The Jazz Age: An Interview with Curator Stephen Harrison

The exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art have been uneven of late, but the one on view now, The Jazz Age, is a dazzler. It’s visually stunning; it’s intellectually fascinating; it’s full of wonderful surprises, in that it brings together objects that you don’t usually see in an art museum, such as jewelry and costumes, in a highly creative fashion; it’s one of those shows that truly make you see the world around you in a new way. If one were writing a textbook on how to make a great exhibition, this one would certainly make a wonderful case study.

For anyone from Cleveland it’s particularly exciting, since two of the most remarkable objects in the show were made in Cleveland: a decorative screen made by Paul Fehér and Martin Rose, that graces the cover of the catalogue, and the Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost, one of the masterworks of the epoch.

It’s a show worth visiting more than once: the first few times just to wander and be entranced, return visits to make sense of the individual sections, and perhaps even a final visit to assimilate the whole ensemble and the deeper creative message. For local artists in the burgeoning “maker” and design scenes, it should be an inspiration.

How does an exhibition like this come into being? To find out I interviewed the museum’s curator of decorative arts, Stephen Harrison, who in partnership with Sarah Coffin at the Cooper Hewitt in New York, conceived and executed the project.

Stephen is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where he was a Jefferson Scholar. He earned an MS in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in early American material culture from the Winterthur Museum Program of the University of Delaware. He has had curatorial positions in New Orleans, Dallas and Atlanta.

HA: What brought you to Cleveland?

SH: I had worked with Charles Venable in Dallas, after working at the High Museum. He and I did an exhibition on 20th century china and glass. He and Katharine Reid hired me here. At the High Museum I reinstalled the collection of decorative arts when Renzo Piano was expanding the building. I came here to do the exact same thing.

How did the concept of this exhibition come about?

I had been thinking about this 1920s material for some time, but the project began in earnest four or five years ago, after I completed my first show in Cleveland, Artistic Luxury, on the work shown by Fabergé, Tiffany and Lalique at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. When the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh staged a show on World’s Fairs, I wrote a chapter on the exposition of decorative arts in Paris in 1925. That really got me thinking about the period. At the symposium for that show I sat next to Sarah Coffin, curator of decorative arts and product design at the Cooper Hewitt, and she was thinking about the same time frame, but focusing more on immigrant designers—for example Viennese and French artists who came to the United States. “Why not put the two projects together?” we said.

Once you’d decided to work together, how did you get started?

We came together fairly soon after that and began to talk about broad areas of interest. We decided to give the show an American slant—to focus on American taste and on objects that were either made in America, or that Americans had seen or commissioned in Europe. Instead of starting with themes, we decided to pull the objects first and see where they led us. As we chose objects they began to speak to each other and we saw relationships we hadn’t considered. For example, we were astonished by how much the art of this period reflected Viennese taste. We hadn’t reckoned we would find that to such a degree. We also began to note how changes in lifestyle changed the design of objects. For example, hairstyles changed, so tiaras that once sat on top of the head became bandeaux that wrap around the forehead. What we were after was a sense of the milieu—to give our visitor the mood of the time, to transport them back to a different epoch: to contextualize.


The art of this period is often described as Art Deco.

We didn’t want to use the term Art Deco because it didn’t encompass everything. It was a misnomer. We went back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and used the phrase “The Jazz Age.” We felt that jazz was the best metaphor for the period. Jazz pushed the boundaries of acceptable music at the time, just as any number of elements were pushing the boundaries of design.

There’s definitely an African American undercurrent to the show. Jazz music became a metaphor for a whole new way of putting things together. That’s what Viktor Schreckengost’s Jazz Bowl is all about. And we were extremely lucky to get two important African American paintings for the show: Archibald Motley’s Blues, and Aaron Douglas’s Go Down Death, which Mark Cole acquired for the Cleveland Museum. They’re very different, but both masterworks.

The whole period is about contrasts.

We were interested in cultural collisions. For example, the skyscraper bookcases by Viennese designer Paul Frankl. Could an American have designed them? I don’t think so. It took a foreign eye to see the power and majesty of American skyscrapers and to translate that into a piece of furniture. It’s these collisions that are so exciting. Viennese, French, American, African American influences were all bouncing off each other.

But along with daring, modern design we included more traditional work—such as the colonial revival desk and bookcase. Doing this was a bit controversial from the scholarly point of view because usually museums don’t want to consider anything outside the progress of modernism. Also, we include the two very traditional Gothic Revival stained-glass windows that Ralph Adams Cram gave to the Cleveland Museum of Art. We were trying not to make value judgments but to present a true picture of the period.

We’ve come to increasingly understand that great achievements are generally not simply the result of individual genius, but of some sort of dialogue. For example, there’s a famous photograph of Kiki of Montparnasse next to an African mask. In the past it’s always been credited entirely to Man Ray, but recent research has revealed that it was a probably a collaboration between Man Ray and his friend, the set designer George Sakier, who owned the mask and most likely helped stage the shot. As it happens, further on in the show we included work by George Sakier: some fluted vessels he designed for the American glass manufacturer Fostoria, in 1929.

With the Jazz Bowl and the Rose Iron Works screen, Cleveland plays a notable role in this exhibition. Can you comment on that?

Well the Jazz Bowl and Rose Iron Works Screen are standouts. But there are other things as well. I added a humorous ceramic piece by Russell Barnett Aitken that wasn’t shown in New York, the Sheriff of Pecos. There’s no better example of his technical prowess. Every one of those pieces might have popped off in the kiln, but somehow, he knew how to make them stick. Cleveland really had a moment in that era.

There’s an amazing range of media in the exhibition. How did you create a sense of coherence?

Vistas anchor the show. For example, at the entrance you get to peek through a gilded Edgar Brandt fire screen to a gigantic gold leaf folding screen with a design of foxes by Albert Rateau. The gold creates a pull between the two objects and leads you on into the exhibition. A nice detail is that the way the fire screen is lit creates beautiful shadow patterns on the floor. The chandelier from the 1925 exposition in Paris is an important anchor but was a challenge to install. It literally weights about a ton and we had to install a special I-beam to hold it. For every room we have a large, dramatically lit object that you can see from a great distance and that pulls you in.

The two cars were very carefully chosen to serve as bookends to the exhibition. The first, the Rolls-Royce, is a backward-looking design, a horseless carriage which looks back to the elegant horse-drawn carriages of the Belle Époque. The second, the Cord, is a forward-looking design that emanates from its function. It’s purpose-built for speed. One machine looks back and one looks forward.

Whenever you have three-dimensional objects, it’s very difficult to get the lighting right. And one of the things that’s remarkable about the exhibition is the way you combine very large objects with very small ones. It’s quite a challenge to get that to work. There’s lots of jewelry, for example.

Differences of scale were challenging. We wanted some works that would take your breath away because of their scale. But we didn’t want them to overpower the others. The way to do that was to create clusters of objects that are more intimate. The jewelry, for example, is shown together, so that you can come close and look at it in an intimate way. But you’re constantly reminded of the larger objects. For example, the chandelier from the 1925 World’s Fair is reflected on the glass of the cases in which jewelry is displayed nearby. The chandelier serves as a marker of the 1925 World’s Fair in Paris, and you’re invited to look at the small objects with that in mind.

What was the installation team?

I worked closely on the installation with Jim Engelman and Andrew Gutierez, and we pulled in Jeffrey Strean when we weren’t sure of something—when we wondered, “Will we get fired if we do this?” We had never done these glossy black risers before. Shortly before we met about the installation I saw a Fred Astaire movie with Eleanor Powell where they’re dancing against a black surface. I thought perhaps we could paint the risers glossy black. Then Jeffrey Strean suggested that we could use black laminate. You’re always afraid it’s going to look kitschy, but it worked. We tried to use it where it would be most effective.

Lots of things happened serendipitously in the show. One night we were installing quite late. The mannequins came with bases, but we didn’t want their square blocks to be visible so we made new poles which we imbedded in the platforms. The dress with the chinoiserie cape, however, had its own base, which didn’t fit with the others, so we just put it in the other room next to the desk and bookcase and called it a night. The next morning, we looked at what we had done, and realized it fit perfectly. It went with other examples of chinoiserie in the room and it also created a link with the other costumes further on.

It’s interesting that you included so many costumes in the exhibition.

Costumes are always challenging but it helped that we made the decision to include them early on, so whenever I saw a display of costumes I studied it very closely. For example, I visited an Art Deco show with costumes in Madrid.

I felt strongly, and Sarah agreed, that we should use our own local collections. Sarah borrowed from the Museum of the City of New York, and I borrowed from Kent State and the Western Reserve Historical Society. With many of these costumes we know the very person who wore them. They were worn locally. I thought that would give immediacy to the show.

We dealt with the costumes somewhat differently. Sarah, in New York, was very much looking at pattern and color and the connections between costume and wallpaper. I was interested in creating a cluster of mannequins to suggest the impact of these costumes within a lifestyle moment. The mannequin forms all came from Kent State and they have this wonderful crepe paper hair which the students made. They lent many more mannequins than costumes so that we could display all the costumes in a consistent way.

I also wanted to show that costume is as much a story of technology and innovation as the tubular steel furniture later in the show. To this day we don’t know how Fortuny achieved his pleating effects. No one today can duplicate it. Some of the costume has the qualities of sculpture. For example, there’s a light green Poiret dress—the second dress in—that has these tubular jabots on the front of the skirt. They function just like carving on a piece of furniture to give texture to the silhouette. To me it’s just mind-blowing.

It’s interesting that women played a very big role in this period, both as patrons and designers.

Yes, there’s a lot of remarkable work by women in the show. Marie Zimmerman is a fascinating metalworker—very diverse. Elsa Tennhardt, who did that dressing mirror and hairbrush in the first gallery, was one of the most avant-garde designers in the show. Marion Dorn Kauffer did that carpet in the Bauhaus taste.

Were there surprising discoveries you made while assembling the exhibition?

You must have known the work of Maynard Dixon, but I’m afraid I didn’t. I was blown away when I saw that folding screen he did in Denver, portraying the Grand Canyon in a Cubist style.

Were there disappointments in getting the loans you wanted?

There was one that got away. We desperately wanted the Gerald Murphy Watch from Dallas, but they wouldn’t lend it, and Yale wouldn’t lend theirs either. With Gerald Murphy, you’re just not working with a lot of material.

Do you have favorite objects, whether obvious choices or not so obvious?

It changes every time I go in the show. In the first gallery there is a tea set—the Rhythm tea and coffee service by Percy Ball of 1929. To me it’s fascinating. You can still make out the traditional form but it’s been changed. He’s elongated the forms like taffy and then squashed them into a brick, and recessed the decoration and added a little knob on the pot. He’s transformed the traditional form into a new thing. It’s the sort of transformation that designers can do now on a computer.

There are some very powerful paintings—the Joseph Stella is a glory to behold. But I love the Jean Dunand portrait of Hattie Carnegie. She was an immigrant girl, who started out as a messenger girl running pieces of clothing from shop to shop on the lower east side, later opened a small millinery shop, and ended up with a million-dollar business on Fifth Avenue. Her name was an invention. She made one up that sounded rich and fashionable. I love her smug face. She’s daring you to take away her money and accomplishments.

I was fascinated by your discovery of the photograph of Josephine Baker that seems to have inspired the figure in the Rose Ironworks Screen. I found the connection completely convincing. Were there other discoveries you made in the course of organizing the exhibition?

There were many discoveries and surprises. The more we worked on the project, the more the objects spoke to us. For example, there’s a console by Rose Ironworks that has a big blank space underneath that I thought was a bit boring. But when we lit it a dark shadow went down into that area and became part of the architecture of the piece. That was a complete revelation to us—Bob Rose included. Once you put it in a situation where it’s brightly lit you realize what the designer intended.

What would you like people to take away from the show?

I’d like people to have a sense of the color and excitement of the period. We look at the 1920s in black and white all the time. In fact, it was an extremely colorful moment. It was a period of contrasts: traditional to modern, city versus rural, luxury and mass production. It didn’t last very long. We wanted to give a sense of an intense fleeting moment.