Carnegie exhibit highlights cutting edge decorative arts from world's fairs

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

In one week at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the world of decorative arts will be on display like you've never seen before when the museum unveils “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs, 1851–1939.”

An exhibit that was more than 10 years in the making, it was organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art in partnership with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and it is the first display of its kind to showcase the best of the decorative arts from 92 events in 22 countries during the period covered by the exhibit.

That meant chief curator Jason Busch of the Carnegie, curatorial assistant Dawn Reid and co-curator Catherine Futter of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, spent years arranging to borrow the 200 objects — metalwork, furniture, glass, jewelry, ceramics and textiles — from 45 lenders in nine countries.

“There were so many different nations, cultures, techniques and great inventions coming together at the world's fairs from across the globe,” says Busch, the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie. “And this is really the first exhibition of its kind to look comprehensively at those connections.”

It's not by coincidence that so many innovations and artistic advancements are showcased in this exhibit. After all, their creation mirrors the scientific and manufacturing innovations of the Industrial Revolution in this country and others.

The first of the modern world's fairs began with Britain's “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” at London's Hyde Park in 1851. It was conceived by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, to showcase scientific and technological marvels from many countries along with works of art and craftsmanship. Even the buildings that housed the exhibition, such as greenhouse builder Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, were part of those marvels. It reportedly was visited by some 6 million people — equivalent to a third of the Britain population at the time — throughout its run.

Entering a ‘Modern World'

As visitors will see upon entering the museum's Heinz Galleries, great care and forethought went into creating an atmosphere similar to that of the first world's fair, with red velvet buntings mimicking the original decoration of the Crystal Palace, and custom-made display cases and railings built in the same style and scale of those that originally held the many treasures on display.

“This is the area where revival and reinvention is really celebrated,” Busch says of this first gallery. It includes objects such as the “The Tennyson Vase” from the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, which was largely made with the relatively new silver-plating process, and an elaborately carved Renaissance revival bookcase by Erastus Bulkley and Gustave Herter that was displayed at the 1853 World's Fair in New York. The bookcase is decorated with intricately carved Gothic spires, arches and buttresses, and with figures dressed in medieval costumes representing the arts of sculpture, painting, music and architecture.

Busch says that participating countries took great pride in the objects they exhibited at the world's fairs. National identity was seen in objects that evoked past traditions, or drew upon recognizable symbols and techniques. To show their patriotism, some manufacturers referenced folk traditions or the distant — and sometimes mythical — past.

Pointing to a “Cypriote” Tiffany vase from the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle that was made to look like a piece of excavated glass from ancient Cyprus, Busch says, “There was a fascination with archaeology and excavation in the late 19th century, and the idea was, how do we impart that kind of surface that you get from a piece of glass that has been buried for centuries, that iridescence. And Tiffany, with its variety of workers, was able to create a process and design objects with that kind of quality.”

Other works by Tiffany on display that incorporate motifs from different cultures include a bejeweled silver and enamel Persian-inspired coffeepot from 1893 and a Pueblo vase, from the same year, made of niello (a black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides, used as an inlay on engraved or etched metal), copper and gold that includes American Indian motifs.

From the inspired to the exotic

Another late 19th-century phenomenon reflected in the fairs was Exoticism, says curatorial assistant Reid.

“After Japan opened its borders to trade in the 1850s, there was a merging of styles from the East from countries such as Japan, China, India and the Middle East — all of those stylistic influences coming together,” she says.

“International trade had exposed the West to a lot of these places to begin with, but the world's fairs opened them up even more, and trade opening up with China and Japan in 1850s created a veritable craze for anything Asian, and you see that starting to come out a lot of these objects,” Reid says.

An elaborately enameled and gilded bronze vase designed by French designer Louis-Constant Sevin and produced by the Ferdinand Barbedienne Foundry around 1862 exemplifies this trend, having Islamic and Egyptian influences.

“I'm not sure that it ever was meant to be functional as much as it was meant to show off their artistic superiority,” Reid says of the elaborately decorated piece made with the champleve enameling technique.

Lovers of Art Nouveau will no doubt take delight in a small display meant to evoke famed Art Nouveau dealer Siegfried Bing's pavilion at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition.

“He was the ultimate purveyor of French and exquisite American goods, and many museums bought directly from them,” Busch says, standing in front of the display that has a vinyl rendering of the facade of his pavilion at the 1900 world's fair. “The idea of all of the objects in the platform in front of it is that they are sort of spilling out of his pavilion at the 1900 exhibition.”

A gilded silver French pitcher from 1900 by Keller Freres is a pivotal piece. “This piece is, in many ways, a metaphor for the exhibition. It's something that looks both forward and back. The sinuous curves looking toward historic styles in the first and parts of the second gallery, and the marked modernism of the handle with its streamlined appearance speaks about what one will see in the remaining galleries as well.”

From Nouveau to Deco

The third and final gallery holds objects from the early 20th century, with a special emphasis on objects of the Art Deco period.

“This was a period of the invention of tubular steel and Bakelite, which was taken on in full force by contemporary designers like Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss and Gilbert Rohde,” Busch says.

He points out that the use of Bakelite was something markedly new. It is seen here on the knobs of a Rohde's skyscraper vanity that was featured in the “House of Tomorrow” at the 1933 A Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago.

Made out of bent chromium-plated tubular steel, wood, Bakelite and an unadorned mirror, the form and style reflected the architecture of modern skyscrapers at that time.

This section includes an example of the world's first clear-acrylic chair, uranium glass and a glass table and chairs from PPG's “All Glass House in the Town of Tomorrow” at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Regular visitors to the Carnegie will no doubt recognize the slumped plate-glass chair featuring a curved back of inch-thick clear glass from its usual display in the museum's Scaife Galleries.

Attributed to designer Louis Dierra, Busch says of the chair, “This was something that was a prototype looking forward, but never necessarily took off.

“Could you imagine moving these chairs around a dining room table? I mean, it would break the back of every housewife in Pittsburgh.”

Busch is quick to point out that “Pittsburgh loomed large at the fairs,” with local manufacturers such as PPG, US Steel and Heinz becoming regular contributors to the world's fairs of the time.

“We're so proud of being able to celebrate both PPG and Westinghouse, two great Pittsburgh firms that exhibited at the fairs, both of which have financially supported this exhibition.”

The exhibit culminates with two murals made by Westinghouse Manufacturing and Electric Co. that were exhibited at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. Featuring a radio broadcasting panel on one and a map of the world on the other, Busch is quick to point out that the map shows “Pittsburgh is at the center of the world.”

“My hope, being a Pittsburgh transplant and loving this city, is that people, when they see this and they see how Pittsburgh contributed to the fairs, will celebrate this city.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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