The Master of Wonder House


Founded in 1993 and operating out of two townhouses on New York’s Upper West Side, Bard Graduate Center has produced an admirable series of exhibitions and scholarly catalogs on subjects in its fields of study: decorative arts, design history, and material culture. Its monographic shows have focused on such figures as William Kent, the architect and pioneer of the English landscape garden; Thomas Hope, the collector of antiquities and definer of Regency design; and Charles Percier, Hope’s equivalent in France, inventor of the Empire style and codesigner of the rue de Rivoli. The catalogs of such exhibitions form an impressive, coherent group—an accumulation of expertise.

Kipling Papers–Wimpole Archive, University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep
Rudolf Swoboda: Sketch of John Lockwood Kipling and sketches of Rudyard Kipling, circa 1887–1888

Among the surprises sprung by the center was a charming small display in 2013–2014 recording a period in which, while the French textile industry ground to a halt during World War I, an attempt was made in New York to create a new American decorative art not beholden to Europe, using the design language of pre-Columbian America and other “primitive” cultures. To this end, the American Museum of Natural History encouraged fashion designers to study and copy textiles and garments from its extensive holdings, and amateur models were photographed wearing original items from the collections: a Sioux dress with a beaded yoke; a Tungus Siberian reindeer fur and sinew coat; an Ainu bark fiber robe.1 Doubtless no great harm was done to the textiles in question. One presumes, however, that today such a use of a museum’s materials—using the museum like a dressing-up closet—would be absolutely taboo.

And not only taboo. The promotion of industrial art and design must rank low on the list of ways a modern anthropological museum wishes to engage with the world. Not so in 1919. Then the AMNH and the Brooklyn Museum joined forces for an exhibition of industrial art that showed what modern looms could produce when inspired by primitive looms and preindustrial design: the taupe silk charmeuse teagown with Bukharan motifs and the Sunset Fan-Ta-Si silk dress with blue duvetyn appliqué based on a Nanai fish-skin coat were among the proposals of the wartime ethnic look. “LADY or SQUAW,” declared an advertisement in Women’s Wear, “She Obeys the Impulse to DRESS UP.”

This concern of cultural institutions to direct and enrich the course of modern manufacture may be traced back to London, to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the founding of what later became the Victoria and Albert Museum. Many imitations of the V&A sprang up around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which once used to look much more like a museum of manufacture, a look it progressively shed during the last century.

When J. Pierpont Morgan and his son purchased the Hoentschel Collection…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.