with you to the beach or on a picnic.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :25 | Photograph, John Vassos, c. 1930. Courtesy Jayne Johnes, Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-4.0.
    :54 | Advertisement, "Take Music with You on Your Vacation," 1939. Radio Corporation of America.

11 | Ticket Taker Booth

Ticket taker booth, c. 1946. From the Miami Theatre, Miami. S. Charles Lee, architect. Frederick T. Rank, interior decorator. Brass, chrome-plated metal, Formica. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 83.17.2.

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  • Transcript
    This ticket taker booth is home-grown—it once stood within downtown's Miami Theatre, South Florida's only movie palace built by S. Charles Lee. The 1947 building eventually became a mall, but we know the original design for the interior carried the designers' showmanship. There was a grand, glamorous entrance with dramatic lighting, fancy neo-rococo ceilings, and ornate walls with shell motifs and sea creatures, fitting for Miami. Find another nautical reference in the streamlining of this piece. We've talked already about how streamlining introduced parallel lines to suggest movement, but we didn't mention its inspiration: boats, planes, and trains. The shape of the booth, tapered to a curve in front, is similar to a ship's bow. The lobby of the Miami Theatre has been described as aquarium-like, and we can imagine how the ticket booth channeled the flow of moviegoers "swimming" through the space into neat little streams.
  • Credits
    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU, except:

    :06, :10, :17, :24, :46 | Photographs and renderings, Miami Theatre, 1946–47. S. Charles Lee papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

12 | Outro

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  • Transcript
    Thank you for listening to our guide! We hope you enjoyed it and learned a thing or two along the way. And remember, there’s more to do if you want to continue your Deco design discovery. If you're local, use our Miami Beach Deco Walk to take a self-guided journey through South Beach's Art Deco district to spot frozen fountains, portholes, and terrazzo in our neighborhood's architecture. Just download the app PocketSights for a mobile-friendly version, which you can also find on the Deco exhibition page on our website, wolfsonian.org (w-o-l-f-s-o-n-i-a-n dot o-r-g). And if you're accessing this from outside Miami, check out your own community and its architectural history—you never know where Deco might be hiding in plain sight!
  • Credits

    Images from The Wolfsonian–FIU.