Times & Places

American and European Design - 1920 to 1960


In the 1920s, the influence of European modernism—the decorative styling of French art deco, or art moderne, and the functional purity of Germany’s Bauhaus school—began to transform American design. Art deco works ranged from the superlative luxury of designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann’s craftsmanship to the use of the latest industrial materials and techniques in the glass production of designer René Lalique. The underlying characteristic was the fusion of historical reference and modern streamlining, giving art deco its unique character. It both symbolized the glamour of the modern age and evoked the mystery of the past, as reflected in the furniture by American maker Company of Master Craftsmen.

Within Germany’s Bauhaus school, designers were encouraged to eliminate all unnecessary ornament, dispense with references to past styles, and create an international expression of the modern age. Innovative materials such as tubular chromium steel allowed for efficiency in production and use and also promoted a vision of a new mechanistic ideal. By the 1930s, utilitarian conveniences such as household appliances were shaped or restyled as glamorous celebrations of speed, flight, and the transformative power of the machine. Industrial designers such as Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Lurelle Guild became public figures.

Following World War II, designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and George Nelson further explored the possibilities of new manufacturing technologies and materials. Achievements in the contouring of plywood and refinement of plastics made possible the organic, sculptural forms that dominated design during the 1940s and 50s. This aesthetic of biomorphic modernism, with its gently curving amoeboid shapes, quickly challenged the mechanistic geometry of earlier functionalism and streamlining.

Adapted from

DMA Gallery text