Art Deco Textiles In America Part 2: American History and Modern Life

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We're finishing up Textile Month after some technical difficulties! This week we bring you the long awaited Part 2 of our Art Deco textiles series. Catch up with Part 1 at the link below, and then read all about how American history and contemporary life influenced new textile design in the 1920s!

Part 1: Africana Prints and Non-Western Influences

Sample from the "American National Parks" series, H. R. Mallinson and Company, ca. 1927. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.151.3.

Firstly, a quick recap of the background of American textile design. American textile designers had traditionally looked towards France for design inspiration, but after World War I designers began to search for a style that was uniquely American. America was in the midst of an explosion of modernity. Skyscrapers, jazz music, and the rise of Hollywood films were all signifiers of an exciting new American identity. American designers realized their own potential for creativity and uniquely American artistic contributions. As discussed in the previous post, many designers turned towards Non-Western influences, taking inspiration from the art of Africa and the Americas to inspire modern designs symbolic of America's status as a melting pot of different cultures. But other designers instead looked to more local influences, exploring the American past and present through designs that represented the quintessentially American experience.

Lounging pajamas made from silk from the "Early American" series by H.R. Mallinson and Company, ca. 1930. Textile design attributed to Hazel Burnham Slaughter. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2653a,b.

There was an enormous expansion of the American silk industry in the 1920s, and the simple cuts and silhouettes of women's fashion allowed a broad canvas to showcase printed fabrics. Two of the major silk manufacturers were H. R. Mallinson and Co. and Stehli Silks Corporation. H. R. Mallinson and Co. was founded by Hiram Royal Mallinson and Moses Charles Migel in 1900, then named M.C. Migel and Co. But by the early 1910s Migel had retired and sold his interest in the company, which officially became H.R. Mallinson and Co. in 1915. Mallinson was the son of Polish immigrants and his company became a key figure in the search for an American aesthetic. In the 1910s Mallinson took advantage of the craze for Non-Western influenced textiles and introduced the "Mexixe" line of printed silks inspired by Aztec, Mexican, and Native American art. But what H.R. Mallinson and Co. is most remembered for are their American history inspired series of silk designs.

Silk from the "American National Parks" series by H. R. Mallinson and Company depicting Paradise Valley and Mount Rainier, 1927. The Newark Museum, J. Ackerman Cotes Collection.

Woman's dress made from silk from the "American Indian" series by H. R. Mallinson and Company. Print titled "Sioux War Bonnet", ca. 1928. RISD Museum, 2006.6.

Mallinson produced a "State Flower" range of silks in 1915 and 1929. Silks inspired by Native American motifs were designed in 1916 and 1925, followed by a highly successful "American Indian" series in 1928 (an example of which is pictured above). In 1927, Mallinson produced a "American National Parks" series (an example of which is pictured above) as a response to the "Americana Prints" from the Stehli Silks Corporation, which celebrated American life. The "American National Parks" prints were an enormous success and prompted a follow up series, "Wonder Caves of America". In 1929 the "Early American" series celebrated scenes from America's past, such as the textile below which features images of the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross creating the American flag.

Silk from the "Early American" series by H.R. Mallinson and Company. Print titled "Besty Ross-Liberty Bell", 1929. RISD Museum, 57.083.100K.

Mallinson's textiles celebrate America's past, with scenes of covered wagons, George Washington, and Native American tribes representing the rich cultural history of the country. The textiles also celebrate the present, with the "American National Parks", "Wonder Caves of America", and "State Flower" series showcasing the vast and unique landscapes that make up America. They are a celebration of the traditions of American life.

"Americana Print: Metropolis", designed by F.V. Carpenter for Stehli Silks Corporation, ca. 1927. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.243.5.

The silks produced by the Stehli Silks Corporation, on the other hand, celebrated modernity. Under artistic director Kneeland "Ruzzie" Green, Stehli Silks produced the most avant garde and modern prints, partnering with artists, illustrators, and even celebrities to create vibrantly graphic patterns that represented contemporary America. From 1925 to 1927 Stehli Silks issued it's collection of "Americana Prints". An enormous success in their time and remembered today as some of the finest Art Deco textiles created, the "Americana Prints" were masterminded by Green, who brought in a wealth of contributors to create different designs that represented multiple elements of modern life.

"Americana Print: Thrills", designed by Dwight Taylor for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1927. The Victoria & Albert Museum, T.87G-1930.

"Americana Print: A Game of Tennis", designed by Helen Wills for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1927. The Victoria & Albert Museum, T.87F-1930.

Leisure activities were represented, such as roller coaster riding in "Thrills" (designed by Dwight Taylor, 1927) and "A Game of Tennis" (designed by famous tennis player Helen Wills, 1927). Contemporary life in the big city was portrayed in textiles such as "Manhattan" (designed by Clayton Knight, 1925) and "My New York" (designed by Pierre Mourgue, 1926-28).

LEFT: "Americana Print: Manhattan", designed by Clayton Knight for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1925. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.150.3.
RIGHT: Photograph of a model wearing a dress made from the "Manhattan" print. Photograph by Kadel & Herbert
Commercial Department, 1925. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984.546.5.4.

"Americana Print: My New York", designed by Pierre Mourgue for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1926-28. The Cooper Hewitt, 1953-108-1.

 Graphic design and the Dada art movement had their influences in 1925, with Ruzzie Green's "message prints" playing on words such as "It" and "Cheerio". The "It" print referred to the idea of the It Girl, the woman who just had "it". Famous movie star Clara Bow was often described as having "it", and in 1927 she starred in a movie simply titled It. In wearing a dress of the "It" print, a woman could gain a part of that illusive quality. The It Girl is a distinctly modern concept, making it a fitting subject for an "Americana Print".

"Americana Print: Cheerio", designed by Kneeland "Ruzzie" Green for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1925. The Cooper Hewitt, 1937-1-1.

"Americana Print: It", designed by Kneeland "Ruzzie" Green for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1925. The Cooper Hewitt, 1937-1-7.

Ordinary objects also provided inspiration for designs such as "Pegs" (designed by Charles B. Falls, ca. 1927) and "Moth Balls and Sugar" (designed by seminal photographer Edward J. Steichen, 1927). These silks used the strong graphic quality of every day objects to create abstract designs. The clean lines and strong shapes featured in these prints spoke clearly to the Art Deco aesthetic.

"Americana Print: Pegs", designed by Charles B. Falls for Stehli Silks Corporation, ca. 1927. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.243.2.

"Americana Print: Moth Balls and Sugar", designed by Edward J. Steichen for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1927. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.149.1.

American popular culture was also represented in textile design, a throwback to the figural printed cottons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. "Rhapsody in Blue" (designed by famed illustrator John Held Jr., ca. 1927) was inspired by George Gershwin's 1924 composition of the same name, which combined elements of classical music and jazz to create a uniquely American style of music. And "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (designed by Ralph Barton, 1925) was inspired by the 1925 comic novel by Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady. The novel tells the saucy tale of a young woman living a lavish life in the 1920s, a record of the modern American woman.

"Americana Print: Rhapsody in Blue", designed by John Held Jr. for Stehli Silks Corporation, ca. 1927. The Victoria & Albert Museum, T.87O-1930.

"Americana Print: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", designed by Ralph Barton for Stehli Silks Corporation, 1925. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 27.149.11.

The "Americana Prints" celebrated the life of the typical middle-class American, who might live in a big city, go to an amusement park to ride a roller coaster, possess everyday household objects like pegs and sugar cubes, and enjoy modern entertainment. With the rise of the ready-to-wear fashion industry high fashion was more accessible than ever before and the "Americana Prints" are representative of this trend, celebrating the lives not of the elite but of ordinary Americans.

Learn more about H.R. Mallinson and Co. here and here.

Learn more about the Stehli Silks Corporation and the "Americana Prints" here.

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