Making America Modern:
Interior Design in the 1930s
A 1933 article in Women’s Wear Daily Retailing reported that sales of modern designs accounted for less than five percent of total department store furniture sales in ten of the thirteen cities surveyed. Five years later, House Beautiful was declaring 1938 “the year of the emergence of American Modern,” a style “as American as redwoods, steamed clams, the Palisades, and Pike’s Peak.” Making America Modern: Interior Design in the 1930s, the latest book from design historian Marilyn F. Friedman, relates the evolution of modern American interior design and its acceptance by American consumers over that decade.
As chronicled in Friedman’s 2003 book Selling Good Design, in the years following the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris, American consumers became aware of trends in modern design largely through department store exhibitions of modern furniture from both European and American designers. Making America Modern picks up where Selling Good Design left off and follows the modernization of American interior design through the 1930s, year by year.
At the beginning of the decade, newly-formed professional associations such as the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (AUDAC) took the lead in promoting modern design. The interiors displayed at exhibitions by these groups and commissioned by clients wealthy enough to withstand the hardships of the Great Depression showed a strong European influence.
Donald Deskey selected tubular steel furniture for the penthouse living room he designed for the AUDAC exhibit at the 1930 Home Show in New York’s Grand Central Palace. The tables and chairs in the dining room designed by Hammond Kroll in 1931 for the New York apartment of Florence and Robert Ackerman resembled those of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Maurice Dufrêne, and the study created by Joseph Urban and Irwin L. Scott in 1932 for Katherine Brush borrowed from the Vienna Secession and Pierre Chareau’s library/office at the Paris Exposition.
Even in these early years, however, designs were starting to combine elements of European Modernism with sleek curvilinear forms, new American-made materials like Formica, cushioned seating, and an emphasis on comfort and simplicity that enhanced their appeal to an American audience.
Toward the mid-1930s, designers began to embrace a so-called classic modern approach to interior design, which Decorative Furnisher described as “still modern . . . but tamed down to blend inconspicuously into the most traditional of backgrounds.” Classic modern designs enabled consumers to introduce individual pieces of modern furniture into their homes without committing to a completely new modern interior. The classic modern living room of the Suburban House in Macy’s 1933 Forward House exhibition combined curvilinear and angular furniture, used metal only for accents, and adopted a soft color palette.
The introduction of modular furniture allowed for flexibility in arranging and rearranging furniture and facilitated its placement in spaces of different sizes and shapes. A model room designed by Russel Wright for a 1934 display at Bloomingdale’s combined an armless loveseat and two one-armed chairs in a traditional sofa. The two chairs could be joined to form an armed loveseat appropriate for a smaller space.
Designs inspired by Asian and Swedish modern aesthetics began to replace the Central European influence of earlier years. “Serial manufacture,” the term for production in volume preferred by Richard Bach, the Metropolitan Museum’s Director of Industrial Relations, enhanced efficiency and lowered costs. These trends, combined with the simplicity, flexibility, practicality, beauty, and comfort tailored to American life in the twentieth century, contributed to the acceptance of modern interior design in this country.
Joseph Urban and Irvin L. Scott, apartment for Katherine Brush and Hubert Winans, New York, 1932. Photo: Fay S. Lincoln. Fay S. Lincoln Photograph Collection, 1920–1968. Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.
Living room in the Suburban House of Forward House at R.H. Macy & Co., New York, 1933, from The Upholsterer and Interior Decorator, October 15, 1933.
This article is an excerpt from a book review of Marilyn Friedman’s Making America Modern: Interior Design in the 1930s (Bauer and Dean Publishers, 2018) originally published for the For Your Art Deco Library column in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.