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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

American Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs


World’s fairs have served to educate the public in human accomplishments through science and the arts, have forged links between cultures, and have set in motion events that might never otherwise have taken place. After his visit to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Andrew Carnegie was not only inspired to establish Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the museum’s noteworthy cast collections, he also introduced the annual Carnegie International exhibition in 1896. If it were not for the 1933 Chicago fair, James McNeill Whistler’s iconic painting Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother, also known as Whistler’s Mother, would not have traveled to the Midwest and been the star work at the opening of the William Rockhill Nelson-Gallery of Art (now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) in Kansas City, Missouri, in December 1933.

Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 at Carnegie Museum of Art celebrates the scientific and artistic achievements in objects that the nations of the world assembled at these global meeting places and underlines the vital role that the fairs played in creating and disseminating technological and aesthetic innovations. The exhibition also leads the way to a greater understanding of nineteenth- and twentieth-century objects, especially American decorative arts, within their social, political, and economic context.

Jason T. Busch is Chief Curator and The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Catherine L. Futter is Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Bookcase, Gustave Herter (American, b. Germany, 1830–1898), designer; Ernst Plassmann (American, 1823–1877), woodcarver; Bulkley and Herter, New York, N.Y. (ca. 1852–1858), maker, 1852–1853. White oak, eastern white pine, eastern hemlock, and yellow poplar with later stained glass. H. 134½, W. 118¾, D. 30¼ in. Shown at the Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, New York, 1853. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (97.35).

This monumental bookcase decorated with intricately carved Gothic spires, arches, buttresses, and figures dressed in quasi-medieval costumes representing the arts of sculpture, painting, music, and architecture was among the essential trappings offered to the most sophisticated and wealthiest clientele in the mid-nineteenth century. Its designer Gustave Herter, who had arrived in New York in 1848, brought with him knowledge of the latest styles from Germany, including the modish Gothic Revival. While ecclesiastical references to Gothic furniture and architecture are apparent, their particular arrangement on the bookcase, as well as its enormous scale and purpose, is anything but medieval. In America, the Gothic Revival style lent a European legitimacy to the young country’s artistic aspirations.
Candelabra, Haviland Brothers and Company (active 1842–present), Limoges, France, 1852–1853. Parian and glazed porcelain with enamel, gilding, and gilded brass. Each: H. 27½, W. 6¼ in. Shown at the Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, New York, 1853. New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. Wayne T. Moore in memory of his wife, Elizabeth Nelms Moore (1927–2004), (2007.26.1-2).
One of the most compelling success stories in adaptation and progress shown at the world’s fairs, certainly from an American point of view, was the enterprise established by American expatriate David Haviland in Limoges in 1842. The firm quickly developed a keen understanding of eighteenth-century French rococo forms, designs, and colors, and a thriving business reinterpreting them for their targeted client, the American consumer. These two recently rediscovered candelabra, displayed at the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York (the first world’s fair in America) are typical of the florid naturalism and ostentation of the rococo revival, which persisted in various manifestations in fair after fair into the twentieth century. While the naturalistic decoration and attire of the courting couple are derived from the era of Marie-Antoinette, the lavish gilding, realistic modeling of the figures, boldly contrasting color palettes, and enormous scale of the candelabra are truly modern for the mid-nineteenth century. In addition, parts of the figures are decorated in their bisque state, imparting a marble-like appearance, often referred to as Parian ware. The combination of glazed and bisque porcelain was considered highly inventive at the time.

Cabinet, Kimbel and Cabus, New York (1863–1882), 1876. Painted cherry wood with gilding, copper, mirrored glass, and original textile.
H. 81⅞, W. 52¾, D. 19⅝ in. Shown at the Centennial International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Victoria & Albert Museum, London (W.50-1984).

Anthony Kimbel and Joseph Cabus in New York City were the darlings of the 1876 Philadelphia world’s fair, partly because of their effective display of complete room settings. Referred to at the time as “artistic furniture,” objects created by Kimbel and Cabus balanced mixed materials and decoration from disparate sources into a cohesive, functional work of art designed to complement the architecture in which it was placed. In this 1870s cabinet, ebonized cherry wood evoking Japanese lacquer provides the canvas for gilt and incised lines depicting Egyptian-inspired, geometrically rendered palms and other vegetation, interspaced by bold brass Gothic strap hinges. The mixture of motifs spoke to the layering of cultural influences prevalent in the then current Aesthetic Movement in England and America that was influenced by increasing global trade and exchange.
Chest of drawers, Agnes Pitman (American, 1850–1946), 1875. American black walnut, pine, yellow poplar, and nickel-plated brass. H. 54¾, W. 38¾, D. 18 in. Shown at the Centennial International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of Melrose Pitman (1970.164).

As an important member of a family of artists, Agnes Pitman viewed crafts such as woodworking as a celebration of American materials and traditions. She was heavily involved in the woodworking department of the University of Cincinnati School of Design founded by her father, Benn Pittman, in 1873. Pitman exhibited this chest of drawers, made of North American black walnut, at the Women’s Pavilion at the 1876 Philadelphia fair along with a collection of furniture, painted tiles, and pottery from other students. She carved the fronts of each of the six drawers with designs of local Midwestern plants, each drawer representing the month when the flower is in bloom—self-conscious emblems of American nationalism at the time of the country’s centennial celebration.
Wooton patent office cabinet secretary, William S. Wooton (American, 1837–1907), designer; Wooton Desk Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis, Ind. (1880–1884), manufacturer, 1880–1884. Walnut, maple, white pine, gilded cardboard, and bronze. H. 82½, W. 42½, D. 31 in. Model shown at the Centennial International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection (1987.182).

This cabinet secretary is a perfect example of nineteenth-century conspicuous consumption, business acumen, and trompe l’oeil design all wrapped in a late Renaissance revival object. The architectonic cabinet unfolds to reveal an intricate storage system when the doors are swung open, a feat of engineering considering the balance required to cantilever the doors without compromising the structural integrity of the object. With interchangeable drawers and file slots, it represents efficiency and effective mass production. Ever the salesman, William S. Wooton provided four different grades of his patented desk, Ordinary, Standard, Extra Grade, and Superior Grade, priced between $100 and $750, each level providing more richly decorated surfaces. This Extra Grade desk includes Renaissance revival bracketing on the crest and incised and gilded decoration on the interior. After its appearance at the Philadelphia world’s fair in 1876, desks were shipped to San Francisco, London, and Rio de Janeiro, among other places, while the company could boast of John D. Rockefeller and President Ulysses S. Grant as customers.

Century vase, Karl L. H. Müller (American, 1820–1887), designer; Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (1863–ca. 1922), manufacturer, 1876. Porcelain with enamel and gilding. H. 22½, Diam. 12 in. Shown at the Centennial International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection (1986.163).

Manufactured exclusively for the Philadelphia 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, the century vase is embellished with events from America’s past as well as scenes of modern progress and industry. George Washington adorns the center of both sides, seemingly observing such famous scenes as William Penn’s treaty with Native Americans and the Boston Tea Party. Other scenes done in enamel of plowing with a mechanical harvester are placed against fast moving steamboats and sewing machines, the last a recent invention. An image of a potter using a steam-powered jigger to make a pot unabashedly advertises American ingenuity. Bison heads serve as handles while smaller heads of creatures indigenous to the New World, such as a walrus, act as a conspicuous sign of plenty. This narrative of American nationalism is enlivened by beautifully executed polychrome, gilding, and inventive shallow relief sculpting at the base.
Coffeepot, Tiffany & Co. New York, NY (1837–present), 1893. Silver with enamel, ivory, and jade. H. 10, W. 6⅛, D. 3 inches.
Shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (83.16.2).

Tiffany & Company established its reputation through decades of innovation, creating decorative art through such complicated processes as electroplating, damascening, and enameling, many of which were debuted at world fairs. In this silver coffeepot, vivid yellow and blue enamels convey the idea of a leafy marsh, while the muted enamel banding is cleverly mottled to resemble amber. Fluting on the bellied body offers a three-dimensional perspective of the stylized motifs of lotus and palm fronds. The coffeepot reflects the exoticism popular in the late nineteenth century: the designs are primarily Egyptian in style, while the form of the vessel resembles a traditional Turkish pot with onion-domed lid, here crowned by a piece of Asian jade and an Egyptian cobra-head as a thumb rest.
Dressing table and stool, William C. Codman (American, b. England, 1839–1921), designer; Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, R.I. (1831–present), manufacturer, 1899. Silver with mirrored glass, ivory, and modern upholstery. H. 60, W. 50, D. 33 in. Shown at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Dr. Charles L. Venable (2000.356).

Tiffany’s main American competitor at the international exhibitions was the Providence, Rhode Island based Gorham and Company. The most impressive display by Gorham at the 1900 world’s fair in Paris was this solid silver table and stool promoted by Gorham and its lead designer William Codman as organically rendered, handcrafted compositions. They took over 2,300 hours of labor and 1,250 ounces of silver to make. Decorated with meandering vines and leaves and clusters of floral motifs characteristic of the prevalent Art Nouveau movement, their pronounced cabriole legs with ball and claw feet reference English rococo designs that were popular in colonial America, and which enjoyed a revival of interest following the centennial of 1876.
Vase, Kataro Shirayamadani (American, b. Japan, 1865–1948), designer and decorator; Rookwood Pottery Co., Cincinnati, Ohio (1880–1967), 1900. Glazed earthenware and copper, H. 18¼ x Diam. 5¾ in. Shown at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2012.1).

One of the most outstanding triumphs of the Rookwood Pottery Company’s chief decorator Kataro Shirayamadani was his perfection of an electrodepositing process in 1897 that enabled unprecedented formal integration of ceramic and metalwork components. This vase, a true masterwork in art pottery, is one of the top extant examples of Shirayamadani’s work in the technique. The expertly conceived copper-coated fish, rendered by relief carving and modeling in the earthenware clay, blend seamlessly into the watery depth on the body, the appearance of which was achieved with a wash of dappled black underglaze oxide and Rookwood’s famed “Sea Green” glaze, itself a major innovation of 1894. Rookwood unveiled its electrodeposited wares to the world at the 1900 Paris fair.
Corsage ornament, Tiffany & Co., New York, N.Y. (1837–present), 1900. Montana sapphires, diamonds, demantoid garnets, topaz, blued steel, gold alloys, and platinum. H. 9½, Diam. 2¾ in. Shown at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Acquired by Henry Walters (1900, 57.939).

The uneasy coexistence of historicism and modernism, manifested in the contrast between the appearance of objects and the methods used to make and decorate them, reached its apex at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. The Tiffany & Company stand at the fair was replete with splendid jewels and silver designed by Paulding Farnham, who advocated the use of traditional, indigenous gemstones to propel inventive combinations of color and composition, with the emphasis remaining the lovely stones. The firm’s clientele in America favored expressions of wealth, yet the sumptuous display at the fair of glittering jewels and large corsage ornaments was also a hit with the international visitors. The greatest of these baubles was assuredly the blue iris brooch purchased by Henry Walters of Baltimore, and remains in his museum today. With a nine-inch stem of gold, it rises to a flower completely covered in Montana sapphires.
Long chair, 1936, Marcel Breuer, American (b. Hungary), 1902–1981, designer. Isokon Furniture Company, London, England, 1935–1939,
manufacturer. Plywood. H. 30¾, W. 51, D. 24¼ in. Model shown at the Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939.
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, (90.19).

Four angled intersecting planes imply a human shape in this chaise, the design for which was shown at the 1939 San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition. Based on Marcel Breuer’s earlier designs in aluminum, the object represents a contemporaneous interest in the organic materiality of wood and the processes of plywood and bentwood construction. The chair also creates the illusion of suspending the sitter in space. The English firm that manufactured Breuer’s designs, Isokon Furniture Company, highlighted this long chair in their 1937 catalogue, claiming it gave “scientific relaxation to every part of the body, immediately creating a feeling of well-being. It is even a better aid to digestion than any medicine under the sun. Admirable for those who take forty winks after dinner.”

Chair, design attributed to Louis Dierra (American, active ca. 1939); Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co., Pittsburgh, Penn. (1883–present), manufacturer, ca. 1939. Glass with synthetic upholstery. H 29¼, W. 23¼, D. 22¾ in. Model shown at the New York World’s Fair, 1939. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (83.78.2).
The Glass Center Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York exhibited a technological triumph, a model dining room by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. containing a glass-topped table, a glass-paneled sideboard, and glass-framed chairs. This chair is a rare survival and an innovative composition in advanced slumped plate glass it was originally upholstered in self-referential fiberglass fabric. Heralded by House and Garden magazine as one of “the decorative prophecies that will shape our World of Tomorrow,” glass furniture did not capture
the public imagination; its weight and fragility were too impractical for daily use.

Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 is on view at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through February 24, 2013. The exhibition tours to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Mint Museum, Charlotte in 2013. The accompanying exhibition catalogue was the basis for this article. For more information call 412.622.3131 or visit

Jason T. Busch is Chief Curator and The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Catherine L. Futter is Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.