PRINT December 1990


A SERIES OF major exhibitions on industrial design, some attended by over a hundred thousand people, might surprise the contemporary public of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a public used to a schedule dominated by “high art,” mostly from the past. But between 1917 and 1940, the period bracketed by the world wars, a number of largely forgotten programs addressed—the design of mass-produced objects. The original charter of 1870, in fact, included the mandate of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the—application of arts to manufacture and practical life.” Though neither survived for long, an industrial as well as a fine-art school were organized, and a number of open lectures argued design’s case for a place in the public eye.

These encyclopedic plans benefited from the active involvement as patrons of both powerful gentlemen from “society” and captains of finance and industry such as J. Pierpont Morgan, who served as president from 1904 to 1913, and whose personal collection came to the institution in 1918. The reasons for participation varied, and then as now, personal agendas and nationalistic jingoism, as well as the most idealistic social commitment, shaped the museum’s philosophy and its programming decisions. The thing to note, however, is that back then, few would have questioned the connection between museum matters and issues in the real world. Far from rendering a passive service as a museum for the muse’s sake, the Met was conceived from its beginnings as a large yet adaptable tool in the hands of mere mortals, all serving their own vision of what the muse might have in mind.

The first director of the museum was General Louis P. di Cesnola, who, intent on overcoming the American inferiority complex when faced with “culture,” ran it like an army on a forced march. The general was followed in 1905 by Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, a humanist rather than a soldier, who had previously been at the Victoria and Albert in London. The fact that he was “in touch with the modern art movement” was duly noted in the Nominating Committee’s report, as was the observation that he was “essentially a man of the people” who had a “thoroughly democratic and approachable” manner.1 His interest in education and his training in “industrial art” pleased those on the Met’s board in whom social concerns were as highly developed as their appreciation of art.

Such were the attitudes of Robert W. de Forest, a lawyer who began as secretary in 1904, then became president of the museum board in 1913 (and who, with his wife, gave the American Wing to the institution), and of Henry Watson Kent, who followed de Forest as secretary. Both of these Century Club gentlemen were active in the development of the industrial-arts program at the Met, and they also sat on the governing boards of such social programs outside the museum as the Tenement House Commission, the New York School of Social Work, the Welfare Council, and the Russell Sage Foundation.2 The museum was to be a “workshop” and a “laboratory”; as one writer in the Met’s Bulletin remarked, “the modern practice of quantity production” was “part and parcel of triumphant democracy.”3 These trustees further argued that industrial design had been considered separately from fine art only since the 18th century, and that this comparatively recent division—the product of the old monarchical society of France—was a bad one. The elevation of the work of the mind over the work of the hand had no place in a republic. Keeping an eye on practical matters, the industrial-arts program’s boosters stressed that good design was good for business, and that the customer would be willing to pay to get it. Both Kent and de Forest, as well as Sir Caspar, were deeply influenced by William Morris’ philosophy of the dignity of craft and the role of art in society. In 1918, for their Department of Industrial Relations (established to interact with trade and to cajole manufacturers into improved design habits), they hired the energetic Richard F. Bach from his post as curator of the School of Architecture at Columbia University, and for the next thirty-odd years Bach would preach a litany of cultural enlightenment as practical self-interest.

In 1917, the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art ran an article by Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer, “The Art Museum and the Public,” reprinted from the North American Review. An appreciative introduction signed “R.W. de F.” quoted her argument “that art, that beauty, is not a mere ornament of existence but a prime necessity of the eye and the soul, and that it need not be the personal possession of a few of the rich and leisured only but may be and should be a general possession, an integral part of the life of the community.” In his own words, de Forest added that “we make no distinction between what have been called the ‘fine arts’ and other arts.”4 That same year saw the first of the Met’s series of 15 industrial-art exhibitions. Titled “The Designer and the Museum,” it was a modest affair, housed in Class Room B, a study room set up by Kent. Like the following six shows this was essentially an object lesson, presenting industrially produced items that were copied or adapted from, or were inspired by, particular pieces in the permanent collection. The show included furniture, textiles, glass, photographs, ceramics, and accessories such as picture frames, jewelry, laces, lamps, playing cards, neckware, and other items made both in the United States and abroad. The objects’ labels included a reference to whatever museum piece had influenced their design.

These displays were essentially public relations exercises, intended to entice manufacturers and designers to use the Met’s collections as a resource.5 They aimed to demonstrate that an art museum had practical value to trade—that museum study was not an extra but a necessary part of business. But Kent was to remember that these early exhibitions also highlighted the almost negligible status and lack of expertise of the professional designer in America: “He could not compete with his kind across the sea; in technical knowledge, the suitability of his design to the particular machine, he was insufficiently trained; and in organized agencies for the marketing of his designs he was destitute. His was a hard proposition, and to make matters worse, he was up against a popular tradition which had come down from our Colonial days, that good things were, always had been, and always would be made in Europe.”6 It is interesting to note that the term “industrial designer” would not be used until 1927, and would not be accepted as a legal designation of profession by the United States government until 1944.

The context for Kent’s remarks was an early-20th-century America of eager but unschooled immigrants. Many of our grandparents had only recently come from an assortment of countries, and our industries were still deeply beholden to European roots and standards. Goods made in the United States were cheaper than imports but less desirable. During the First World War, trade from Europe had dried up, and home industries awoke to fill the gap. The country’s role in the eventual victory had brought it a new confidence and pride, and the wartime growth of industry to win the peace had helped establish America as an economic power. But though industrial volume was up, quality did not necessarily follow. In a text for the “Fourth Exhibition of Work by Manufacturers and Designers,” in 1920—“the most faithful chronicle of current events which an art museum can present . . . [the show] holds a mirror to unsettled social conditions resulting directly from the war and the turmoil of reconstruction”—Bach sadly reports that “public taste is not only at a standstill, it is sliding downhill.”7 But he is not discouraged, nor does he retreat to the painting and sculpture galleries for consolation. The solution is an activist museum: “The Metropolitan Museum has a practical or trade value, it is an adjunct of factory, shop, and designing room. It is a working collection, a museum militant, and rapidly taking its rightful place as a work-bench of American taste.”8

Discussing the next show in the series, in 1921, Bach remarks that the aggregate, fortunately, is hopeful, the standard of design higher. And by the eighth exhibition, in 1924, when American business was still thriving, he felt that the collection’s usefulness had been sufficiently proven. Accordingly the requirement that entries follow from direct museum study was dropped. From this time on, too, all the exhibits were both designed and made in the United States. An awareness of newer stylistic trends, albeit conservative ones, is evident in the selections for the eighth show; the displays include fewer post-Greek urns or neomedieval tapestries. Their designers are routinely named. Close to one thousand objects, representing 140 manufacturers, appeared in this “American Industrial Art” exhibition, and 22,176 people attended.

Bach proudly clipped his reviews. The New York Tribune, January 27, 1924: “Art has effectively entered into American industry. But it would be perhaps fairer to say that American manufacture is developing into an art.” The New York Times, February 10, 1924: “One can only admire it all immensely and gape at the astonishing talent that goes into the jaws of the machine.”9 Few other institutions were busying themselves in this area; in 1927, the number of museum staff members working full-time on industrial-art projects came to a grand national total of three.

Gathering sophistication as well as funds and expertise, the industrial-arts program prospered, and the 1929 show was a blockbuster exhibition for its time, masterminded by the resourceful Bach and backed by a $12,500 grant from the General Education Board. The greatly enlarged undertaking was titled “The Architect and the Industrial Arts: An Exhibition of Contemporary American Design,” and the interpretation of the term “architect” was inclusive: “a type of generalship in design by virtue of which many talents are marshaled under the banner of a leader, who is not master but guide and counselor, shaping many capacities to one end.”10 That must have warmed the hearts of the several architects Bach had invited to collaborate with him. Over 1,600 objects were created for the occasion, and installed in display rooms designed by such figures as Eliel Saarinen and Raymond Hood. The show opened on February 11. On March 3, a Sunday, during the five hours between one and six P.M., 18,444 people visited the museum, a record-setting count. By the end of March, 99,577 people had seen the exhibition, and by the time the show closed, on September 2, the audience totaled 185,256. The exhibition was reviewed nationally and internationally, in trade publications, ladies’ magazines, and newspapers as well as in art journals.

It should be pointed out that nowhere in the literature surrounding the industrial-arts program is “creativity” a key consideration, and that the catalogues are quick to wag a finger at those who would design without regard for the past, or would break too dramatically with tradition. Looking at photographs of the early shows, one is reminded just how far Americans were from accepting Modernist ideas of design. Bach seems to have positioned the Met as an educated observer, a qualified outsider serving contemporary industrial art and the general public by recording what had been done. The museum was to provide a venue somewhere between a juried trade fair and a scholarly curatorial forum, operating in the neutral air between “trade” and “culture.” In fact Bach went out of his way to shun the mantle of authority, stressing that the museum wished to be helpful by suggesting standards, not by imposing them. In doing so, it often represented design’s middle ground rather than its peaks. The contradiction in this stance was not discussed, or if it was the discussion left no trace. Nor were strict curatorial standards imposed: Bach’s department was run separately from those devoted to the permanent collection. Yet his judgment did affect public taste. The audience for his exhibitions grew, and the program, though no longer annual, gained stature: the 1934–35 show “Contemporary American Industrial Art,” the 13th in the series, was seen by 139,261 visitors over 63 days, the largest audience then recorded for any Met exhibition of similar length.

Bach’s populist philosophy is clearly visible in the series of shows he organized outside the industrial arts department: the “Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions,” each moving from 50 to 400 objects out of various departments at the Met to temporary locations all over New York City, where they were insured, installed, and protected by the museum over an eight-to-ten-week stay. The opening hours of these medicine-show museums were long, to allow working people to visit. There were also classes and lectures. The federal Works Project Administration cooperated by providing staff. Over the course of the series, which ended in 1941, over two million people were served.

With America’s entry into World War II, Bach’s programs were put on hold. And once the war was over, the times brought a new cast of personalities with other interpretations of the museum’s proper goals. In 1940, the Met had appointed a brash new director, Francis Henry Taylor, who changed the direction of the institution. Using the hiatus created by the war, he asked Bach for an evaluation of the programs he had directed before the museum would continue them. Temperamentally the new director and the older staffer were ill matched, and the situation was not helped when Kent, Bach’s longtime mentor, resigned after a dispute with Taylor. Bach had long-standing connections outside the museum, with the American Federation of Arts and with the business community, and his many published comments on the need for a museum of art and industries may well have caused concern for a director who intended to put his own stamp on the Met. Bach’s lack of concern for connoisseurship and curatorial correctness might also have been an irritant. But this is conjecture on my part, and Taylor’s reasons for ending the industrial-art activities could equally have rested on an awareness that the Museum of Modern Art was now active in the international design field, stepping faster and farther than Bach’s age and vantage point permitted.

Bach’s unpublished evaluation, completed in 1952, now rests in the Metropolitan Museum Archives. It is a utopian update of ideas first proposed by William Morris, though Bach acknowledges that Morris would have hated his outline for an industrial-arts museum of practical example and historical perspective. The most modern sources he quotes date to the ’20s and the ’30s, as if twenty years of world and art history had passed unnoticed. The report is tied more to the experiences of the past than to the needs of the future. Bach’s requirements for the person who would guide the activities he proposes are revealing:

A candidate of about age 38 . . . with a thorough grounding in the history of art, with architecture and the so-called decorative arts as a major interest, extensive study of economics and the history of industry; a strong public relations leaning, but definitely not a publicity obsession; education-minded in the broad sense, not teacher-minded; with perseverance to attend endless trade and professional association meetings, often to address them and to participate in committees dealing with industrial design and with education in that field; ability to prepare articles, even illustrated serial material, for trade journals; some knowledge of marketing and merchandising principles and methods, and of seasonal products; ability to interpret the collections, as source material not as models, in terms of their value to the designer of today as to general qualities, specific applicability, cultural significance, production feasibility in relation to industrial machinery and processes, and to both natural and synthetic materials; and last but not least, understanding of the institutional significance of the job in relation to the Museum complex as a whole.11

This job description is in fact a composite of all that Bach, then well past his 38th birthday, had been during his long tenure at the Met.

The director and the trustees did not share Bach’s vision, nor did they ask a paragon such as he had outlined to update his report. An era had passed. As laboratory of design, the museum closed, and the residue of 20th-century objects collected intermittently by curators in the Department of Decorative Arts (nothing from the 15 industrial-arts exhibitions had been purchased for the Met’s collection) were for the most part packed away. In the 1980s, in rotating installations in the new 20th-century-art wing given by Lila Acheson Wallace, some of them reemerged, not solely as examples of important mass-produced objects, but as important treasures.12 Their appearance in the Met today is in some ways a haunting, for it comes at a time when the museum’s temperament turns it away, for the most part, from the concerns of the working world. Yet we the public have been successfully taught that going to museums is good for us and more of us are going than ever. In his memoirs, in 1949, Kent had questioned whether museums had made good on their educational mission. He wrote, “That the museums have grown rich in their collections we will admit, but are our people more understanding of the value and the power of art?”13 Though other museums have addressed the exchange between high and low, fine and practical culture—an exchange once championed by the Met—the question still needs an answer.

Amy Baker Sandback is a writer who lives in New York.



1. The Nominating Committee report, quoted in Winifred Howe, “The Men Who Guided the Museum’s Course,” The History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1940, p. 9.

2. See Henry Watson Kent, What I Am Pleased to Call My Education, New York: The Grolier Club, 1949, p. 140.

3. William Laurel Harris, “The Industrial Art Exhibition,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art XIX no. 2, February 1924, p. 31.

4. Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer, “The Art Museum and the Public,” reprinted from the North American Review in the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art XII no. 3, March 1917, p. 57.

5. See Christine Wallace Laidlaw, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Modern Design: 1917–29,” Journal of Propaganda and Decorative Arts no. 8, Spring 1988, pp. 88–103.

6. Kent, “The Motive of the Exhibition of American Industrial Art,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art XXIV no 4, April 1929, p. 97.

7. Richard F. Bach, “Fourth Exhibition of Work by Manufacturers and Designers,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art XV no. 3, March 1920, pp. 49-50.

8. Ibid., p. 51.

9. “Industrial Art Exhibition,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art XIX no. 4, April 1924, p. 108.

10. “American Industrial Art Exhibition Plans,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art XXIII no. 12, December 1928, p. 290. The Cooperating Committee was composed of nine men: Raymond M. Hood, architect; Ely Jacques Kahn, architect; Eliel Saarinen, architect; Eugene Schoen, architect; Leon V. Solon, ceramic designer; Ralph T. Walker, architect; Armistead Fitzhugh, landscape architect; John Wellborn Root, architect; and Joseph Urban, architect and scenic designer.

11. Bach, “Museum Relations to Tndustry,” unpublished report prepared for the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1949–52, pp. 29–30.

12. R. Craig Miller, a member of the Department of American Decorative Arts from 1978 to 1983, was placed in charge of the post-1876 decorative-art collection in 1981. Examples of Art Deco, Moderne, and Modernist designs were added to the collection in cooperation with the Department of Twentieth Century Art, along with purchases of Arts and Crafts holdings, and a Frank Lloyd Wright collection was formed. Miller’s book Modern Design in the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1890–1990, published this past fall by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., gives both a history and an overview of the decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum. It also illustrates pieces in the permanent collection.

13. Kent, What I Am Pleased to Call My Education, p. 167.