Since our founding in 1954, the Archives of American Art... a catholic approach to developing our collections. Reaching well

From the director
Endpapers inspired by Evelyn Wyld’s
hand-knotted rug, 1930.
Since our founding in 1954, the Archives of American Art has taken
a catholic approach to developing our collections. Reaching well
beyond the more familiar disciplines of painting, sculpture, and
graphic arts, we have also built important collections in the fields
of architecture, craft, design, and more recently, performance art,
photography, and film and video.
The current volume of the Archives of American Art Journal
focuses on our holdings in the field of architecture and design.
The essays offer a sampling of the depth of these collections, and
I am grateful to the authors for their insightful contributions.
Alexandra Griffith Winton offers an overview of the career of
the modernist textile designer Dorothy Liebes. Although Liebes
was a dominant figure in mid-twentieth-century design, she has
fallen into relative obscurity. Winton’s essay and her forthcoming
monograph on Liebes should help reveal anew her pioneering
contributions to the field of textile design.
The writings of influential architectural historian Esther
McCoy have experienced a wonderful renaissance, due in large
part to a revived interest in West Coast mid-century architecture.
As historian Susan Morgan points out in her overview of McCoy’s
career, McCoy combined talent as a writer with originality, energy,
discipline, and an intellectual curiosity that was extraordinary.
In his essay on the prolific British-American designer
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, James Buresh charts Gibbings’ evolving
attitudes toward modern design through a close reading of his
work, which included both custom and mass-produced furniture
and objects, interior design projects, several books, and writings.
Katherine Smith’s essay provides a detailed history of the
relationship between Claes Oldenburg’s monumental sculpture
Three-Way Plug and Robert Venturi’s design for the Allen Art
Museum at Oberlin College.
Jasmine Rault explores the papers of the interior designer
Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux, who along with her lover and business
partner Evelyn Wyld was at the center of the avant-garde design
world in the first decades of the twentieth century.
And finally, in a continuation of our well-received artist’s
projects, graphic designer and historian Jessica Helfand uses visual
resources in our collection to re-create the life of the fictive Millicent
Nesbit, an ambitious young designer from the provinces who
eventually finds herself moving in the heady New York design world.
ContributOrs
Alexandra Griffith Winton is a design historian living in
Brooklyn, New York. Her research interests include the history
and theory of the modern interior and the role of textiles in
modernist design. She is currently at work on a monograph on
Dorothy Liebes, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Susan Morgan is a Los Angeles–based writer and a contributing
editor at Metropolitan Home. With support from the Graham
Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Beverly
Willis Architecture Foundation, she is researching the life and
work of Esther McCoy for a book and exhibition.
James Buresh is a New York City–based writer with an
M.A. from the Bard Graduate Center for Study in the Decorative
Arts, Design, and Culture. His forthcoming monograph on
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings will be published by the Acanthus Press.
Katherine Smith teaches modern and contemporary art at
Agnes Scott College. Her research focuses on intersections
between art and architecture, most often in contemporary
American culture. She is working on a book about Claes
Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s sculpture in relation to
concurrent developments in architectural theory and practice.
Cover: Alvin Lustig’s design for
a pamphlet, 1948.
Jasmine Rault is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of
Western Ontario in Canada. Her research is on early twentiethcentury visual culture, interior design, architecture, sexuality,
and gender. She is the author of Eileen Gray and the Design
of Sapphic Modernity (2010), and her recent essays will be
published in Fashion and Interior Design: Embodied Practices
(2009) and Fashion, Gender, Modernity (2010).
Jessica Helfand is partner at Winterhouse, a design studio in
northwest Connecticut. She is senior art critic at Yale School of
Art’s graduate program in graphic design, and a member of the
USPS Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, where she chairs the
design committee. The New York Times named her most recent
book, Scrapbooks: An American History, best coffee-table book
of 2008.
2
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
I n T h i s ISSUE
Color and Personality:
Dorothy Liebes and American Design
Alexandra Griffith Winton
04
Being There: Esther McCoy,
the Accidental Architectural Historian
Susan Morgan
18
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings:
Timeless Mid-Century Modern Design
James Buresh
30
A Symbolic Situation: Claes Oldenburg
and Robert Venturi at the Allen Memorial Art
Museum, Oberlin College
Katherine Smith
46
Losing Feelings: Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux and
Her Affective Archive of Sapphic Modernity
Jasmine Rault
56
Finding Miss Nesbit:
An Imagined Biography
Jessica Helfand
66
Coast to Coast: Land Work between
the N. E. Thing Company and Lucy Lippard
James Nisbet
58
Artists in the Landscape
A Project by Pamela Golden
66
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
3
4
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Color and
Personality
Dorothy Liebes and
American Design
A l e x a n d r a G r i ff i t h W i n t o n
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
5
This paper considers the architectural textiles of American weaver
and designer Dorothy Wright Liebes (1899–1972) and her contribution to the development of American modernist design. As a designer,
Liebes created both hand- and machine-made fabrics for almost
every kind of mid-century product, from clothes to cars to industrial textiles used in televisions and speakers. Her early hand-woven
textiles, created for architectural interiors, made her a household
name, and her later efforts to translate her designs for mass production placed her work in the homes of countless Americans for whom
the cost of her custom work was prohibitive. Despite her stature
during her career as a leading figure in modern American design,
over the four decades since her death, her work has fallen into relative obscurity.
In this article, I consider the early years of Liebes’ studio in San
Francisco, her focus on architectural textiles, and her move—as she
gained prominence—to promote good design at all price points. Her
highly characteristic use of color, materials, and textures was so
influential that by the end of the Second World War it was known
throughout the country as the Liebes Look. The goal of my research
is to begin to recontextualize and reestablish all facets of the work
of this important American designer in the history of American
modernist design.
Native Californian Dorothy Wright Liebes began weaving on
a regular and extensive—though largely amateur—basis in San
Francisco in 1930, shortly after her marriage
to Leon Liebes, whose family owned H.
Liebes, a luxury department store in downtown San Francisco. In spite of opposition
from her husband, Liebes opened a professional studio in 1937, having made a tacit
agreement that she would not sell goods that
could be viewed as competitive with those
featured at H. Liebes. The couple separated
a year later, primarily over Liebes’ refusal
to give up her atelier, which showed great
promise from its inception.
At first the designer’s weavers worked
in a space on Powell Street in downtown
San Francisco, and as the studio flourished,
Liebes moved it to a disused ballroom in
a building on Sutter Street, just off Union
Square. By 1938 there were seventeen women
and men working for Liebes, a number that
fluctuated over the years, with a few of the
weavers remaining on staff for nearly the
entirety of the business’s existence.
Interviews with people who worked
in the studio, particularly in the very early
years, depict a warm, occasionally frenetic
atmosphere, dominated by the highly
6
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
educated and industrious women who ran the business.1 This intimacy and happy informality is confirmed by an image found in the
Liebes archive of an infant girl, Dorothy Liebes Fong, who was named
after Liebes by longtime studio worker Louisa Fong. The child often
came with her mother to work, and the photograph shows her as
a regular member of the office, patiently perching in a basket used
by the weavers.
Liebes, who was trained as an art teacher, consciously chose
to make textiles the outlet of her creative expression. She focused
on architectural textiles early on, producing works that included
wall hangings and panels, room dividers and screens, upholstery,
window treatments, and other interior accessories. Liebes was
passionate about architecture, which, along with the fine arts and
world arts and crafts traditions, comprised her greatest sources of
inspiration.2
Her decision to create one-off products for interior design
reflected both the peculiarities of her personal circumstances—her
agreement with Leon restricted the types of textile products she
could market—and an unwavering confidence in her own ability as
a business person and keen intuition as a designer. In her memoirs,
the designer described the importance of the hand-woven architectural work to her career.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
7
Dorothy Liebes (seated, third from
left) and her staff in the garden at the
Sutter Street studio, 1948. Photograph
by Walt Frank.
Opposite: A gouache rendering of
a textile design.
[My] first clients were architects. Working with them, two points
quickly became apparent. First, I had chosen an uncrowded field.
Relatively few persons were producing hand woven fabrics for
commercial or other uses in the United States at that time. I knew
of no competition. Second, the one-of-its-kind article that I could
produce had a special value to architects and interior decorators.
A machine-made fabric could be, and was, widely duplicated if it
suddenly became fashionable. But when an architect ordered a
fabric from me, to be used for a special purpose, he could be sure
nothing similar to it would appear elsewhere. It was distinctive,
a kind of silent trade-mark for us both.3
Among the first architects to seek out Liebes for bespoke textiles
was Timothy Pflueger, who commissioned her to create a series of
drapes for the Pacific Stock Exchange Building, completed in 1930.
Such one-off interior commissions were pivotal in helping her
develop a highly personal approach to designing that she paired
with highly structured and organized project management. First,
Liebes made detailed briefs on all the materials specified by the
architect and studied how and where they were to be used in a
room. She noted any important information about the client, for
example whether or not they had art collections. She then put her
notes together, studied them, and began to choose the colors and
textures of the fabrics she went on to make for specific interiors. She
explained, “I learned that it was essential to me to relate to something, materials and on occasion to a person, before I could began
to visualize a design and make the first cartoon.” 4
After a time, she expanded this method to include highly
detailed and confidential personality profiles of a client and his or
her spouse in the belief that every individual’s persona or aura must
be acknowledged in the process of designing their interiors:
When [architects] designed a private residence, I asked them to
include, as well, written personality sketches of the owner and
especially of his wife. . . . They were not always flattering, but to
me they were an essential part of the process of creating exactly
the right fabric in the right colors and design for the particular
person who would be living with them. Color and personality are
closely related, as I see it. I find myself subconsciously thinking of
one person as “blue,” another “green,” etc. In fact, all shades of the
spectrum are represented in the human aura.5
Dorothy Liebes working at a loom at
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, 1947.
Opposite: Liebes’ husband Relman
“Pat” Morin and Frank Lloyd Wright at
Taliesin West in 1947.
Liebes destroyed these profiles after each job was completed. In part
due to her attention to architectural context, by the late thirties Liebes
quickly came to the attention of the brightest young architects working in the Bay Area, and she often worked on both commercial and
private projects with Pflueger, William Wurster, and Gardner Dailey
in San Francisco. She also began to gain valuable national exposure
from her work with architects in the Midwest and East Coast. Her
friendship with the highly influential editor of Architectural Forum,
8
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Howard Meyer—he coined the expression “busy as a Liebes loom” in
response to the constant hum of activity that followed her day and
night—also helped.
It was through Pflueger that Liebes met the celebrated architect
Frank Lloyd Wright.
Tim Pflueger telephoned one day and said he was bringing Mr.
Wright to the studio. I went into complete panic. I had rather
associated him with the Bauhaus school, the “less-is-more” group
of architects who scorned the fur-belows and gingerbread of the
Victorians. I felt sure that a “hair shirt,” as I would have described
Mr. Wright, erroneously, would absolutely hate the vivid colors
and extensive use of metal in my fabrics.
I swept up my bag and prepared to flee, “Tim is bringing
Frank Lloyd Wright here,” I said. “I can’t bear to see the disaster.
Call me when he has gone.” In the hotel, I waited for the phone
to ring, picturing one of the world’s most celebrated architects
wrinkling his nose in disdain at everything he saw. A half hour
passed, an hour. Then the telephone rang. In whispers, Ruth said,
“You’d better come down here at once. He’s ordering everything in
the place.” Unbelievable!
Far from rejecting my designs, he liked the metal threads and
the desert-Western look of the weaving. Gesturing toward the tall
stack he had chosen, he said, “Ship it all to Taliesin.” When he had
gone, I said, “I can’t really believe he means it. Let’s wait and see.”
Two weeks later a curt telegram came, saying, “Where are fabrics?
Ship without further delay. Advise. FLW” 6
These were the first of Wright’s many orders from Liebes, and she
counted him as a friend and client until Wright’s death in 1959.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
9
10
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Another of Liebes’ architect collaborators and friends was
Samuel Marx. Marx’s work was often visually very simple, even
though he employed extremely expensive materials and custom
designed nearly every element of his commissions. Marx was married
to the Chicago department store heiress Florene Schoenborn, and
he designed an apartment around their remarkable art collection,
which included paintings by Georges Braque and Henri Matisse.
Around 1939, taking her inspiration from the paintings themselves, Liebes created all the textiles for the Marx apartment. The
living room featured Liebes’ hand-woven full-length drapes and an
unusual screen woven to conceal the fireplace when not in use. In the
following decade, when American designers were gaining in stature,
this type of highly refined custom commission helped Liebes build
an increasingly prominent national profile.
Embargos of most European material during World War II
prevented German and French designs, probably the most influential
sources of modern textiles, from entering the United States. For the
first time, American designers gained widespread prominence at home,
and with figures like Ray and Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and
George Nelson leading the way, American design came into its own.
Liebes was a tireless champion of American work, and these wartime
conditions helped her to extend her influence as a tastemaker.
In these years Liebes’ work was featured regularly in all the
architecture and home design magazines, and her approachable yet
authoritative personality also attracted a great deal of media coverage. She was the subject of a long, illustrated article in Life called
“Top Weaver,” and Universal Pictures included her in their film short
series called Unusual Occupations. Press attention popularized the
glamorous aesthetic that became known as the Liebes Look, a style
characterized by a vibrant color palette with a liberal use of metallics and a rich variety of textures. By the end of the war, Liebes had
attained national prominence outside the world of architecture and
design and, as she moved into the mass-market design that eventually dominated her work, a powerful platform to promote design
for industry.
Liebes’ custom commissions for wealthy clients, published in
House and Garden, House Beautiful, and other home magazines,
made her famous, but it was her work on mass-produced products
that cemented her position as a national style maker. The combination of her personal charisma and her direct and friendly manner
made Liebes an especially appealing spokesperson, and she traveled often, speaking about the importance of modern design for the
home and how to include it in home furnishing schemes—a question
about which many Americans felt they needed guidance.
Throughout her career Liebes had been committed to the principles of the Good Design movement, namely that good design should
be available at any price point. Before the war she had undertaken
some work with the Goodall Company in Sanford, Maine. She went
on to create many power-loomed versions of her hand-loomed
fabrics for the company, a number of which were chosen for the
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
11
Opposite: Dorothy Liebes designed the
textiles for Samuel and Florene Marx’s
Chicago apartment, 1939. Photograph
by Hedrich-Blessing Studio.
Liebes at the loom with a Goodall
Sanford Mills executive, ca. 1946–1949.
Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” exhibitions from the late
1940s through the mid-1950s.7
It wasn’t until after the war ended, however, that economic
and cultural conditions allowed these products to reach their full
commercial potential, with consumers eager to sample the Liebes
Look for a fraction of the price of her hand-woven textiles. As her
mass-market work increased—in 1947 she became the official
spokesperson and stylist for Dobeckmun’s new and wildly popular
laminated metallic yarn called Lurex—Liebes came to the conclusion that industrial design was a more relevant use of her talents. By
1958 she closed her studio to the kind of hand-woven commissions
Liebes approached her own
creative process with a highly
personal combination of
intuition, improvisation, and
discipline, always carefully
considering her work in the
context of modern design.
A sample for a window blind used slats
of wood as well as metallic ribbons and
spun fibers.
Opposite: Dorothy Liebes’ window
blinds often required extremely wide
warps. These weavers are at work at
Liebes’ New York City studio, ca. 1950.
that had dominated the early part of her career.8 For the remainder of
her working life, until her death in 1972, she continued to design and
consult for textile and design companies with an emphasis on interior textiles, including lines for Bigelow carpets, Dow, and Sears.
Across her career, Liebes approached her own creative process
with a highly personal combination of intuition, improvisation, and
discipline, always carefully considering her work in the context of
modern design. Liebes’ deep interest in contemporary architecture
and in creating textiles that were appropriate for modern interiors
quickly became a central artistic problem for her. As an example,
Liebes sought to redefine window treatments for the increasingly
broad spans of glass used in modern architecture, which had, she
explained in an article she wrote for the New York Times, “acquired
a new place and purpose in the whole scheme of living.” 9 Her blinds
were woven from a diverse range of materials including wood,
bamboo, or even Lucite dowels, and in the framework of her devel-
12
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
13
oping aesthetic they were intended to create both a sense of privacy
and visual interest. As Liebes outlined in the article:
In the contemporary home, tremendous stress is placed on “fenestration.” . . . There are numerous recent developments in blinds,
both horizontal and vertical, exemplified in the “kakemono” and
the roller-desk types. These are often highly decorative and they
provide a welcome relief from too much curtaining. Blinds are a
form of curtain which, with imagination and ingenuity, can be
developed to a real structural adjunct of any window.10
Liebes’ answer to conventional window treatments was at once
modern, personal, and highly distinctive. Her blinds often combined
the characteristic Liebes Look—a bold palette and use of metallics—
with organic materials such as wood or bamboo as a structural weft;
occasionally glass or metal rods were used in place of the wood weft.
The resulting blinds provided a glamorous yet abstract point of transition between inside and outside. By the late forties and early fifties
her blinds proved so popular that Liebes was approached by manufacturers to incorporate their industrial materials into her designs.
Textile samples deposited in the Archives of American Art give many
examples of Liebes’ innovations with new products, including a
prototype for a blind in which bamboo is replaced by aluminum
rods, commissioned by Reynolds Aluminum.
14
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Liebes’ use of unconventional materials for her textiles, which
continued throughout her career, was a practice driven initially by
frugality. As she explained, early on in her weaving career this experimentation was the result of a tight budget, but it soon became an
established part of her repertoire:
For materials, I used everything I could lay between a warp, scraps
of wool, yarn bought at the five-and dime store, even Christmas
ribbons. Out of necessity, I put material on the looms not usually
used in weaving. It was an invaluable lesson, although I didn’t
recognize it at the time. Years later, when I was weaving professionally, it seemed perfectly natural to try anything that came to
hand. Architects and decorators were intrigued when they found
me using bamboo, half-rounds (of wood), crystal rods, rawhide,
cellophane, metallic yarns, grasses, patent leather and just about
anything that looked as though it might be promising.11
Such formal experimentation also reflected a wide visual knowledge
and love of cultural fusion. Liebes enthusiastically borrowed from San
Francisco’s strong Colonial Spanish, Mexican, and Asian traditions,
abstracting what she took into her own unique and modern expression. Thus, the bright colors of Mexican folk arts and the intense
lacquer reds and blacks she saw in her frequent tours of Chinatown,
adapted and reinvented, found their way into Liebes’ work.
This way of working was typical of Liebes, and throughout her
career, she relied on the larger idea that the very concept of “modern”
when applied to textile design was a liberating one that brought freedom from both the formal and material restrictions of the past:
What makes a fabric modern? Essentially that it is created in
terms of today, with materials of today, within a whole set of
conditioning factors. Chief of these are function, architecture,
and related textures. . . . Emerging with the certain knowledge
of the reason for the textile, the artist-designer is less shackled by
tradition than ever and more free to translate his inner experiences and inspiration into concrete form.12
In an obituary, the magazine Interiors confirmed Liebes’ influence
on modern design, calling her the “the greatest modern weaver, and
the mother of the twentieth-century palette.”13 Today, it is equally
clear that her textiles—both hand and machine made—played a key
role in the success of American Modernist architecture. By using
Liebes’ richly colored and highly textured drapes, screens, blinds,
and upholstery, architects solved the problem of creating livable
yet modern interiors in often severe spaces devoid of all ornament.
This new modernist spatial idiom required a completely reinvented
textile paradigm. Not only did Liebes succeed in creating a new
vocabulary for textiles adapted to modern American design, she also
played an important role in defining the look of American industrial
modernism for nearly fifty years.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
15
Liebes’ use of unconventional
materials for her textiles,
which continued throughout
her career, was a practice
driven initially by frugality.
16
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
This paper includes research
on Dorothy Liebes presented
at the 97th Annual College
Art Association Conference
in Los Angeles, February 2009,
for the session “California
Design: Living in a Modern
Way.” I would like to thank
the organizers of this session,
Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye
Tigerman, for their helpful
comments on my research, as
well as the other participants
in the session.
1 Interview with Jocelyn
Gibson Allen conducted by
Alexandra Griffith Winton, 27
June 2005. Studio weavers who
worked with Liebes included
Louisa Fong, Vanita Fong, Ralph
Higbee, Tammis Keefe, Ruth
McKinley, Marian Phal, and
Kamma Zethraus.
2 S. Weltge, “A Legacy of
Color and Texture: Dorothy
Liebes, 1899–1972,” Interweave,
Summer 1979, 25.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
17
3 Dorothy Liebes,
unpublished memoir, n.d.,
box 10, page 185, Dorothy
Liebes papers, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian
Institution (hereafter cited
as Liebes papers).
4
Ibid., 186.
9 Dorothy Liebes, “Enhancing
the View: Windows Can Be
Something to Look at as well as
Look Through,” New York Times,
3 October 1948.
10 Ibid.
11 Liebes, memoir, box 10,
page 87, Liebes papers.
5 Ibid.
6
Ibid., 197–199.
7 For example, see Good
Design: An Exhibition of Home
Furnishings Selected by the
Museum of Modern Art, New
York, for the Merchandise Mart,
Chicago (New York: Museum
of Modern Art, 1951). Some of
these textiles are now in the
museum’s permanent collection.
8 In these years Liebes had so
much East Coast business that
she moved to New York. Liebes
made the move in 1949 and
managed her California studio
through voluminous written
correspondence and frequent
cross-country trips.
12 Dorothy Liebes, “Modern
Textiles,” in Official Catalog
(San Francisco: Department of
Fine Arts, Division of Decorative
Arts, Golden Gate International
Exposition, 1939), 92–93.
13 “Dorothy Wright Liebes:
Mother of Modern Weaving and
of Twentieth-century Palette
Dead at Seventy-four,” Interiors,
November 1972, 143.
S u s a n M o r ga n
Esther McCoy,
the Accidental
Architectural
Historian
“If you lived in New York, it was proper to make fun of Los Angeles,”
remarked Esther McCoy (1904–1989) fifty years after she’d left
Greenwich Village to pursue life on the wrong coast.1 McCoy was a
keen observer, and her sharply attentive writing was elegantly spare,
unpretentious, and confident. Her short stories were featured in
literary quarterlies and the best of “the slicks,” including Harper’s
Bazaar and The New Yorker. A contributor to progressive political
journals, she also collaborated on several pseudonymously published
detective novels and unproduced screenplays. In both her fictionwriting and reporting, McCoy was remarkably adept at portraying
the contemporary moment and articulating palpable concerns about
how people lived. Her story “The Cape,” included in The Best Short
Stories of 1950,2 follows an afternoon in the life of a sophisticated,
urban divorcee: while undergoing radiation treatment for breast
cancer, the woman endures thoughtless remarks from a misogynist
doctor and allows her memory to wander over her own richly
complex life. For Epic News, the weekly paper produced by Upton
Sinclair’s 1934 EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign, McCoy
wrote about Los Angeles slum clearances and the city’s need for
low-cost housing.3
In 1960 McCoy published Five California Architects, her groundbreaking book that clearly identified the significance of American
modernist design and its indisputably West Coast origins.4 Through
McCoy’s original and well-considered study on the varied work of
Irving Gill, Bernard Maybeck, and R. M. Schindler, the richness
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
19
Esther McCoy with Albert Robert, 1926.
“
My particular field is
history, but history of
a past so recent that it
flows into the present.
Opposite: Esther McCoy’s passport.
Esther McCoy in Greece, ca. 1958–1959.
Photograph by Tassos Diamantis.
”
of American modern architecture was clearly recognized. In
California, unbound by tradition and inspired by the region, modern
architecture developed in its own specific way: houses integrated
open plan interiors with easy access to the out of doors; a lexicon
of non-European designs—Japanese houses, craftsman bungalows
whose style originated in India, and American adobes—was evident;
and there was a forward-looking attitude about building materials
and engineering techniques that was distinctly twentieth century.
“It is not true that there was no California architecture before Esther
McCoy,” commented critic Paul Goldberger in 1990. “But there was
no one writing about it, and that made all the difference.”5
For over forty years, McCoy’s writing focused on the telltale
aspects of twentieth-century living and the realties of the built environment: her first magazine article about R. M. Schindler appeared
in the autumn of 1945, a month after the bombing of Hiroshima
and the surrender of Japan; her last essay was commissioned by
the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, for its
remarkable 1989 exhibition “Blueprints for Modern Living: History
and Legacy of the Case Study Houses.” “In Los Angeles, there was
an extraordinary amount of provocative architecture within easy
reach,” she recalled simply, providing a generous space for observation, historical context, and the reader’s imagination.6 “Blueprints
for Modern Living” proved to be a landmark show, a thrillingly
ambitious installation, an unequivocal appreciation of mid-century
modernism by a cultural institution. Organized by curator Elizabeth
A. T. Smith, the exhibition chronicled—through the presentation of
archival material and re-creations of residential architecture—the
pioneering Case Study House program, an experimental design
initiative promoted by Arts and Architecture magazine under the
editorship of John Entenza.
“What man has learned about himself in the last five years
will, we are sure, express itself in the way in which he will want
to be housed in the future,” announced Entenza in the magazine in
January 1945.7 By directly addressing the atmosphere of burgeoning postwar optimism and the need for efficient, affordable housing, the program enlisted California architects—including Craig
Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, and Charles and Ray Eames—to envision
and produce single-family model homes that would incorporate
innovative aesthetics and recent technological advancements in
such practical and often low-cost building materials as molded
plywood, aluminum, and concrete block. In 1962, Entenza left Arts
and Architecture to become head of the Graham Foundation in
Chicago; the magazine’s new editor and publisher, David Travers,
continued the program for another four years.
Although McCoy joined the board of Arts and Architecture in
1950 and was a regular contributor to the magazine, she and Entenza
had already been long acquainted. The two first met in the 1930s,
both newly arrived in Los Angeles. Entenza was a Michigan native,
the son of a Spanish attorney and a Scottish mining heiress; he’d
attended university in the East and trained to be a diplomat before
20
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
heading out to Hollywood and a job with MGM’s short-lived experimental film division. “We met at a time when Los Angeles was the
wrong place to be. San Francisco was all right, but in 1932 L.A., even
Santa Monica was déclassé,” wrote McCoy. She also remarked that
“never” would she have imagined then that “both of their paths would
lead to architecture.”8 “Blueprints for Modern Living” opened on 17 October 1989 at
MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary; the exhibition space itself—a
former municipal warehouse designed by Albert C. Martin, Sr., in
1947, that was converted into a spectacular 40,000-square-foot
gallery by Frank O. Gehry in 1983—reflected California design’s
visionary daring. The show’s catalogue opens with McCoy’s essay,
a finely balanced mix of memoir and scholarship.
As architectural historians Robert Winter and David Gebhard
first stated unequivocally in 1965, “Our present awareness of Southern
California architectural heritage has been due almost to a one-woman
crusade upon the part of the critic and historian, Esther McCoy.”9
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
21
R. M. Schindler and Theodore Dreiser.
Schindler’s draftsmen: l–r Carl
Sullivan, Esther McCoy, Edward Lind,
Vick Santochi, Rodney Walker.
McCoy’s ardent commitment to modern architecture was unparalleled, but her identity as a writer always remained foremost. “My
particular field is history, but history of a past so recent that it flows
into the present,” McCoy stated, “Flow may be an inexact word, for
often the transition was tumultuous. But having started with the
period from 1900, and having been engaged in writing about architecture for almost a quarter century, I was able to watch the present become the past. It is in terms of the present, the ever-shifting
present, that I approach the past.”10
As McCoy’s career evolved, she became an almost accidental
architectural historian. “I wrote about people I knew, contemporaries,” she explained wryly. “And because history has speeded up,
they became history soon.” 11 At the end of 1989, just a few months
after the opening of “Blueprints for Modern Living,” McCoy died at
her home in Santa Monica, California.
Born in Horatio, Arkansas, in 1904, Esther McCoy grew up
amidst a large book-loving family in Coffeyville, Kansas, and was
educated in the Midwest.12 While still a student at the University of
Michigan, she had sent a fan’s note to Theodore Dreiser, that fiercely
American writer, a rough-hewn product of the “push and shove of
the Chicago of the 1890s.”13 Dreiser’s raw, ungainly novels and his
erratic political allegiances attracted and infuriated a wide range of
American readers. Generally regarded as a great novelist who wrote
badly, his work also displayed a reverence for frankness, “unpoetic
reality,” and social justice.14 Dreiser liked McCoy’s bright, enthusiastic letter and told her so: “And I think I can tell you what you are
going to be eventually—eventually if not now, —or right soon. A
writer. Your mental compass seems to point thusly. You have such
a flare [sic] for the visible scene & present it with so much simplicity & force.” He was fifty-three, a denizen of Greenwich Village, a
proponent of feminist causes as well as a “varietist” promiscuously
advocating free love; she was not quite twenty, living in Arkansas,
and considering a move East. “How old are you, anyhow?” asked
Dreiser. “You have the brain of a person thirty-five or—if you are by
any chance still a kid—a most precocious brain.”15
By the time McCoy was twenty-two, she had fearlessly transplanted herself into the avant-garde bohemia of lower Manhattan.
During her first days in the city, she rode around on the bus, observing neighborhoods, and imagining where she might live. “Gramercy
Park looked good,” she wrote in a an unpublished memoir. “So I
picked the house I liked best, walked up the brownstone steps and
rang a bell.” She asked to rent a room and the astonished homeowner
agreed.16 McCoy clerked at Brentano’s bookstore and, having definitively eluded Dreiser’s “varietist” tendencies, went to work as his
researcher and remained his lifelong friend. She moved to Patchin
Place, a nineteenth-century mews at the heart of Greenwich Village,
a cultural hothouse for writers, artists, and radical thinkers. Among
her writer neighbors was Boyne Grainger (a journalist-poet, she was
an ebullient character born Bonita Ginger in Colorado), who introduced her to editors and publishers, helping her to find work as a
22
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
copy editor. McCoy began to write fiction and
move freely among various literary circles:
she spent five months in Key West and nine
months in Paris. Back in Greenwich Village,
living on Leroy Street, she was hospitalized
with double pneumonia. Her recovery was
slow, and Grainger urged her to leave the
city, go to Southern California, and recuperate in a warmer climate.17
“I started liking California in March 1932
when the train stopped in San Bernardino
in the early morning and I stepped out on
the platform,” she recalled. “There was an
overpowering perfume in the air. ‘What is it?
What is it?’ I asked one person after another
until someone said, ‘The orange groves.’” 18
In Santa Monica she was enchanted by the
curve of the coastline and the way that the
mountains tipped down into the sea.
At the height of the Great Depression,
McCoy embarked on the itinerant life of a
freelance writer, acquiring assignments, part-time work, and temporary homes. While living in a rustic cottage on an empty stretch of
beach ten miles north of Malibu, she wrote to writer Josephine
Herbst: “It is a desolate swell-looking place for a pauper. I got it
through some crazy fluke, and may stay here most the winter though
I am always ready to move at a moment’s notice.”19 In 1941, she found
a turn-of-the-century bungalow, sited on a rise with a view of the
sea, in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica; the selling price was
$1,500. With money she’d saved from working for Dreiser, she bought
the house and lived there for the rest of her life.20
During World War II, McCoy found a job as an engineering
draftsman at Douglas Aircraft; her immediate supervisor was
Rodney Walker, an architectural designer and building contractor
who had previously worked in R. M. Schindler’s office.21 As the war
was ending, McCoy hoped to study architecture at the University
of Southern California.22 Founded in 1916 as the first architecture
school in Southern California, the USC architecture school was
established as a college in 1945 and introduced a newly developed
curriculum focusing on new materials and construction techniques,
progressive social theories about urban planning, the immediate
affordable-housing crisis, and developing a distinctly Californian
residential style.23 However, as a woman over forty, McCoy’s application was “discouraged.”24 Upon hearing that Schindler’s only draftsman had been called into the armed services, she went to his studio
with her drawings and applied for the job; braced for rejection, she
was stunned when he spoke to her as a fellow designer and hired
her on the spot.25
Schindler’s 1922 studio-house at 835 North Kings Road in West
Hollywood remains the inspired prototype for classic California
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
23
Esther McCoy, ca. 1945.
“
I started liking
California in
March 1932 when
the train stopped
in San Bernardino
in the early morning
and I stepped out
on the platform...
”
Above and opposite: Plan for, and
interior of, R. M. Schindler's studiohouse, 1922.
modernism. As the Vienna-born architect told McCoy in 1952, “When
I first came to live & work in California, I camped under the redwood,
on the beach, the foothills & the desert. I tested its adobe, its granite
& its sky. And out of a carefully built up conception of how the human
being could grow roots in this soil—unique & delightful—I built my
house.”26 With its wide sliding doors, patio living areas, glass walls,
and concrete slab floors, the Schindler house—“four studios for four
working artists”—presents a lyrical manifesto about how to figure
enclosed spaces and acknowledge the natural surroundings.27
From the spring of 1944 through 1947, McCoy worked at
Schindler’s office. Her mornings were reserved for writing fiction,
but by eleven she was at North Kings Road, drafting architectural
plans and welcoming the camaraderie of the studio.28 Schindler
initially teased her about the painstaking precision of her drawing
technique: he preferred loose sketching with a soft pencil and great
flourishes; she drew with a sharpened, hard pencil point. “Don’t
etch!” he ordered, cajoling her.29
In 1945, the East Coast-based magazine Direction asked McCoy
for a story about Southern California. Direction, founded in 1937
with a stated anti-fascist editorial position, was as an independent cultural magazine dedicated to “the arts and letters of the
left.” Published and edited by Marguerite Tjader Harris, a writer
and former literary assistant to Theodore Dreiser, the magazine was
produced irregularly over a period of eight years. Among Direction’s
contributors were John Dos Passos, Langston Hughes, Le Corbusier,
24
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
25
Top: Shot that shows a bedroom and
patio of Craig Ellwood’s Case Study
House no. 16, 1952.
Above: Steel frame and perspective
drawing for John Entenza’s Case
Study House no. 9, 1949.
and Bertolt Brecht; Paul Rand, the graphic artist greatly
responsible for the refined look of twentieth-century
American print media, designed the magazine’s covers.
McCoy replied to this open invitation by deciding to
write about Schindler. In Schindler’s dynamic designs, she
noticed how shapes pivoted and new forms were created.
“His houses are wrapped around space,” McCoy noted
with admiration. “A Schindler house is in movement; it is
in becoming. Form emerges from form. It is like a bird that
has just touched earth, its wings still spread, but at once
part of the earth.”30 Through her firsthand understanding of Schindler’s work, McCoy realized with wonder that
space itself was one of architecture’s essential building
materials. After her story was filed, Schindler asked why
she hadn’t submitted it to him for approval. “Don’t you
want it to be right, he demanded,” she recalled later. “No,”
she answered. “I want it to be mine.”31 “Schindler: Space
Architect,” her first architectural feature, appeared in the
autumn issue of Direction.
During the last week of 1945, Theodore Dreiser died
at his home at 1015 North Kings Road, where for five
years he’d been living in a neo-colonial Spanish house
with a red tile roof just two blocks north of Schindler’s
studio. McCoy was a regular visitor and later recalled
the loss of her friend with an achingly plain poignancy: “He carried
luck pieces in his pocket,” she wrote, “Sometimes we exchanged
pennies, silver dollars, or Chinese luck pieces when he went on a
journey or I was hopeful about something. After he was dead and
his wife handed me his suit to lay in the pasteboard carton for the
undertaker, I found two nickels in the vest pocket, which are now in
the spool case in my sewing kit. I have dreamed several times that I
spent them, but whenever I look they are still there.”32
In the years following Dreiser’s death, a steady wave of
Dreiseriana, biographical studies, and critical texts have appeared.
Among the more idiosyncratic volumes was My Uncle Theodore,
a memoir by his niece, psychologist Vera Dreiser Scott. When she
recounts one of her author-uncle’s conversations, the anecdote
seems to glow with the spellbinding exactitude of a fairy tale:
Once when we were alone Uncle Theo told me a story which I
thought was a fiction. It was the story of a writer-architect who
had neither much money or worldly goods. She lived as a squatter on a beach, nibbling stale crackers and sitting on wooden
crates, sleeping on bare floors or the sandy shore. She became ill,
suffering from malnutrition and the agonies of poverty . . . over
the years, her health and writing improved considerably. “A lovely
fantasy,” I thought, until one day Uncle Theo took me to the lady’s
house in Santa Monica. She was brilliant, charming, sensitive. 33
And as fiction turned to fact, the indelible presence of Esther McCoy
came clearly into view.
26
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
1 Esther McCoy, unpublished
memoir, n.d., box 6, page 4,
Esther McCoy papers, Archives
of American Art, Smithsonian
Institution (hereafter cited as
McCoy papers).
2 Martha Foley, ed., The Best
Short Stories of 1950 (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 308–
316.
3 A Finding Aid to the Esther
McCoy Papers (Washington,
D.C.: Archives of American Art,
1993), 4.
4 Esther McCoy, Five
California Architects
(New York: Reinhold Book
Corporation, 1960).
5 Paul Goldberger,
“Architecture View: Learning to
Take California Seriously,” New
York Times, 14 January 1990.
6 Esther McCoy in Elizabeth
A. T. Smith, ed., “Thirtysix Case Study Projects,” in
Blueprints for Modern Living:
History and Legacy of the Case
Study Houses (Los Angeles:
Museum of Contemporary Art;
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
1989), 16.
7 John Entenza,
“Announcement: The Case
Study Program,” Arts and
Architecture, January 1945, 39.
8 Barbara Goldstein, ed.,
“Introduction” and “Epilogue,”
in Arts and Architecture: The
Entenza Years (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), n.p.
9 David Gebhard and
Robert Winter, A Guide to
Architecture in Southern
California (Los Angeles: The Los
Angeles County Museum of Art,
1965), 17.
12 McCoy, “Family Reading:
Circa 1919,” Los Angeles Times,
30 March 1958. “In a house
with seven children, evenings
could be pretty noisy and my
father—a rugged man with
delicate nerves—the kind
who would leave the table if
a plate was dropped—hated
turmoil. We were packed off
to our reading after super so
he could have a little peace. He
did his own reading sometime
after midnight.” Between 1950
and 1968, McCoy frequently
contributed essays and
architectural stories to the Los
Angeles Times and its Home
magazine.
13 McCoy, “The Life of
Dreiser’s Last Party,” Los
Angeles Times, 21 August 1977.
14 Saul Bellow, “Dreiser and
the Triumph of Art,” in Stature
of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical
Survey of the Man and His
Work, eds. Alfred Kazin and
Charles Shapiro (Bloomington,
Ind.: Indiana University Press,
1955), 146.
15 Theodore Dreiser in
Theodore Dreiser: Letters
to Women, New Letters, ed.
Thomas P. Riggio (Urbana and
Chicago, Ill.: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2008),
2: 181.
16 McCoy, unpublished
memoir, box 6, page 1, McCoy
papers; also see, Esther McCoy,
“Patchin Place,” undated text
with note “New York in the mid
1920s,” box 7, McCoy papers,
later published in Grand Street
7, no. 2 (Winter 1988), 73–85.
17 McCoy, unpublished
memoir, box 6, page 4, McCoy
papers.
18 McCoy to Denise Scott
Brown, 2 November 1988, box
1, McCoy papers. Architect
Scott Brown (b. 1931), principal
Venturi, Scott Brown and
Associates, interviewed McCoy
for Progressive Architecture.
McCoy responded to an early
draft of the story, sent to her
before publication, with a list
of corrections and comments.
McCoy’s remarks are organized
with such droll topic headings
as “Money,” “Smoking,” and
“Hair.” Under “Poverty,” she
noted: “The house, by the way,
I bought before I met Berkeley,
from earnings from work for
Dreiser.”
McCoy also corrects Scott
Brown’s misrepresentations
regarding her relationships
with Schindler and Dreiser and
McCoy’s writing career. “There
is a suggestion on p. 4 that
my relation to Schindler and
Dreiser was sexual when you
jump directly from queries
about what men were to me to
a quote from me (apocryphal)
about sex. The picture of me
handing over to someone else
an inheritance is very funny.
19 McCoy to Josephine Herbst,
Erwinna, Penn., n.d., box 4, page
2, McCoy papers.
20 Anna Underhill to “Mrs.
Esther Robert” [McCoy], 9 July
1941, regarding receipt of $25
for purchase of house at 2424
Beverly Avenue, Santa Monica,
California, box 4, McCoy
papers. See also McCoy to
Scott Brown, 2 November 1988,
2 November 1988, box 1, McCoy
papers.
21 Esther McCoy, Case Study
Houses: 1945–1962 (Santa
Monica, Calif.: Hennessey and
Ingalls, 1977), 209.
10 McCoy to Graham
Foundation, 17 April 1971, box
26, McCoy papers.
11 McCoy quoted in Paul
J. Karlstrom, A Finding Aid
to the Esther McCoy Papers
(Washington, D.C.: Archives of
American Art, 1993), 2.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
22 McCoy, interview
conducted by Makoto
Watanabe, n.d., box 24, page
1, McCoy papers. “I was very
interested in architecture;
during the war I had been
working as an engineering
draftsman on a postwar plane,
C-74, detailing wings and other
parts of the plane. I worked
there two years, decided
to study architecture, and
was discouraged at USC, so
I got a job, instead, with
Schindler, who happened to
need someone then.” See also
McCoy, “Happy Birthday RMS,”
box 6, page 2, McCoy papers,
“After VE day I concentrated on
fiction and on shifting from
engineering to architectural
drafting. I had learned to draft
in the first place because of my
passion for architecture. Now
I set up a drafting board next
to my typewriter and began to
design a house.”
23 In a tour brochure,
Pasadena Modern (Pasadena,
Calif.: Pasadena Heritage,
March 2005), writer and
architectural historian Barbara
Lamprecht notes that the USC
College of Architecture, under
the leadership of Dean Arthur
B. Gallion, was transformed
in 1945 and became “the
region’s flashpoint of agile
curiosity.” Barbara Lamprecht
and Daniel Paul also report
that “the circumstances in
postwar Southern California
provided young, eager, and
mutually supportive architects
the opportunity to develop
a new design direction
and construction system
that continues to influence
architecture today” in Barbara
Lamprecht and Daniel Paul,
“A Report of the National
Historic Places: Residential
Architecture of the Recent
Past in Pasadena, 1935–1968,”
filed with the United States
Department of the Interior,
National Park Service,
Los Angeles, 2 April 2008,
Section E, 15.
24 “Happy Birthday RMS,”
box 6, page 6, McCoy papers.
“I said in apology, ‘I tried
to get into USC but they
discouraged me.’”
“The less to unlearn,” he
[Schindler] replied. “Come in
tomorrow at eleven.”
“It took some courage to
go ask for a job. . . . What did I
expect? A cool dismissal.”
27
25 Transcript of keynote
speech, “Schindler: From
Vienna to Los Angeles, The
Colloquium,” 21 May 1988, box
28, page 6, McCoy papers, “One
day [Pauline Schindler] phoned
me to say that Schindler’s only
draftsman had been called up
into the armed service and so I
might want to try.”
26 Schindler to McCoy, 18
February 1952, Collection
of Rudolph M. Schindler,
Architecture and Design
Collection, University Art
Museum, University of
California, Santa Barbara,
California.
27 McCoy, “Vienna to Los
Angeles,” box 28, page 8,
McCoy papers.
28 Ibid., 10; Joseph Giovannini,
“A Chronicler of California
Architecture,” New York Times,
21 June 1984.
29 McCoy, “Happy Birthday
RMS,” box 6, page 7, McCoy
papers.
30 McCoy, “Schindler: Space
Architect,” Direction: A
Magazine of the Arts Quarterly
8, no. 1 (Fall 1945), 14–15.
31 McCoy, “Happy Birthday
RMS,” box 6, page 18, McCoy
papers.
32 McCoy, “Outward Journey,”
handwritten note “sent out
xmas 1946 after TD’s death,”
box 8, page 2, McCoy papers.
33 Vera Dreiser, My Uncle
Theodore (Plainview, N.Y.: Nash
Publishing, 1976), 205.
28
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Esther McCoy and the fight for the Dodge House
“ Losing the Dodge House
is like seeing a Braque
kicked to pieces ...”
The 1916 Dodge House, designed by Irving J. Gill (1870–1936),
was regarded as the first truly modernist residence in the West.
Commissioned by Walter Luther Dodge, a wealthy patent medicine
manufacturer (creator of “Tiz” for tired feet), this sprawling house
beautifully sited within nearly three landscaped acres was located
at 950 North Kings Road just opposite the Schindler studio and
only a block from Theodore Dreiser’s last home in West Hollywood.
Esther McCoy was a longtime devotee and compassionate supporter
of Gill’s work: during the 1950s, she researched his influential and
generally overlooked buildings; with the photographer Marvin
Rand, she organized a major Gill exhibition for the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art (1958); and, with the 1960 publication of
Five California Architects, she placed Gill securely in the pantheon
of early modernist architects. “He was one of the small band of men
at the turn of the century who spoke for the future,” she wrote. “The
Dodge House surmounts style and period, while like all works art,
reflecting intimately the times which produced it.” 34
Gill designed with enormous refinement and an austere grace.
He relied on the pure integrity of essential forms—the horizontal
line, arch, cube, and circle—and used ornament sparingly. His interiors were luminous; he knew how to deftly balance natural light and
anticipate shadows. A talented builder, he was dedicated to practicality and modernity: reinforced concrete walls, labor-saving kitchens complete with garbage disposals, doors without moldings, and
steel-framed casement windows. The Dodge House was considered
the fulfillment of Gill’s ideals and one of “the fifteen most significant
American houses.” 35
In 1965, McCoy wrote and produced a short film about the
house. The property, then owned by the Los Angeles City Board of
Education, was for sale and slated for demolition. McCoy, along with
the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Dodge House, campaigned to
preserve the landmark building. “The Dodge house,” declared McCoy,
“is the record of a genius which blossomed in this climate, this place.”
By 1970, however, all of the committee’s efforts had been defeated
and the Dodge House was destroyed.36
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
29
Opposite: Irving Gill’s Dodge House, 1914–1916.
Photographs by Marvin Rand.
Above: Demolition of the Dodge House, 1970.
Photograph by Harvey Steinberg.
Pullquote: McCoy to Los
Angeles Times, 4 February
1970, box 25, Dodge House
correspondence 1967–1970,
McCoy papers.
34 Esther McCoy, “The Dodge
House” film typescript, 26
November, box 26, page 7,
McCoy papers.
35 Professor and architectural
historian William Jordy, Brown
University, quoted in Historic
American Buildings Survey,
National Parks Service, San
Francisco, Calif., 1970, HABS
No. CAL-355, http://memory.
loc.gov/pnp/habshaer/ca/
ca0200/ca0221/data/ca0221.
pdf , 1 (accessed 27 April 2009).
36 McCoy, “The Dodge House,”
box 26, page 8, McCoy papers.
© Condé Nast
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings
James Buresh
Timeless
Mid-Century
Modern
Design
In a period spanning four decades of the mid-twentieth century,
British-American designer Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings
(1905–1976) produced a prolific body of work. During his long career
Gibbings established a rather varied practice in which he created
numerous interiors, wrote many articles and four books, lectured,
and designed copious amounts of furniture and furnishings for both
custom and mass-scale production. One of Gibbings’ main focuses
was his adaptation of the forms and decorative motifs of classical
Greek furniture for twentieth-century use, work for which he is
widely known today. Less well known is that Gibbings also looked
to a wide range of influences, kept a keen eye on current developments in design, and was both a practitioner and popular polemicist
of modern design.
Gibbings’ responses to the modern design movement in America
changed over time, though, evolving from early, if idiosyncratic, advocacy to growing disenchantment in the mid-1950s as he saw aesthetics
become institutionalized, impersonal, and uninspired. An examination of Gibbings’ designs, writings, and treatment in the press can
help to chart this progression, which can be difficult to understand
because his exact opinions on the subject varied over the course of his
career. Careful scrutiny can also give a better sense of how Gibbings
operated in the larger context of the surrounding American design
world and how he evaluated the work of his contemporaries.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
31
Opposite: T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings’
watercolor renderings of the Straus
residence interior, ca. 1946.
Book cover for Good-bye,
Mr. Chippendale, 1944.
Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings came to the United States
from London in 1936 to establish his career as an independent
designer, having already made connections working at the New York
office of antiques dealer Charles Duveen a few years earlier. Standing
a lean six-foot tall, with grey-green eyes, pale complexion, and thin
blond hair meticulously combed back, Gibbings radiated a sense of
precision and purpose. Opinionated, articulate, and witty, he quickly
and easily won social popularity and professional success in society circles. When he arrived, Gibbings was well versed in the visual
vocabulary of classicism, knowledge likely derived from his studies,
travels in Europe, and time spent examining ancient artifacts exhibited at the British Museum. Confidently deploying his erudition to
distinguish himself from his American peers, Gibbings established
a reputation as a modern classicist.
Gibbings set up an office on Madison Avenue, installing in his
showrooms a mixture of ancient and modern elements. These he
orchestrated to create what would become the signature style of
his early career, which he branded with the French phrase for “timeless,” sans époque. In 1938, Harper’s Bazaar succinctly described
Gibbings’ sans époque approach to modern design: “He feels that the
modern should stem direct from the very ancient. . . . He likes exaggerated space, frescoed walls and beautiful hand-woven materials
specially done for him. Greek chairs copied exactly from antique
designs—of bleached oak and birch, huge stools, rawhide screens,
crocodile screens and floor decorations of skins or mosaics.” 1 This
list of favorite furnishings and materials might seem to reveal a
romantic and somewhat glamorized interpretation of ancient forms
instead of a typical early or mid-twentieth-century modernist interior. Gibbings, however, did not see the two modes as contradictory,
at least not in his own work. In fact, he consistently maintained—
and proselytized—that contemporary design should be grounded
in an understanding of the past. To Gibbings, the “timeless,” universal appeal of classical Greek furniture stood out as something of
both aesthetic merit and greater truth, having achieved perfection
of form over the course of centuries—form that could be used as the
basis for modern designs. For him, connection to the classical world
imbued his work with a lasting beauty that was at once modern and
impervious to fashion.
Gibbings expanded beyond his increasingly prominent work
as a society designer in 1944, when Alfred A. Knopf published his
first book, Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale. In the book he delivered an
amusing but shrewd rant against the antiques trade and its effect
on the American mass-market furniture industry. While ultimately
making an appeal to American consumers, he used his platform to
develop his ideas about historicism, appropriateness, ancient form,
and timelessness. His aim was the reform American taste, creating a
market for better designs. Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale sold well and
went into multiple printings.2
Gibbings began his argument by railing against the “cult of
antiques,” chiding Americans for wasting money on European
32
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
33
34
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Gibbings’ responses to the modern design
movement in America changed over time.
“He feels that the modern should stem direct from the very ancient.”
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
35
examples on the grounds that such furniture had been created for
a different time and location and was not suitable for the twentieth-century American home. The market for antiques, according
to Gibbings, encouraged the American furniture industry in Grand
Rapids, Michigan, to manufacture historical revival furniture in lieu
of designs more appropriate for contemporary needs. Gibbings highlighted a situation
that illustrated the challenges of contemporary design and the industry’s failure to
meet them. During the war, he wrote:
Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale was
featured in a Chaucer Head Book Shop
window display, 1944.
Preceding pages: Robsjohn-Gibbings,
watercolor sketches of original
classical furniture.
The housing schemes that were to accomplish this vast undertaking [of housing
wartime workers] were in contemporary
design and were well advanced when it
was discovered that there was no furniture
in existence that would be really suitable
for these new houses. . . . There was practically no contemporary American furniture
to be found. The entire commercial furniture industry had become rotten to the very
core by reproducing the antique furniture
of Europe and Colonial America, a fact which few people realized
until the needs of the war brought the grim facts into the open.3
Gibbings then addressed American consumers directly, exhorting them to embrace the virtues of “contemporary” furnishings. He
recommended that Americans educate themselves by subscribing
to Architectural Forum and Pencil Points, learn to “overcome a fear
of empty spaces,” and develop an appreciation for new designs.4 He
included a discussion of European advances in modern design, from
Art Nouveau to the Bauhaus to the “international style,” but went on
to say that he saw little progressiveness in American design, with the
exception of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the engineers
of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Gibbings must have been aware of
the work of numerous American manufacturers that were creating
nonhistorical furnishings. He was probably familiar, for example,
with Gilbert Rohde’s designs for Herman Miller, Donald Deskey’s
designs for Heywood-Wakefield, and Russel Wright’s designs for
Conant Ball, all of which had been available to the trade by the
mid-1930s. His motives for not acknowledging this work in print
are unclear, although the omission adds a sense of immediacy to
Gibbings’ argument and allows him to be the lone romantic voice
for reform.
Toward the end of Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale, Gibbings delivered his prescription for the mass market. He proposed the antidote
(already in use in his own high-end work) to the passing fancies of
bygone eras, as he characterized the historical styles that preoccupied American manufacturers: the heritage of classical Greece and
its timeless forms perfected over the course of centuries.
36
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
In Greece during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.—the
meridian of Western art — the furniture designers, like the
architects, confined themselves to a few generic types, and
devoted their energies to developing and perfecting these, rather
than inventing new designs. The Greek chair called the klismos,
perhaps the most beautiful chair ever made in the world, was a
design in use for at least three hundred years.
In the ages which follow Greek democracy, this custom of
slowly perfecting basic models begins to disappear, and there is
an ever-quickening desire to change designs, not with the idea
of improving them, but simply to follow the whims of the ruling
class, or the fashionable.5
Gibbings suggested that this legacy offered a potential starting
point for contemporary mass-market designers who needed to
expunge centuries of historical elaboration from their repertoire
and go back to the Golden Age of Greece for guidance.
In 1946 Robsjohn-Gibbings had the opportunity to follow his
own advice when he was hired to create a line of mass-produced
furniture for middle-class American consumers, to be manufactured
by the Widdicomb Company of Grand Rapids. Gibbings continued
“The Greek chair called the klismos,
perhaps the most beautiful chair ever
made in the world, was a design in use
for at least three hundred years.”
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings,
klismos chair, 1936. Photograph
by Richard Garrison.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
37
Dining room furniture from
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings' collection for
the Widdicomb Company, 1950.
America’s sense of democracy
is one that “levels up from
the bottom,” and “our idea of
democracy is to make better
things available to more people.”
his production of custom pieces for Robsjohn-Gibbings, Ltd., but
he now expanded his output to include a much larger audience that
had become familiar with him from frequent appearances in the
popular press, speaking engagements, and radio broadcasts.6 From
1946 to 1957, Gibbings turned out annual collections, with successful models remaining in continued production.7 He also put some of
his earlier custom designs into industrial production.
Gibbings’ designs for Widdicomb maintained a distinctly
elegant idiom in the mass marketplace. In particular, his tables
and chairs shared a characteristic lightness achieved by a dowellike treatment of legs, arms, and stretchers, often with a delicate
swelling effect. His designs included elements clearly derived from
Greek furniture, such as curved crest rails and saber legs that arched
outward. The designer’s work for Widdicomb received wide media
attention, in particular in the pages of House Beautiful, under the
leadership of its progressive editor, Elizabeth Gordon.
In December 1946, Gordon published promotional spreads on
his first line for Widdicomb, something the magazine continued to
do through his last collection in 1957.8 The article showcasing his
models of 1950 demonstrates how the Gibbings look was communicated to middle-class consumers in the context of Gordon’s own
vision. Entitled “The American Ideal of Leveling Up,” the article
explained that America’s sense of democracy is one that “levels
up from the bottom,” and that “our idea of democracy is to make
better things available to more people.”9 The Gibbings collection
38
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
was thus presented as an all-American offering, one at a reasonable price point that still maintained a high level of quality. The
furniture types were identified as familiar to Americans — “There
is the sawbuck table, the slat-back chair, the spindle bed, the rocking chair.”10 As such, these were types that had proven themselves
to generations of Americans as functional, if not “functionalist.”
House Beautiful explained: “If you have come to think of ‘functional’ as a word that describes the trickiness of a Rube Goldberg
invention, you may miss the true functionalism of this furniture.
Indeed, it has no tricks. But it is furniture that works — in the
simple sense that Americans want everything to work.”11 Gibbings’
designs were thus packaged as reinterpretations of a familiar
vernacular— “classics” that evoked quality and time-tested validity.
Retail dealers used similar language to market the collections; as
one furniture store representative wrote in 1951, in the more conservative version of “modern” designs for Widdicomb, Gibbings had
translated modern into the American idiom, made it warm and
livable. His furniture has strength, it has grace. Nor is pure line
enough. Widdicomb has executed every piece in sorrel walnut,
the tawny brown of the first autumn leaves, a new and welcome
finish not in the modern spectrum. Every piece is finished in
stain and heat-resistant lacquer. All chests are on casters so you
can clean with dispatch. The group is magnificent, for every
room in the house. It’s open stock and there are over 50 pieces
from which to choose.12
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
39
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings’ 1936 interior
with furniture inspired by fifthcentury B.C. Greek furniture forms.
Photograph by Richard Garrison.
The Museum of Modern Art’s “Good
Design” exhibition catalogue for 1950
listed the selected items, their designers,
and approximate prices. (Cover opposite.)
Gibbings’ work for Widdicomb was a critical success. In June
1950, pieces by Gibbings were selected for a series of exhibits sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Chicago Merchandise
Mart.13 The “Good Design” initiative was created to promote highquality modern design by convincing retailers to stock their department and furniture stores with well-designed furnishings. Every
six months during the early 1950s, a MoMA committee of rotating
members headed by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., selected products from
both American and international manufacturers that they felt represented both beauty and economy. The winning designs were exhibited at the Merchandise Mart for a year in settings conceived by
prominent architects and designers.14 From 1950 to 1953, an annual
review (with fewer objects due to space restrictions) was displayed
at MoMA—two of Gibbings’ items appeared in the 1950–1951 review
show15—and an “anniversary” show was held in 1955.16
The Good Design shows generated wider exposure for Gibbings’
new work. Good Design exhibit visitors in Chicago, voting on their
ten favorite pieces, chose two of the Widdicomb designs in 1950 and
1951.17 In the next few years, several regional museums followed
MoMA’s lead to open Good Design–inspired exhibits, and many
40
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
exhibited work by Gibbings.18 Local department stores also included
his works in tie-in exhibits of “MoMA Good Design selections” set
up to promote modernist wares to retail customers.19
By the mid-1950s, as promotions of this kind propelled modernism into the mainstream, Gibbings’ conditional enthusiasm for
modern design waned, and he distanced himself from his public
embrace of the style. In his 1954 book Homes of the Brave, published
by Knopf, Gibbings took a humorous look at the excesses of modernist design. The book traced the development of the modern movement
in America from “The Organic Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright”
to “Interplanetary Modern” (a gimmicky futuristic take on modern).
In between, Gibbings treated the story of modernism as a series of
fads such as “‘Moderne’ Modern,” “‘Back to Nature’ Modern,” and
“‘Machine-for-Living’ Modern.” Ultimately, he concluded, modernism was yet another historical style whose time had come and gone,
becoming more tiresome and played out the longer it persisted. More
seriously, Gibbings saw modernism as having failed to meet the
individual needs of people and society:
Just as the last generation of architects and designers was
governed by the past, a large part of the present one is enslaved by
fear of it. It is this fear that has given many modern houses a look
of mindless novelty, that makes them seem unrelated not only to
their inhabitants, but to the whole human race, for a composite
international style that aims at anonymity and impersonality
will never find a human type equally composite and impersonal
for whom it would be an appropriate environment.20
Gibbings had concluded that the generic quality of mid-century
modernism was doomed to create this sense of alienation in people.
Undercutting his earlier blanket rejection of any historical style
in American design (except the classical), in Homes of the Brave
Gibbings reconsidered bringing elements of the past into contemporary design as a direct response to a human need. He credited the
work of contemporary Swedish designers for taking the “tradition of
anonymous furniture,” by which he meant Swedish vernacular furniture forms, and successfully reinterpreting them for modern life.21
Gibbings continued to voice his dissatisfaction with the course
he thought modern design was taking. In his public statements on the
subject, Gibbings tended to treat “modernism” as a unified body still
closely associated with the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier, even though
decades had passed since modernism’s early theorists inspired the
movement. The actual target of his criticism at this time, in fact,
remained the largely bland designs being mass produced and designs
that relied on novel features to give an impression of “modernity.”
Gibbings’ mid-1950s disaffection with modern design should
not be viewed as a complete negation of his earlier polemics; in
Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale he had promoted “contemporary” design
but warned his readers not to be seduced by the novelty of “the
Futurama of World’s Fairs” for its own sake. He just wanted “contem-
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
41
Homes of the Brave was featured in
the Chaucer Head Book Shop window
display, 1954.
He publicly announced that
“modernism is dead” and that
MoMA’s influence “has caused
much of the monotony in modern
furniture and architecture.”
porary design” to meet certain tests of form, quality, and spirit that
he thought radical modernism failed.
Gibbings maintained his retreat throughout the decade, pulling away where before he had participated. In 1954, he declined to
submit designs for the MoMA-sponsored Good Design show. He
publicly announced that “modernism is dead” and that MoMA’s influence “has caused much of the monotony in modern furniture and
architecture.” In an interview with Retailing Daily, Philip Johnson,
director of the museum’s department of architecture and design,
responded that MoMA was “grateful” to Gibbings for “recognizing
the influence the Museum has had for the last 25 years.”22 Johnson
went on to praise Gibbings’ designs but questioned his position
against the museum’s program. “We have often considered his work
as among the best modern design produced in this country. We
continue to admire his designs, while wondering at his semantics,
which makes opposition between the excellent individual furniture
designs of today and ‘modern.’”23 Johnson’s response shows that
the curator was unmoved by Gibbings’ attitudes toward modern
design, and his wry tone perhaps implied that he thought Gibbings
was being glib to attract attention.
In fact, Gibbings used his critique of “high” modernism as a
point of promotion for his 1954 collection for Widdicomb. The collection was published in House Beautiful with the title “Is Modern
Dead?” Editor Joseph A. Barry introduced the collection in a voice
sympathetic to Gibbings:
Yes, modern is dead. It was assassinated by the modernist cult.
They disposed of it in a formula. They embalmed it as a style and
a fashion. But before traditionalists celebrate, let them bury their
own dead—their own dead styles and fashions of the past. For
they too have killed the thing they love.24
The collection featured forms similar to those from previous collections, but with more decorative flourishes, including optional tulipshaped chromed metal finials that fit on the ends of drawer handles
or around the corners of chair arms or headboards. The “furniture
with a positive beauty that marks the end of modern’s negative revolt”
was styled with printed fabric in woodgrain and cherry patterns.25
Gibbings continued his public anti-modernist campaign and
raised fresh criticisms as he did so, criticisms closely related to ones
he had already offered. In a 1957 speech to a group of designers in
California, Gibbings complained that
If you live in a contemporary house, [chances are] you are living
in a design atmosphere that closely parallels modern offices, air
terminals and hotel lobbies. . . . [This proves that] the modern
house no longer fulfils the emotional needs of the inhabitants.
Just because the public appreciates serviceable materials, built-in
light fixtures and furnishings, and simple, usually clinical forms
incorporated in an institutional room doesn’t mean they want
42
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
these features in their homes. . . . There is a subconscious rebellion
taking place in the minds of people. Immediate evidence is [an]
accelerated interest in clutter derived from the inclusion of
accessories in the home. It is not enough to have a kitchen and
plumbing that work if people are in an enclosure that starves
them emotionally. . . . Architects should make a
concerted effort to be less strident.26
“Strident” was, to Gibbings, a euphemism for dictatorial.
The stark space that might otherwise have a valid use
in public places was, for Gibbings, inappropriate and
impersonal for the domestic context. The caricature of
an architect inflicting emotional pain on the homeowner
reflects Gibbings’ tendency at this time to treat modernism as a monolithic and potentially sinister force. In
another speech of the same year to the Home Fashion
League, Gibbings stated that “Modern houses have three
major faults . . . and the worst is the open floor plan
which forces you to sit in an emotional draft where every
sound is heard by the entire family.” He continued:
Today’s greatest problem is how to think like an
individual. A house is the most complete expression
of individuality. We don’t encourage this enough;
we operate on what people think is fashionable. Tell
people not to be afraid to think and choose from
deep inner prejudices. . . . Don’t be intimidated by
modernity. Reject what you don’t like and take what
you like. . . . We’ve grown up politically . . . but not
in our personal lives. We must learn to resist sales
pressures and buying what is fashionable. We should
choose things we like as individuals.27
But by these later stages, Gibbings had begun to redirect his
attention to his classicist roots. His last collection for Widdicomb
was rather conservative in character, and a 1961 line for the Baker
Furniture Company of Grand Rapids had a pared-down neoclassical feel. He began his work with the Saridis firm of Athens recreating ancient Greek furniture types (still in production) for the
high-end market, and in 1963 his approachably academic Furniture
of Classical Greece was published by Knopf. Gibbings had circled
back to embrace the idea of timelessness in design that he had first
formulated in the late 1930s:
Timeless design has one magnificent endowment—nobility.
Nobility in design is very moving. It is the greatest attribute we
can receive. When a designer possessing spiritual nobility projects it into an object, he believes implicitly that all who see or
possess that object are worthy of nobility. Timeless design is noble
because people are worthy of nobility.28
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
43
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, ca. 1960.
A Modern Work by
Robsjohn-Gibbings
Robsjohn-Gibbings introduced a
string of compellingly, and recognizably, “modern” furnishings,
including a coffee table that he
designed in 1942, comprised of an
ash wood base with three vertical
points that supported a thick glass
top with round, organic form. In the
1940s, the custom order table had
considerable exposure in the print
media and later achieved success
in mass production. It should be
noted, too, for the record, that there was a dispute over
the inspiration for this piece with Isamu Noguchi. In 1939,
Noguchi had designed a dining table with free-form top
for A. Conger Goodyear, the president of the Museum of
Modern Art. According to Noguchi, the next year he showed
Robsjohn-Gibbings a model of his design for a coffee table
with an undulating glass top. The artist claimed that
Gibbings modified the design and presented it as his own
in 1942, without his permission, while he was detained in
an internment camp. Noguchi did not have documentation
to verify the claim, however. The table was successful in
both custom and mass-market versions, and authorship
was understood by both design and lay public to belong to
Gibbings. As an important example of modern (and biomorphic) design associated with Gibbings’ early career, this
table must be included in any treatment of his work as a
modernist. Gibbings was quick to promote the innovative
character of this and his other designs, including the use
of slanted drawer fronts that didn’t require separate pull
hardware and a 1953 collection for Widdicomb that featured
slanted brass legs.
44
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
1 “I Don’t Like a Dog That
Wags Its Tail,” Harper’s Bazaar,
February 1938, 136.
9 Mary Roche, “The
American Ideal of Leveling Up,”
House Beautiful, May 1950, 128.
2 T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings,
Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1944).
10 Ibid., 133.
3
Ibid., 6.
4 Ibid., 103–106.
5
Ibid., 79.
6 Gibbings and his work were
featured in hundreds of articles
until this point, including
both society publications
and the popular press. For
an example of the latter,
see: T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings,
“Put Your House on a Diet,”
Mademoiselle, January 1943, 74,
134. He also appeared on radio
shows, such as in the CBS series
“Americans at Work,” no. 26,
“The Interior Decorator.”
7 Robsjohn-Gibbings resigned
in the fall of 1956, having
designed his 1957 collection for
Widdicomb.
8 The magazine’s progressive
editor, Elizabeth Gordon, was
responsible for this long-term
support. The May 1950 issue,
for example, was themed “The
Emerging American Style”
and noted that “American
Design has finally matured
into an unmistakable style”;
Gibbings’ work was singled
out as a successful example
of this trend. From 1939 to
1964 Elizabeth Gordon used
her role as editor to educate
the American public about
contemporary design and new
architecture. She had strong
opinions regarding what was
appropriate for the American
home, favoring a softer side of
modern design that allowed
for individual expression.
In the April 1953 issue, she
published a scathing essay, “The
Threat to the Next America,”
that criticized doctrinaire,
International-style modernism
and its advocates, whom she
described as “a self-chosen
elite who are trying to tell us
what we should like and how
we should live.”
11 Ibid.
12 Edward Drayton, “Fashion
Introduces Pep Up Promotions,”
Retailing Daily, 3 October
1951. Quote from an unnamed
representative at Sunniland
Furniture in Houston, Texas .
13 In June 1950, the jury
selected a Double Dresser
(cat. 173), Bookcase with
Sliding Glass Doors (cat. 174),
Refreshment Cart (cat. 175), and
Armchair (cat. 176); in January
1951, a Double Top Table (cat.
54), Tub Chair (cat. 55), DropLeaf Butler’s Table (cat. 56), and
Table Lamp (cat. 57).
14 Charles Eames in 1950,
Finn Juhl in 1951, Paul Rudolph
in 1952, Alexander Girard in
1953, and A. James Speyer and
Daniel Brenner in 1954 for the
“Anniversary Show.”
15 Drop-Leaf Butler’s Table
(cat. 56) and Table Lamp (cat.
57) were on display at MoMA
in the 1951 “Good Design”
show (cat. nos. 34 and 295,
respectively). The tripod lamp
was acquired for the MoMA
collection after the show by a
request for donation.
16 MoMA exhibitions, cat. 463,
21 November 1950–28 January
1951; cat. 494, 27 November
1951–27 January 1952; cat.
520, 23 September 1952–30
November 1952; cat. 542, 22
September 1953–29 November
1953; cat. 570, 8 February 1955–
28 January 1955.
18 For example, the 1950
“Living Up to Date” exhibit at
the Baltimore Museum of Art
(see Audrey Bishop, “Design
for Modern Living,” Baltimore
Morning Sun, 23 September
1951); or the “Contemporary
Living” exhibit held in 1952 at
the Union Gallery in Madison,
Wisconsin (“Contemporary
Living Opens the Union,”
Capital Times, 1 March 1952).
19 Such as the 1950 exhibit at
Frederick and Nelson in Seattle,
Washington, “Good Design
Features ‘At Home’ Week,”
Seattle Times, 6 October 1950.
20 T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings,
Homes of the Brave (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), 110.
21 Ibid., 54–57.
22 “Top Museum Aids Hit
Designer on Modern,” Retailing
Daily, 11 January 1954.
23 Ibid.
24 Joseph A. Barry, “Is Modern
Dead?” House Beautiful, May
1954, 152.
25 Ibid., 153.
26 Judy Muma, “RobsjohnGibbings Raps Modern
Architecture,” Home
Furnishings Daily, 11 April 1957,
10.
27 Elinor Lee, “Designer
Criticizes Open Floor Plan,”
Washington Post, 30 April 1957.
28 T. H. RobsjohnGibbings, “Timeless Design,”
Environment, Autumn 1962, 50.
17 “They Pick These in Good
Design Poll,” Retailing Daily, 6
October 1950. Other designers
whose work was well regarded
included Eero Saarinen, Henry
Wright, and Carl Strobe.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
45
A Symbolic Situation
Claes Oldenburg and Robert Venturi
at the Allen Memorial Art Museum,
Oberlin College
K at h e r i n e S m i t h
In August 1970 Claes Oldenburg (b. 1924) installed his large-scale
sculpture Three-Way Plug (Cube Tap) on the grounds of Oberlin
College’s Allen Art Building (today the Allen Memorial Art Museum).
Plug was an important commission, one that significantly extended
the sculptor’s characteristic practice of representing common
objects in ever-increasing sizes. Oldenburg had initiated this artistic
strategy in the Store sculptures of the early 1960s and continued it
in his “soft” sculptures, many of approximately human proportions.
By mid-decade he broadened his work further to include proposals for colossal monuments that resemble the public sculptures
for which he and his wife and artistic partner Coosje van Bruggen
(1942–2009) are best known today.
Plug (1970) was the sculptor’s first such large-scale sculpture to
be completed and permanently placed in a public space.1 When the
piece was installed, however, it was clear that the chosen location
near the museum was likely temporary, because soon an addition
proposed for the museum would alter the existing building and
site. In 1973 Oberlin College commissioned the architectural firm
of Venturi and Rauch (today Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates)
to undertake the extension. Planning for the new building started
within months of the commission. Three-Way Plug had to be moved
for construction, but it maintained a conspicuous presence in
Venturi’s early thinking about the design and reinforced ideas about
architectural symbolism that he had been developing with Denise
Scott Brown and Steven Izenour.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Venturi, Scott Brown, and
Izenour were garnering a great deal of attention for their contributions to architectural theory. In publications like Complexity and
Contradiction in Architecture (1966) by Venturi and Learning from
Las Vegas (1972) by Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour, the architects
elaborated on their influential ideas about contemporary vernacular architecture and its symbolic communication. The 1972 book,
46
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Claes Oldenburg, Three-Way Plug
(Cube Tap), 1970.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
47
48
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
in particular, focused on the function of ornament in architecture, a study that informed the designs for the Allen Memorial Art
Museum’s addition.
The planning of Venturi and Rauch’s building was undertaken in
collaboration with members of the museum staff, and Ellen Hulda
Johnson was among those closely involved. Johnson
had been instrumental in acquiring Oldenburg’s Plug,
and it and other important acquisitions demonstrated
her keen knowledge of and appreciation for contemporary art.2
Johnson’s papers in the Archives of American Art
include a vast amount of correspondence and rare
ephemera that testify to her farsighted commitment to
advanced art and artists. In the collection is an unpublished sketch by Venturi that reveals an intriguing
connection between Plug and the architect’s thinking
about the museum addition, a connection whose influence extended beyond his work at Oberlin.
The tiny sketch in brown ink, apparently dashed off by Venturi
and given to Johnson during the planning for the addition, likely
in 1973, shows three possible positions for Plug when the building
was finished. The sketch departs from the published elevation and
site drawings, and a note written by Johnson on the bottom margin
explains the difference.3 At some early point, apparently, Venturi
conceived of a more radical integration of sculpture and architecture than the final designs show: “Venturi’s drg. Where he’d like to
put the plug (on top is where he’d really like it[)].”
Venturi’s sketch speaks generally to his ongoing consideration
at this time of Oldenburg’s art, and, specifically, the little drawing
constitutes one of the earliest and most direct links between the
sculptor’s work and one of the firm’s built projects.4 It is also a
creative application by Venturi of his and his coauthors’ recent theories on commercial architectural symbolism, namely, the idea of a
sculpture or sculptural element topping a building. Last, Venturi’s
projected assimilation of Three-Way Plug into his building—the
firm’s first museum commission just as it was one of Oldenburg’s
first completed object-monuments—inaugurated on paper a design
strategy that he and his colleagues developed in projects done after
the completion of the Oberlin addition.
In January 1969, when Oldenburg was commissioned to execute
a sculpture for the Allen museum, at first he envisioned other possible
objects and locations, such as a large ice bag sitting at the museum’s
northwest corner, near the intersection of Main and Lorain streets.5
He settled instead on Three-Way Plug, a subject that was common in
his oeuvre, appearing in numerous manifestations, in both two and
three dimensions, in hard and soft sculptures, at different scales, and
in disparate materials.6 Such a variety of media signals the degree
to which Oldenburg had already experimented with the three-way
plug’s expressive potential and considered the form in relation to a
number of specific contexts.7 Having already explored various impli-
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
49
Robert Venturi’s drawing showing
three possible placements for
Oldenburg’s Plug, ca. 1973.
Opposite: Site Plan for the Allen
Memorial Art Museum addition,
1973–1977.
Oldenburg’s
design and
placement of
Three-Way Plug
demonstrated
his interest
in the visual
intersections
between
sculpture and
architecture
cations of the plug form, Oldenburg embraced the opportunity to
realize a larger version as a site-specific public sculpture.
The sculptor designed Three-Way Plug to respond closely to its
intended location at Oberlin. He selected a place near the museum,
which reinforced the sculpture’s connection to and formal correspondences with the building, an Italian Renaissance-style structure in buff and red sandstone designed by Cass Gilbert and built
between 1915 and 1917. As Oldenburg affirmed in a speech he gave
when the sculpture was installed, “I’m especially happy with . . .
[Plug’s] relationship to this building, because it does have . . . a sort
of a Renaissance aspect, I think. It is reminiscent of architectural
etchings that I’ve seen . . . [of] what I’ve taken to be imitations of
Renaissance buildings.”8
After it was first installed, Johnson described the sculpture’s
relationship with its surroundings in greater detail:
The site, chosen by the artist, is perfectly appropriate to the
qualities of the work. On a softly sloping lawn, surrounded by
trees and bushes, it lies between the Renaissance-style museum
and the freer-formed auditorium by Harrison and Abramowitz.
Physically closer to the museum, the sculpture plays with and
against the architecture as it does with and against the natural
setting. Like a drum of an octagonal column transversed by a
cylinder, the Plug matches the Renaissance design in its combination of rectilinear and curvilinear elements and in its strict
bilateral symmetry, which is, however, hidden, almost denied, by
its partly submerged, dropped position. Its rusted Cor-Ten steel
. . . earth-red in color and slightly abrasive in surface, contrasts
with the smooth, brightly polished brass of the prongs. In August
the Plug’s only companion coloristically was the red of the linear
decoration on the walls of the museum and its tiled roof; but in
the autumn it joined with the bright red berries hanging on the
bushes. It will continue to change in winter under deep snows
[to] come, and in spring when delicate pinks and whites of the
flowering crabapple trees appear.9
Oldenburg’s design and placement of Three-Way Plug demonstrated his interest in the visual intersections between sculpture
and architecture, but van Bruggen wrote a few years later that he
also intended the work “to strongly contrast its banal contemporary context—due to its mass-production origin—with the glorification of the past that the Museum’s design suggests.”10 Oldenburg’s
embrace of the complex coexistence of the sculpture’s contemporary
subject and the architecture’s historical symbolism closely paralleled Venturi’s approach to his own commission at Oberlin.
When Venturi and Rauch were hired to design the Allen extension, the project was to include a renovation of the existing museum
and the addition of a gallery for contemporary art, a new art library,
a conservation laboratory, studios, and study spaces. The architects sought not only to fulfill the programmatic requirements of
50
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
the building but also to orchestrate a formal dialogue between old
and new through their use of structure and, especially, ornament.
Their first solution was to use decoration that complemented the
Renaissance style of Gilbert’s museum. On the exterior of the gallery,
which directly abuts the original building, the architects repeated the
colors of the earlier façade.They used pink granite and red sandstone
squares that compose an irregular checkerboard pattern, which both
echoes and extends the rectilinear decoration of Gilbert’s façade
into a more elaborate, repeating pattern and all-over composition. To
promote visual unity between old and new, the red sandstone for the
addition was quarried from the same site as that on Gilbert’s building; the white striations apparent in the stone, according to Venturi,
gave the appearance of wear and age, heightening the dialogue the
architect so deliberately crafted between the structures.11
Venturi has remarked particularly on the museum’s place in
the neighborhood’s eclectic architecture, using terms that echo
Oldenburg’s thoughts about Plug’s diverse sources and symbolism.
As Venturi has famously noted, the original museum “is not high art
with a vengeance. If it is a symbol of high art midst mid-America, it
forms a poignant rather than a condescending image, not a separation between great art and everyday life, but a contrast.”12 He has
reiterated elsewhere that Gilbert’s Allen
Art Museum achieves harmony through contrast, heightening
the quality of its [wider] context through jarring juxtapositions such as terra-cotta friezes with molded plastic signs; della
Robbia tondos with Citgo logos; decorative wrought-iron grilles
with gingerbread wooden trellises; pilasters and urns with gas
pumps and signs; and a front porch completing a classical axis.
Diverse elements give context for, and against, each other, like
Pop Art beer cans in a white-walled gallery. One Allen Memorial
Art Museum does not a Fiesole make; on the contrary, it makes
Oberlin more what it is.13
The final plan at Oberlin took up one of two divergent ideas
of architectural expression framed in Learning from Las Vegas, in
which buildings with symbolic sculptural form (famously, “ducks”
in the book) are contrasted to buildings that communicate via
attached ornament (the book’s “decorated sheds”). Both methods
aim to draw attention as they communicated through exaggerated
forms, whether dimensional or textual, structural or applied. With
its simplified boxlike form and prominent checkerboard pattern, the
Allen Memorial Art Museum’s new gallery epitomized, as Venturi
has acknowledged, a decorated shed.14
However, the gallery’s façade serves more to complement the
original structure than to advertise the building’s particular function. Venturi’s sketch in Johnson’s papers indicates that he envisioned, even if only at an early stage in the design process, a much
bolder symbolic role for Three-Way Plug as a kind of readymade
sign or found-object duck.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
51
Claes Oldenburg, Three-Way Plug, 1970.
“Not ducks,
precisely, these
examples
of superior
roadside
architecture
were more
like highly
physiognomic
and explicit
billboards.”
The drawing depicts a schematic site plan, including outlines of
Gilbert’s original museum and Venturi’s addition, labeled “old” and
“new,” respectively, as well as Oberlin’s Memorial Arch, which already
stood at the front of the site, and rerouted sidewalks. Three circular
forms indicate, as Johnson’s inscription notes, possible new placements for Oldenburg’s Three-Way Plug: at the northwest corner adjacent to Gilbert’s building; in front of the addition; and what seems
at first to be inside the new gallery space, but which Johnson’s note
makes clear is actually on top of the addition’s roof.
Each location offered to the sculpture a different role in the
architect’s composition. The first increased its visibility to passing cars by locating it on a busy corner. The second repositioned it
near its original site (and duplicated the foreground location most
commonly found in Venturi’s final site and elevation drawings). The
third made Plug part of the addition itself. Relocating Plug either
in front of the building or on the roof would have strengthened its
relationship to the building. Placing it on the roof, however, packed
the added punch of advertising part of the extension’s function
as a gallery of modern art in a way that would have transformed
Oldenburg’s work into an integral ornament at once literal and
provocatively symbolic.
Venturi’s sketch provides tangible evidence that Oldenburg’s
Three-Way Plug at Oberlin helped advance his concept of an architect-designed building topped by a symbolic sculpture, or sculptural
element.15 It is also a prime example of a more general influence of
Oldenburg’s art on the architects.
It is clear from Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour’s projects and
publications of the late 1960s and early 1970s that they already
recognized the significance of Oldenburg’s work to contemporary
architecture and urban design.16 They first mentioned his work in
the architecture studios that preceded the publication of Learning
from Las Vegas: Learning from Las Vegas (1968) and Learning from
Levittown (1970), both taught at Yale. In the notes for the Levittown
studio, for example, the architects used Oldenburg’s art to illustrate
a research project, and they directed their students to “do for housing what Oldenburg did for hamburgers” explaining that
Oldenburg has essentially made us look at hamburgers in
another way because he has portrayed them in an unusual way:
big, lacquered, and in an art gallery. Does he hate them or love
them and should we? Probably he feels some of both, but that
doesn’t matter—at least, not yet. The first thing is the shift in
vision and understanding which an Oldenburg can induce, and
the re-interpretation and reclassification of our cultural artifacts
which he provides.17
Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour were equally intrigued with
Oldenburg’s choice of banal subject matter and the effects of scale
in his sculptures, artistic choices that paralleled subject matter
and conventions of display used in the vernacular architecture
52
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
they were studying. In Learning from Las Vegas, they explicitly
compared Oldenburg’s sculptures to the roadside signs they saw
in the Nevada city, writing that a sign at Caesars Palace was “not so
high as the Dunes Hotel sign next door or the Shell sign on the other
side, [but] its base is enriched by Roman centurions, lacquered like
Oldenburg hamburgers, who peer over the acres of cars and across
their desert empire to the mountains beyond.”18 Another photograph in the book—a hamburger stand in Dallas that bears uncanny
resemblance to Oldenburg’s sculptures of the same subject—again
highlights the significance of size and symbolism in the architects’
discussion of the contemporary vernacular landscape and hints at
the relevance of Oldenburg’s objects to architectural design.19
By 1977, the year the Allen Memorial Art Museum was dedicated,
the architects’ scholarly comparisons of Oldenburg’s sculptures to
Las Vegas signage were beginning to extend well beyond mentions
of surface shine and grand scale. In fact, a number of projects began
to include the type of design Venturi jotted down in the sketch for
Oberlin, a sculptural element on top of a rather uninflected box. In
1977 and 1978, the firm designed three buildings (a science museum,
a regional center, and a jazz club) that integrated sculptural symbolism, plain shelter, and applied decoration, which Venturi described
around the time of the projects as “decorated shed[s] with . . .
duck[s] on top,” making them hybrid examples of the symbols in
Learning from Las Vegas.20 More recently, architectural historian
David Brownlee has elaborated on this design concept, noting that
these buildings are not exactly a fusion of the two primary modes
of symbolism Venturi and his coauthors identified in commercial
architecture, not least because the sculptural elements in all examples were purely symbolic. “Not ducks, precisely,” Brownlee stipulates, “these examples of superior roadside architecture were more
like highly physiognomic and explicit billboards.”21
Venturi has specifically linked other projects from the mid- to
late 1980s, all of which incorporated similarly oversized objects,
to Oldenburg’s art. In the firm’s Big Apple for Times Square, the
architects included a large apple on the roof of an information
Venturi, Scott Brown's Hartwell Lake
Regional Visitor Center, Hartwell Lake,
South Carolina, 1977–1978.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
53
Venturi, Scott Brown’s rendering for an
information kiosk at Times Square, 1984.
kiosk, which Venturi explained in his project notes had a specific
relation to Oldenburg’s large-scale works as “a piece of representational sculpture which is bold yet rich in symbolism . . . popular
and esoteric—a Big Apple symbolizing New York City . . . a Pop-art
monument in the manner of Claes Oldenburg.”22 The monumental
sculpture, over ninety feet in diameter, creditably vied for attention with the group of controversial high-rise buildings proposed
for the redevelopment of the famous Midtown site. The Westway
Urban Design Project (1985), a plan submitted for the rehabilitation of a riverfront park in Manhattan, also included sculptures of
oversized apples as plinth decorations. A later plan for the Hudson
River Waterfront Project, a band pavilion at Battery Park in New
York (1989) in the form of a large apple, was likewise, Venturi noted,
“somewhat like the representational sculpture of Claes Oldenburg
but [it is] . . . also architecture and provides shelter.” 23 These unbuilt
projects have a poignant similarity to Venturi’s concept for the Allen
Memorial Art Museum, demonstrating the enduring influence of
Oldenburg’s art on his and Scott Brown’s practice.
Plug’s new location, finalized in October 1976, did not conform
to any of Venturi’s suggestions; indeed, when Oldenburg relocated
his work, he placed it around the side of the façade, in a position
much less central and visible than any Venturi imagined. If Venturi’s
witty idea to site Plug on the top of the addition had been implemented, the sculpture would have been literally elevated to a unique
symbolic prominence. The result would have been an artistic collaboration that was simple and complex, complementary and contradictory, banal and allusive, all at the same time.
54
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
This essay is based in part on
Katherine Smith's dissertation,
which was supported by
fellowships from the Institute
of Fine Arts and the National
Museum of American History,
Smithsonian Institution.
1 Oldenburg had previously
installed Lipstick (Ascending)
on Caterpillar Tracks in
Beinecke Plaza, Yale University,
on 15 May 1969. This sculpture
was commissioned by a group
of graduate students and
professors called the Colossal
Keepsake Corporation and
offered to Yale upon its
installation. The university
did not accept this gift, and
Oldenburg removed the work
in March 1970. Lipstick was
reinstalled at Morse College at
Yale in 1974.
2 Johnson’s scholarship
on Oldenburg’s art
generally, and on Plug more
particularly, demonstrated
her understanding of the
sculpture’s significance
in Oldenburg’s career, for
Oberlin’s collection, and in
contemporary art in general.
Johnson included Oldenburg’s
work in the exhibition “Three
Young Americans,” Allen
Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin
College, 1963. Her publications
on his work include Ellen H.
Johnson, “The Living Object,”
Art International 7 (January
1963), 42–45; Ellen H. Johnson,
“Claes Oldenburg,” in Dine
Oldenburg Segal (Toronto:
Art Gallery of Ontario;
Buffalo: Albright-Knox
Gallery, 1967), n.p.; Ellen H.
Johnson, “Oldenburg’s Poetics:
Analogues, Metamorphoses,
and Sources,” Art International
14 (April 1970), 42–45, 51; Ellen
H. Johnson, “Oldenburg’s ‘Giant
3-Way Plug’,” Arts Magazine
45 (December 1970–January
1971), 43–45, republished as
“Oldenburg’s ‘Giant ThreeWay Plug’,” Allen Memorial
Art Museum Bulletin 28, no. 3
(Spring 1971), 223–233; Ellen H.
Johnson, Claes Oldenburg (New
York: Penguin Books, 1971).
3 Throughout the text I
will be referring to Venturi’s
designs for the addition. Such
references are not intended
to discount the contributions
made by other members of
the firm, such as the project
manager, Jeffrey Ryan, whose
efforts were substantial, but
instead to acknowledge that
Venturi was the member of the
firm primarily responsible for
the project.
4 In several elevation
drawings from 1973 in the
Venturi Scott Brown Collection,
Architectural Archives,
University of Pennsylvania,
Venturi also showed several
positions for a relocated ThreeWay Plug, including on the roof
of the gallery.
5 Oldenburg proposed two
other objects to Ellen Johnson
and Athena Tacha, Curator of
Modern Art, before arriving at
the three-way plug. The first
was a maple seed; the second
was an ice bag to be placed at
the corner of the lot. Tacha,
phone interview by author, 2
April 2009. See also Johnson,
Claes Oldenburg, 48.
6 For an overview of
Oldenburg’s uses of the threeway plug, see for instance,
Claes Oldenburg, “U.S.A.
Three-Way Plug,” in Barbara
Haskell, Object into Monument
(Pasadena: Pasadena Art
Museum, 1971), 114–119; Claes
Oldenburg, “Log of the ThreeWay Plug,” in A Bottle of
Notes and Some Voyages,
ed. Germano Celant (New
York: Rizzoli, 1988), 112–127;
and Oldenburg: Six Themes
(Minneapolis: Walker Art
Center, 1975), 35–45.
7 By the time he got the Allen
job, for example, Oldenburg
had often envisioned
common plugs in monumental
architectural form. “The
architectural character and
potential of the Plug became
apparent the moment it was
imagined in colossal form,”
the artist recalled in 1988, and
“because of its crossed vaults
it suggested a cathedral, having
even a sort of resemblance
to the Hagia Sophia.” Seeing
the plug as “a sculpture with
an interior and with windows,
led to a series of buildings
in the form of plugs.” See
Oldenburg, “Log of the ThreeWay Plug,” 112. Indeed, by the
time he undertook the Oberlin
commission, Oldenburg had
made several drawings in which
he specifically conceived of
different types of plugs as
functional buildings: an English
extension plug, square in
shape, became a crematorium
(Building in the Form of an
English Extension Plug, 1967,
private collection); a Swedish
example, with a vaulted, axial
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
structure, became a chapel
(Proposed Chapel in the Form
of a Swedish Extension Plug,
1967, Collection Krannert Art
Museum, University of Illinois,
Champagne-Urbana); and
a three-way plug became a
Brutalist-style college building
(Notebook Page: Design for
a Mathematics Building at
Yale University [New Haven,
October], 1969).
8 “Transcript of speech
by Claes Oldenburg at the
inauguration ceremonies of
Giant Three-Way Plug (Cube
Tap), Allen Memorial Art
Museum, 14 September 1970,”
4. Allen Memorial Art Museum
records 1916–1967, Archives
of American Art, Smithsonian
Institution. Oldenburg
underscored a similar
resonance between ThreeWay Plug and its architectural
environment when a second
version of the sculpture was
installed at the St. Louis Art
Museum, another building
designed by Gilbert in a
Renaissance style. “If you look
at the forms in the plug, you
will see the architectural forms
in the building itself.
St. Louis is a city of arches,
and you see archlike forms
repeated again and again in
the plug.” Quoted in John Brod
Peters, “Oldenburg’s Plug ‘Turns
On’ Art Fans,” St. Louis GlobeDemocrat, 14 September 1971.
9 Johnson, “Oldenburg’s
‘Giant Three-Way Plug’,” 43.
10 Coosje van Bruggen, “PlugBuildings or Alternative Proposal
for an Addition to the Allen
Memorial Art Museum,” in Claes
Oldenburg: Large-scale Projects,
1977–80, ed. R. H. Fuchs
(New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 40.
11 Oral History Interviews
with Robert Venturi and
Richard Spear, Allen Memorial
Art Museum, 1997, box 6,
Oberlin College Archives.
12 Robert Venturi, “Plain
and Fancy Architecture by
Cass Gilbert at Oberlin and
the Addition to the Museum
by Venturi and Rauch,” Allen
Memorial Art Museum Bulletin
55
34, no. 2 (1976–1977), 88.
13 Ibid., 90–91.
14 See Venturi’s comments in
“Plain and Fancy” and “Learning
the Right Lessons from the
Beaux-Arts,” both reprinted
in Robert Venturi and Denise
Scott Brown, A View from the
Campidoglio, Selected Essays,
1953–1984, ed. Peter Arnell, Ted
Bickford, Catherine Bergart
(New York: Harper and Row
Publishers, 1984), 58 and 82,
respectively.
15 The idea of putting
a symbolic element on
the roof of a building
occurred in the Guild House
(Philadelphia, 1961–1966),
where the architects installed
a monumental, anodized
gold (and nonfunctional)
antenna. See Robert Venturi,
Complexity and Contradiction
in Architecture, 2nd ed. (New
York: Museum of Modern Art,
1966; reprint 1996), 116.
16 I have previously explored
Venturi, Scott Brown, and
Associates architecture
in relation to Oldenburg’s
sculpture in this context
in “Mobilizing Visions:
Representing the American
Landscape,” in Relearning from
Las Vegas, ed. Aron Vinegar and
Michael Golec (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press,
2008), 97–128.
17 Denise Scott Brown,
“Remedial Housing for
Architects’ Studio,” in Venturi,
Scott Brown and Associates: On
Houses and Housing, ed. James
Steele (London: Academy
Editions, 1992), 54.
18 Robert Venturi, Denise
Scott Brown, and Steven
Izenour, Learning from Las
Vegas (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT
Press, 1972), 51.
19 Ibid.
20 The projects were
Discovery Place Museum of
Science and Technology (1977)
in North Carolina; the Hartwell
Lake Regional Visitor Center,
Hartwell Lake (1977–1978) in
South Carolina; and Nichol’s
Alley Jazz Club project, Scheme
A (1978), Houston, Texas. The
quotation is from Venturi,
“Learning the Right Lessons
from the Beaux-Arts,” 82.
21 David Brownlee, “Form
and Content,” in Out of the
Ordinary: Robert Venturi,
Denise Scott Brown and
Associations, Architecture,
Urbanism, Design, ed. David
B. Brownlee, David G. DeLong,
and Kathryn B. Hiesinger
(Philadelphia: Philadelphia
Museum of Art in association
with Yale University Press,
2001), 80. Brownlee’s
statement reinforces Venturi’s
own contention that such
combinations produce
designs that are “ good
advertisement[s] from the
highway” (Venturi, “Learning
the Right Lessons from the
Beaux-Arts,” 82–84).
22 After architect Philip
Johnson proposed a series of
high-rise office buildings that
some critics believed would
diminish the commercial
character of the area, Venturi,
Rauch, and Scott Brown (as
the firm was known at the
time) were asked by the lead
developer of the Times Square
renovation plan to design a
center that would integrate
the proposed buildings and
maintain some of the square’s
characteristic atmosphere.
Quoted in Stanislaus von
Moos, Venturi, Rauch and Scott
Brown: Buildings and Projects
(New York: Rizzoli, 1987), 134.
23 Quoted in Stanislaus von
Moos, Venturi, Scott Brown and
Associates, 1986–1998 (New
York: The Monacelli Press,
1999), 188.
56
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
J a s m i n e Rau lt
LOSING FEELINGS
E L I Z A B E T H E y r e d e L an u x
anD H E R A ffe c ti v e A r c hi v e
of S a p p hi c M o d e r ni T Y
The blurry image on the opposite page is a photograph of Evelyn
Wyld (1882–1973).1 At least I think it’s Wyld. I’ve never seen a picture
of her, but after years of research on her relatively better-known
design partner and friend, Eileen Gray (1878–1976), after countless
hours of patient imagining over the archival ephemera that constitute the “sources” of sapphic modernity, I hope it’s she. It’s in an
envelope, along with several other intimate photographs of someone who might resemble her, upon which is hand-written the name
“Evelyn Wyld,” and housed in the Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux archive
in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. She sits facing us
on a cleanly made bed, her body draped in shadow, naked but for
what seem to be swimming shorts (or underwear?), hands entwined
below her knees, her arms pressed over her breasts shaping a V that
descends between her thighs, her body shading a silhouette across
the sheet behind her to the pillows, her slight smile and one eye
inviting us, tempting us to imagine this moment of intimate history.
Image: 2 de lanux Cannes card
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
57
Advertising flyer for Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux
and Evelyn Wyld’s shop in Cannes.
Opposite: Eyre de Lanux (above) and Wyld.
Wyld and Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux
(1894–1996) were lovers and, between about
1927 and 1932, design and business partners as well. Along with designing, Eyre de
Lanux worked as writer and artist, splitting
her adult life between New York, Paris, and
Rome, with frequent stays at Wyld’s house
in the south of France. The two met in Paris,
apparently around 1927, when Eyre de
Lanux was writing an article on Gray and
Wyld’s designs, and with Wyld’s encouragement, Eyre de Lanux joined her Atelier de
Tissage. They went on to work and periodically live together, showing modernist interior design schemes in Paris at the Salon des
Artistes Décorateurs (1928, 1929), the Salon
d’Automne (1929), the Union des Artistes
Modernes (1930), and the Curtis Moffat
Gallery in London (1930). They opened a
shop in Cannes in 1932, which they closed
the following year, effectively ending their
collaborative work but by no means ending
their relationship. While their names show
up in the margins of research on other
modern women writers, artists, and designers, very little has been written about either
Wyld or Eyre de Lanux; their lives and works,
like the cultural history of sexual dissidence
of which they were part, remain largely
unknown.2
The vague provocation of the image introduces us, specifically, to the cultural field of
sapphic modernity with which Wyld and Eyre de Lanux were linked:
that is, a loose network of women who cultivated an intimate connection between female nonheterosexuality and modernity itself, women
for whom becoming nonheterosexual was synonymous with becoming
modern. On the one hand, as a photographic portrait, the image reminds
us that photography and the genre of portraiture played crucial roles in
the emergence of modern lesbian identities and culture by both documenting queer female artists, writers, designers, musicians, performers, friends, and lovers and by creating the aesthetics, sartorial codes,
cultures, and spaces of sapphic modernity.3 On the other hand, as
a photograph that lacks focus, a hazy and shadowed snapshot of a
woman whose image has never been published and whose name few
readers will recognize, it provides a glimpse into the private life of a
love that stretched forty-six years and whose existence the dreamlike
blur of the photo seems even to call into question. The photograph
poignantly represents both the presence and absence of queer histories,
what Ann Cvetkovich describes as the “traumatic loss of history” that
marks contemporary queer subjects, politics, and publics.4
58
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
The Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux collection is a remarkable assemblage of personal ephemera constituting something akin to what
Cvetkovich calls “an archive of feeling.”5 In diaries, letters, photographs, and sketches, we find an archive of emotion that documents
moments of intimacy, sexuality, and love stretching from the 1920s
to the 1970s; that is, an archive that traces the affective contours of
queer histories, lost, repressed, or cast, like the unnamed, undated
photograph above, as miscellaneous. Despite over thirty years of
recuperative research to “prove” the existence of queers in history
(to prove that queers have a history) and to interrogate the place of
sexual dissidents and dissidence in the cultural history of modernity itself, these histories and this field of scholarship are constantly
on the brink of being lost.6
The Eyre de Lanux archive works, on one level, then, simply to
affirm the early twentieth century viability of these epistemologically disadvantaged queer existences and desires. It contains loving
correspondence with her husband of thirty-seven years, Pierre de
Lanux; intimate letters from male lovers; unambiguously erotic
diary writings about and sketches of female lovers; and suggestively
sexual photographs of and letters from lovers such as Wyld, Natalie
Barney, and Consuelo Urisarri. On another level, however, it works
to chronicle the costs of having been “discovered.”
Scholars of sapphic modernity have shown that the wide circulation of photographs of Radclyffe Hall during the mass media coverage of the 1928 obscenity trials of her novel The Well of Loneliness
(1928) resulted in a momentous shift in the history of female sexual
dissidence.7 Following the trials, modes of female masculinity and
same-sex intimacies that had been widely perceived as avant-garde
and highly fashionable were reduced into one static and stubbornly
persistent lesbian identity. During the earlier 1920s, many women’s
participation in and production of cultural, social, and artistic
modernity was predicated on their ability to make lives and identities outside the bounds of conventional heterosexuality. After Hall’s
trial, these lives and identities were less likely to be read as chic,
avant-garde, and modern than degenerate, dangerous, and lesbian.
In a curious kind of doubling, the traces of the lost affective history
that we find in the Eyre de Lanux archive are marked by a haunting
sense of loss—nostalgia, regret, longing, disappearing.
We can read the sense of loss permeating the Eyre de Lanux
archive as what Heather Love calls “feeling backward.”8 Nostalgia,
regret, longing, and loss can be understood as elements of negative
affect that characterized many early twentieth-century representations and experiences of queerness—feelings tied to “the corporeal
and psychic costs of homophobia” as well as “the historical ‘impossibility’ of same-sex desire.”9 But in Eyre de Lanux’s archive, the trauma
of loss and this feeling backward do not manifest as shame, despair,
self-hatred, bitterness, or ressentiment associated with the “painful
negotiation of the coming of modern homosexuality.”10 In her diaries
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
59
w e fin d an a r c hi v e of
emotion that d o c u ments
moments of intima c y,
se x u alit y, an d lo v e
st r et c hing f r om the
1 9 2 0 s to the 1 9 7 0 s
We might say that
befo r e 1 9 2 8 , the r e was
no lesbian i d entit y — no
se r ies of a c ts , d esi r es ,
o r d is c o u r ses ha d
y et c ohe r e d into a
r e c ognizable s u b j e c t
o r t y p e of p e r son
k no w n as lesbian .
and letters, sketched portraits of women, and over thirty years of
letters from Wyld, the pain and suffering of early twentieth-century
articulations of same-sex desire are strikingly absent. We find instead
the softer sadness of regret and nostalgia tied to the emergence of
visibility and the obsolescence of interiority that followed.
We might say that before 1928, there was no lesbian identity—
no series of acts, desires, or discourses had yet cohered into a recognizable subject or type of person known as lesbian. And women like
Eyre de Lanux and Wyld seem to have been happy this way, identifying instead as modern artists or designers. But what studies in
sapphic modernity show is that a central, inseparable, constitutive
element of this modern artist-designer identity was “the rejection of
received ideas about what it meant to be a woman,” which included
a refusal to be governed by the norms of heterosexuality.11 And as
this sapphic modernist (or female modern, nonheterosexual artist)
identity was on the brink of being lost, reduced to a simply sexual
identity (lesbian), women like Eyre de Lanux and Wyld responded.
They insisted, instead, on the irreducibility, complexity, or queerness
of interiority—a sense of inside (human and physical) that could not
be so simply communicated by the emerging modern lesbian identity
nor by the increasingly standardized interiors coming to be identified
as official modern architecture and design.
While there were of course various, and at times contradictory,
culturally and locally specific versions of modern architecture and
design circulating at the start of the twentieth century, by the end of
the 1920s these variations were being carefully eliminated by an international network of architects, designers, and historians invested in
the production of one unified, clearly recognizable, and easily communicated modern architectural identity. The success of these efforts
can be attributed to three main events: the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition in 1927; the creation of the CIAM (Congrès Internationaux
d’Architecture Moderne) in 1928; and the naming, by Philip Johnson
and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, for their show of modern architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932, of an
International Style in architecture.12 These efforts were motivated by
what Weissenhofsiedlung organizers and CIAM founding members
like Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and
Siegfried Giedion articulated as the need to “cleanse” and “purify”
architecture and design into modernity.13
This discourse of hygiene and purification ostensibly articulated modern architecture’s rejection of decoration and ornament,
but by the 1920s these aesthetic concepts had come to be associated
(not only in architectural discourse) with a complex mix of feminized and racialized perversities. When Le Corbusier wrote that
decoration “is suited to simple races, peasants and savages” he was
recycling Adolf Loos’ extremely influential essay that linked ornament with criminals, ladies, an indistinguishable list of racially
marked pre-moderns (Papuans, Negros, Kafirs, Persians, Slovaks),
60
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
and sexual degenerates.14 These architects, and the purified architectural modernity that they inspired, were, of course, reiterating
the scientific racism sustained at the time in criminology, sexology, sociology, and comparative anatomy, wherein “markers of race,
class and sexuality overlap” as “lesbianism and male homosexuality,
blackness, disease, criminality, working-class status, taint, pollution, and prostitution coexist as multiple features of the trope of
degeneracy.”15 The modern architectural identity which solidified
around 1927 and 1928 was not only the product of a shared commitment to aesthetic or stylistic reform. As architectural historian
Mark Peach explains, “It is by now a commonplace to point out that
. . . [modern architects] sought above all to reform the occupants of
their architecture.”16 Galvanized to make purified modern buildings,
modern architects also sought to make modern bodies cleansed of
any trace of racialized, sexualized, and classed degeneration.
It was within this historical and cultural context that Eyre
de Lanux and Wyld designed interiors with what Bridget Elliott
describes as a hybrid of “primitive” and “modern” aesthetics, crafting
very different living spaces for what seem to be very different bodies.
Their first exhibition at the 1928 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, for
instance, included Eyre de Lanux’s sleek glass-pillared table atop a
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
61
Interior by Evelyn Wyld and Elizabeth
Eyre de Lanux, Salon des Artistes
Décorateurs, 1928.
Terrasse du Midi by Evelyn Wyld
and Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux, Salon
d’Automne, 1929.
rug by Wyld that was inspired by Native American design, imagined
in a studio apartment on the forty-ninth floor of a skyscraper, set
before an ultra-modern floor-to-ceiling bay window wall overlooking New York City.17 In projects like their design of Mrs. Forsythe
Sherfesee’s Paris apartment, Eyre de Lanux and Wyld achieved what
Madge Garland described, in the
language of modern architecture, as “simplicity” and “austerity” with minimal furnishings.18
This particular living space
contained a characteristic mix:
long, low, squared lounge chairs
and divan in beige cowhide,
combined with the sort of earthy,
decidedly nonindustrial design
elements that much modern
architecture sought to purge—
walls in matte terracotta red, a
carefully arranged table display
of Mexican terracotta pottery,
and Wyld’s richly textured wool
rugs, hand-knotted and dyed in
the style she learned from textile
research in Algeria, patterned
in what were read as Africaninspired aesthetics. We also see
this sort of “primitive”–modern style at work in the women’s Salon
d’Automne (1929) and Union des Artistes Modernes (1930) exhibitions: with the African-inspired designs of Wyld’s rug on the wall
(1930) and carved in the lacquered bench (1929) and divan (1930),
the wicker and cowhide chairs and bamboo screen (1929), and
what seems to be a miniature totem pole (1930), all set within the
modern “simplicity” of muted tones (beige and black) and “austerity”
of furnishings that Garland admired.
Elliott has suggested that we might consider Eyre de Lanux and
Wyld’s work within a range of “‘primitive’ enthusiasms that were
differently inflected according to gender” and sexuality at the time.19
Indeed, the exoticization and cultural appropriation involved in
modernist primitivism is complicated by the fact that, as female and
nonheterosexual, Eyre de Lanux and Wyld were already conceptually
connected (within modern architectural and scientific discourse) to
the premodern, perverse, and degenerate connotations of the primitive. Instead, I think we might read Eyre de Lanux and Wyld as having
cultivated this connection in resistance to both modern architecture’s
drive towards a purified identity and the contemporaneous emergence
of a purely sexual lesbian identity. By mixing the aesthetic signifiers
of degeneration and modernism in their interior designs, then, they
created spaces that signaled the possibility of accommodating those
mixed, unclean, hybridized bodies that were being carefully purged
from architectural modernity at the time.
62
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
The sixty-three letters from Wyld at the Archives of American Art
span from 1938 to 1970 and record a remarkable story of queer
life, love, commitment. The letters include consistent assertions of
Wyld’s unwavering love and affection; advice on Eyre de Lanux’s
dealings with her husband, his lovers, her daughter, her daughter’s male and female lovers; as well as encouragement on Eyre de
Lanux’s relationships with lovers such as Consuelo Urisarri, Alice
de Lamar, and Paolo Casagrande. Judging by these letters, Wyld and
Eyre de Lanux seamlessly cultivated a queerness that readers today
would recognize as a challenge to fixed sexual identities, homonormative monogamy, and temporality.
But however Wyld and Eyre de Lanux did identify, in their
letters there is no mention of the word “lesbian,” or any of its variants, and no clear acknowledgement of the “corporeal and psychic
costs of homophobia.”20 The closest thing in the correspondence to
a discussion of the possible social and cultural obstacles to samesex love came in 1963 when Eyre de Lanux’s daughter, Anne, left
her husband for a woman. Wyld writes, “Your impression of the
woman seems to be fairly good—of course you can’t expect her to
use your language—but it’s something that she should include you
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
63
The installation by Evelyn Wyld
and Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux for the
Exposition de L’Union des Artistes
Modernes, 1930.
in the party—takes it for granted that you are
on her side.”21 It is unclear to what party she
is included, but it seems that Anne and her
female lover assumed a sense of camaraderie or community from Eyre de Lanux based
on a sexuality that, by 1963, is articulated in
a language she does not share—and which
she describes to Wyld as “shockingly frank.”22
This is the only instance in their letters where
same-sex desire figures as a sort of identity, a
socially intelligible mode of being that Eyre
de Lanux is slightly uncomfortable being
read into, and one that constituted a “side.”
Besides this encounter with the next generation’s understanding of sexual identity, in
these letters, same-sex desire is linked much
less to social intelligibility than to interiority
and artistic production.
A letter from December 1962, captures
the tone of so many. After three pages of
sharing the mundane intricacies of daily
life and friends, Wyld signs off explaining,
I live chiefly on that period of my life—
Paris—with you—but always with a vital
anguish that we didn’t play our cards
well—it should have been an everlasting
companionship—and we didn’t manage
to make it that—Now my E, I’ll make you
a little dinner—beginning with soupe
au pistou—I’m very homesick for you
often—always—we had so few years
together. . . . My arms very much around
you (and yet you are never in them) E.23
Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux in a coat
designed by Sonia Delaunay, 1920s.
Opposite: An ink sketch (front and
back) in the Eyre de Lanux papers.
The loss Wyld felt as “a vital anguish,” and which is affectively
inscribed in the Eyre de Lanux archive, is the loss of a period in
history when reconfiguring interior design was also a means of
reconfiguring bodies, sexualities, and possibilities for being—that
is, when interventions into the design of modern spaces were also
interventions about who could count as modern and be accommodated within modernity. Eyre de Lanux and Wyld capitalized on this
historically powerful moment of intersection between architecture,
design, and sexuality to create very queer modern spaces for very
queer modern subjects. Their mix of queer interior design aesthetics
(both identifiably modern and anti-modern, racially and sexually
degenerate) can be read as part of a losing battle to accommodate
those hybrids who rejected received ideas about what it meant to be
a woman, but also what it meant to be a sexually, racially specific
modern identity.
64
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
from objects of everyday
use. . . .[O]rnament is no
longer a natural product of
our culture, but a symptom of
backwardness and degeneracy.”
Loos, “Ornament and Crime”
(1908), in Ornament and Crime:
Selected Essays, ed. A. Opel,
trans. M. Mitchell (Riverside,
Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1998), 167,
169, italics in original.
15 Robin Hackett, Sapphic
Primitivism: Productions of
Race, Class and Sexuality in
Key Works of Modern Fiction
(New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers
University Press, 2004), 8, 36.
For more on the inseparability
of scientific racism and
homosexuality at the turn
of the previous century, see
Siobhan Somerville, “Scientific
Racism and the Invention of
the Homosexual Body,” Journal
of the History of Sexuality 5,
no. 2 (October 1994); and Dana
Seitler, “Queer Physiognomies;
or How Many Ways Can We
Do the History of Sexuality?”
Criticism 46, no. 1 (Winter 2004).
1 Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux
papers, box 10, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian
Institution (hereafter cited as
the Eyre de Lanux papers).
2 One major exception
is the recently published
article by Bridget Elliott on
the sapphically inflected
collaborative design work of
Eyre de Lanux and Wyld, “Art
Deco Hybridity, Interior
Design and Sexuality Between
the Wars: Two Double Acts:
Phyllis Barron and Dorothy
Archer/Eyre de Lanux and
Evelyn Wyld,” in Laura Doan
and Jane Garrity, ed., Sapphic
Modernities: Sexuality,
Women and National
Culture (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2006), 109–132.
Another important essay on
the work of Wyld and Eyre de
Lanux is Isabelle Anscombe’s
“Expatriates in Paris: Eileen
Gray, Evelyn Wyld, and Eyre de
Lanux,” Apollo 115 (February
1982), 117–118. For more on the
life and work of Eyre de Lanux,
see Betsy Fahlman, “Eyre de
Lanux,” Woman’s Art Journal
3, no. 2 (Autumn 1982–Winter
1983), 44–48.
3 See, for example, Berenice
Abbott’s photographs of
women, including Janet
Flanner, Djuna Barnes, Edna
St. Vincent Millay, Solita
Solano, Sylvia Beach, Tylia
Perlmutter, Princess Eugène
Murat, Margaret Anderson,
Anna Wickham and Eileen
Gray; or Romaine Brooks’
painted portraits of such
women as Una Troubridge, Ida
Rubenstein, Natalie Barney,
Elsie de Wolfe, Renata Borgatti,
Gluck, Elisabeth de Gramont
(Duchesse de ClermontTonnerre), herself, and Eyre
de Lanux (as The Huntress,
1920). For more on the role of
portraiture and photography in
early twentieth-century lesbian
culture, see Tirza True Latimer,
Women Together/Women
Apart (New Brunswick, N.J.:
Rutgers University Press, 2005);
and Laura Doan, Fashioning
Sapphism: The Origins of
a Modern English Lesbian
Culture (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2001).
4 Ann Cvetkovich, “In the
Archives of Lesbian Feelings:
Documentary and Popular
Culture,” Camera Obscura 17,
no. 1 (2002), 106–47.
5 See Cvetkovich, An Archive
of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality,
and Lesbian Public Cultures
(Durham, N.C.: Duke University
Press, 2003).
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
6 See Heather Love,
“Impossible Objects: Waiting for
the Revolution in S. T. Warner’s
Summer Will Show,” in Sapphic
Modernities, 133–134.
7 For the comprehensive
analysis of Hall’s trials, and
the shift from modern chic
to degenerate lesbian, see
especially Laura Doan,
Fashioning Sapphism.
8 Heather Love, Feeling
Backward: Loss and the Politics
of Queer History (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press,
2007).
9 Ibid., 4.
10 Ibid.
11 Whitney Chadwick and
Tirza Latimer, eds., The
Modern Women Revisited:
Paris between the Wars (New
Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers
University Press, 2003), xx.
12 Philip Johnson and HenryRussell Hitchcock organised
“Modern Architecture:
International Exhibition” at
the Museum of Modern Art
in 1932. It featured work by
Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius,
and Mies van de Rohe and was
accompanied by a monograph,
The International Style
(New York: Norton, 1932).
65
13 See Eric Mumford, The
CIAM Discourse on Urbanism,
1928–1960 (Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press, 2000), 10–11, in
which he quotes Mies van der
Rohe’s and Gropius’ intention
that the Weissenhofsiedlung
work “purify” architecture
of “divergent” tendencies;
and Sigfried Giedion’s hope,
which he shared with cofounder Le Corbusier, that
the CIAM would perform a
“secret cleansing” of modern
architecture. On the role of
the 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung
in laboriously creating the
impression of a spontaneous
international modern style,
see especially Mark Wigley,
White Walls, Designer Dresses:
The Fashioning of Modern
Architecture (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), 303.
14 Le Corbusier, Towards
a New Architecture, trans.
Frederick Etchells (New York:
Dover Publications, 1986), 143.
In 1908, Adolf Loos published
what would become his
most famous condemnation
of decoration in the essay
“Ornament and Crime,” where
he explains that “[a] person
of our times who gives way
to the urge to daub the walls
with erotic symbols [that is,
ornament] is a criminal or a
degenerate. . . . [T]he evolution
of culture is synonymous with
the removal of ornamentation
16 Mark Peach “‘Der Architekt
Denkt, Die Hausfrau Lenkt’:
German Modern Architecture
and the Modern Woman,”
German Studies Review 18,
no. 3 (October 1995), 441.
17 They entitled this design
“Baie d’un studio au 49e étage.”
18 Madge Garland, “Interiors
by Eyre de Lanux,” Creative Art
(April 1930), 263–265.
19 Elliott, “Art Deco Hybridity,”
121.
20 Love, Feeling Backward, 4.
21 Wyld to Eyre de Lanux,
27 June 1963, box 6, Eyre de
Lanux papers .
22 Eyre de Lanux to Wyld,
29 July 1963, box 6, Eyre de
Lanux papers.
23 Wyld to Eyre de Lanux,
16 December 1962, box 6, Eyre
de Lanux papers.
To look through someone’s journals is to gain an unprecedented view of what life was like through the work produced along the way. In the case of
Millicent Nesbit, an Oklahoma transplant who arrived in New York City in 1918, that life included collaborations with many of the designers whose work
would come to ultimately shape communication in the twentieth century.Though she herself remained anonymous, she left behind a prolific body of work
that suggests a spirited presence and a robust involvement in the world she inhabited. In both word and deed, through portfolio and journal alike, Nesbit’s
observations reveal the spectacular insight and vision that made her such a valuable contributor to the era in which she lived.
eeeeeeeee
Selections
from the portfolio
and the journals
of Millicent Nesbit,
graphic designer,
1920 –1955.
Finding Miss Nesbit
An Imagined Biography
Jessica Helfand
68
ff f ff ff ff
Nesbit worked on a series of billboards in the 1940s, and later assisted the American artist Rockwell Kent on an early
broadcast interview. Early photographs reveal Nesbit as a hard-workng student, whose focus later paid off when she was
awarded a coveted internship with Leo Lionni. For years she prayed for a chance to work with Paul Rand, but the closest she
got to him was in a photograph at a party. Rand, seated near to Isamu Noguchi and his wife, barely gave her a glance.
Saving things. Drawing things. Looking at books and at pictures
and at everything in her midst—which, back in Oklahoma,
didn't amount to very much.The only child of hard-working
hoteliers (her family owned the legendary Hotel Severs
in Muskogee, Oklahoma), she'd spend hours sitting in the
hotel rooms, copying the letterforms from the engraved
hotel stationery until the chambermaids shooed her away,
anxious to get on with their business and wondering who
she was, this curious child who drew pictures all day long.
z The day she turned eighteen, Millicent Nesbit bought a
train ticket and off she went, heading East, hoping to find her
way to art school. The year was 1918, and the war was only
just over, but for Millicent, the battles continued unabated—
battles with her family, who simply couldn't understand her
unwavering devotion to this thing called Commercial Art.
But Millicent was over the moon, surrounded by pastepots filled with rubber cement, single-edged razor blades
that obliterated a manicure, and something called a Lucy —
an immense black box you could stand in, hand-cranking it
up and down to visualize things up and down in size. And
that was just the beginning. z For the next thirty years,
Millicent Nesbit was in the middle of it all, working first as
an apprentice and later as an art director, in studios and
agencies all over the country. There were parties and
exhibitions, openings, and no shortage of varied visual
experiments, all of them preserved in multiple portfolios,
where they lay, undiscovered, until late last year.
f f f f ff ff f
She was always making things.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
69
Millicent Nesbit’s parents continued to write to her throughout her years in New York, hoping that a mere glimpse of their hotel’s letterhead would
remind their daughter of her Oklahoma home, but to no avail. By all indications, Nesbit’s off-hours were as exciting as her time in the studio, if not
more so: she attended parties and dinners, and she was rarely, if ever, in need of male companionship. A dinner party at the New York Art Students
League in the 1930s reveals the painters Louis Bouché, Edwin Dickinson, Julian Levi, and Walter Pach. Some years later, Nesbit waltzed with an
unidentified suitor. Stealing a glance on the dance floor nearby is Eero Saarinen, with his wife, Aileen.
i i i i i i i i i
l l l ll
l
72
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Indeed, dancing loomed large in young Millicent's carefree life: coincidentally, her personal work started to take on
a kind of choreographic undertone also. Among multiple design projects were book jackets and broadsides that
relied upon cut paper and careful investigations of shape and composition. Her own collages, too, reflected this
spirited appeal to pure, dynamic energy. Even the covers of her journals reflected a restlessness, a need to turn
and torque the boundaries of color and shape in space, on the page, and in the air.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
73
74
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn
Some of Nesbit's observations took place between photography and collage. Here, an early collaboration with Alvin Lustig
reveals a playful tension between a series of floating triangles and typographic marks that appear lazily suspended, like strings
from flyaway kites. In her journal, opposite, lies a photograph of a Times Square billboard taken at night. By positioning it on its
side, Nesbit amplified the dynamic geometry that led her to the abstract composition she and Lustig created.
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
75
At the time of her death in the early 1960s, Millicent Nesbit left over100 sketchbooks filled with notes, photographs,
sketches, and lists of unrealized projects. Calendar pages reveal her peripatetic schedule, marked by studio visits and
dinners to attend, client meetings, and supplies to purchase. Snapshots run from found typography to formal portraits
of her design heroes, including the legendary American designer Alvin Lustig; Nesbit named her only child after him.
hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
76
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
77
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78
Archives of Americ an Art Journ al 48: 1–2
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credits
Cover: Alvin Lustig Papers, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Pages 4–9, 11–17: Dorothy Liebes Papers,
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian
Institution; Page 10: Photograph ©
Chicago Historical Society.
Pages 18–29: Esther McCoy Papers,
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian
Institution; Page 28: Photographs
copyright © Marvin Rand; Page 29:
Photograph copyright © Harvey
Steinberg.
All the photographs in Jessica Helfand’s
artist’s project are from the collections of
the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian
Institution. Specific credit information is
listed below, by page number.
Page 66: (left to right) Charles Green
Shaw Papers, John Henry Bradley
Storrs Papers.
Page 67: (clockwise from top right)
Esther G. Rolick Papers, Marcel Breuer
Papers, Charles Green Shaw Papers.
Page 68: Oscar Bluemner Papers.
Page 30: Photograph by John Rawlings,
© Condé Nast; Pages 30–44: T. H.
Robsjohn Gibbings Papers, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Pages 47–48: Photograph by Tom
Bernard, courtesy Venturi, Scott Brown,
and Associates, Inc.; Pages 49, 51, 55:
Ellen Hulda Johnson Papers, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution;
Pages 52–54: courtesy Venturi, Scott
Brown, and Associates, Inc.
Pages 56, 59, 64­–65: Elizabeth Eyre de
Lanux Papers, Archives of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution; Pages 58, 61–63:
Photographs lent by Isabelle Anscombe.
Page 69: (clockwise from top left)
Rockwell Kent Papers; Ben Shahn
Papers; Federal Art Project, Photographic
Division Collection; Katherine Kuh
Papers; Douglas Leigh Papers; Florence
Knoll Bassett Papers; background:
Charles Green Shaw Papers.
Page 70: all photographs from the Julian
E. Levi Papers, (background) Mary Fanton
Roberts Papers.
Page 71: (above) Mary Fanton Roberts
Papers, (below) Aline and Eero
Saarinen Papers.
Page 72: Charles Green Shaw Papers.
Page 73: (background) James Wells
Champney Papers, (below, left to right:)
John Henry Bradley Storrs Papers, Kootz
Gallery Records, John D. Graham Papers.
Page 74: Alvin Lustig Papers.
Page 75: Douglas Leigh Papers.
Page 76: (clockwise from top)
Charles Greenshaw Papers; Center for
Creative Studies Records; (left) Douglas
Leigh Papers.
Page 77: (clockwise from top left)
Philip Evergood Papers; Lee Gatch
Papers; Mary Fanton Roberts Papers;
Paul Suttman Papers; Photograph by
Peter A. Juley and Son, Miscellaneous
Photograph Collection; Photograph by
Charles Eisenman and Grubman, Federal
Art Project, Photographic Division
Collection; Alvin Lustig Papers.
Page 78: Rudolph Schaeffer Papers,
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian
Institution.
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