From the first international exhibition in London in 1851 to the New York World’s Fair in 1939, more than 90 events were held in 22 countries. With the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1851, world’s fairs became the most important global forum for debuting technological advancements and defining fashionable tastes.
Among the objects at the fairs were those laden with historical associations, demonstrating the relevance of motifs and forms from the past on the decorative arts of the present. As a decorative arts scholar, I have always been intrigued by revival styles and how they coincided with the advancement of modern machine production. Science and ingenuity were united with the decorative arts at a pivotal moment in the nineteenth century, and revivalism became the platform for debuting inventive and progressive processes that contributed to an increasingly modern world. The uneasy coexistence of historicism and modernism reached its apex at the 1900 fair in particular, an event that symbolically looked forward and back at the turn of the century.
William C. Codman, designer, American (b. England), 1839–1921; Gorham Manufacturing Company, manufacturer, United States (Providence, RI), 1831–present; Dressing table and stool, 1899, silver with mirrored glass, ivory, and modern upholstery; Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Dr. Charles L. Venable, 2000.356
One of my favorite examples from Inventing the Modern World (and I have many favorites) is a dressing table and stool by Gorham Manufacturing Company shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. An impressive masterpiece, the objects required more than 2,300 hours of labor and 1,250 ounces of silver to create. This was the grandest example in Gorham’s new line of handcrafted Martelé, or “hammered” objects, showcased at the 1900 fair. At a time when machine production was increasingly dominant, Gorham proved that there was still interest in meticulously handcrafted objects.
At the time this object was made, the Art Nouveau was immensely popular. Artists and designers were eager to move away from the imitative revival styles in order to create a new, modern international aesthetic. While the table and stool are decorated with sinuous vines and leaves and clusters of floral motifs characteristic of the Art Nouveau, their pronounced cabriole legs with ball and claw feet reference Rococo designs that were popular in colonial America. Both forward and backward looking, the dressing table and stool encapsulates the tension between historicism and modernism that was so prevalent at the fairs.
See other objects of desire from the exhibition.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalogue.