Modern Americana: Studio Furniture from High Craft to High Glam
By Todd Merrill and
Julie V. Iovine
Rizzoli International Publications
New York, New York
Modern Americana-the designation seems an oxymoron, the first word suggesting pared-down functionality and the second bringing to mind the folksy or the Pop, or Colonial furnishings. The authors of this survey-Todd Merrill, a dealer and specialist in postwar designers, and Julie V. Iovine, executive editor of The Architect's Newspaper -have chosen it to define a rather eclectic group of 27 furniture maker/designers whose work, produced from the 1940s into the 1990s, represents an original strain of design characterized by novel forms and excellent craftsmanship. "Americana is a term that has been used to describe American folk and decorative arts and furniture," they write in the introduction. "While modernism in the design sense originated in Europe, the tradition of small-scale production of high-end furniture by artist-craftsmen who designed, built, and controlled the production of their furniture is a particularly strong American paradigm."
The cast of characters is divided into four groupings, though the lines between categories can be blurry. Within each section, the authors profile each designer-maker, focusing on artistic vision and creative process.
For those familiar with the studio craft field, the names Wharton Esherick, Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof, Arthur Espenet Carpentar and Jack Rogers Hopkins, creator of the Edition chair -among the seven in the first category-are well-known as pioneers; in the designer craftsmen group are George Nakashima, Vladimir Kagan, and sometime collaborators Paul Evans and Phillip Lloyd Powell; the custom design section features the luxe creations of Tommi Parzinger, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Karl Springer and James Mont, while the decorator-designer section includes Paul Laszlo and Samuel Marx.
Modern Americana is valuable as well as entertaining for its abundant illustrations-images of the designers, their furniture, sketches and drawings and, most important to convey period ambience, the interiors featuring their works. In some instances their own homes are pictured, as with Maloof, Carpenter and Esherick (examples of the "high craft" of the book's title), and in others, interiors designed for the rich and famous, such as William Haines's 1948 living room for the actress Joan Crawford or Charles Hollis Jones's acrylic tables and lamps for the home of Loretta Young (representing "high glam").
Although person by person, the 27 makers and designers presented here are eminently worthy of research and appreciation, it is not utterly convincing that they collectively have a great deal in common beyond the fact that their works are fetching premium prices at auction today. It is extremely gratifying to admirers of the pioneers of studio furniture to see their work considered as a style in the larger context of American mid- to late-20th-century design but the book doesn't seem to acknowledge that the pioneers of studio craft established a furniture movement that has taken hold, attracted a second and even a third generation of adherents and museums and a knowledgeable segment of the public, and continues to produce expressive, innovative, well-crafted work into the 21st century. Looks like a follow-up book may be in order.