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Design in a new age: our new exhibition, Around 1914, explores the transformation of architecture, decorative arts, and design at a time of revolutionary social and industrial change.

The years leading up to 1914, when the Royal Ontario Museum first opened its doors to the public, represent a pivotal moment in human history. It was a time of change accelerated by industrialization, of new modes of manufacture, communications, and transportation that were shrinking the planet, a time of radical experimentation and changing mores and values. Even before the storm clouds of a first "world war" were visible on the horizon, humanity's outlook was changing as it entered the 20th century.

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of design; it was a time of bold experimentation and vigorous questioning that challenged tradition, rejected conventional ornamentation and historical precedents, and laid the foundation of the movement to "modern." It was at this time that a new concept emerged called "industrial design." The trajectory of the time was moving from the Arts and Crafts Movement to "Art and Industry."

From the contemporary perspective, at a time when computers build computers and newer is almost always synonymous with better, it is hard to believe that only 100 years ago, when the application of the management theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford's assembly line had already become a reality, debate still raged about the merits of mass production. Designers were attempting to reconcile high-quality design, traditionally associated with craft or handmade objects as propounded by William Morris and Arts and Crafts Movement followers, with the possibilities of mass production, and the new materials made available with technology. The question persisted about whether machines could produce attractive, useful, and desirable consumer goods.

The designers of this period forced significant change in the approach to design that would bear fruit subsequently throughout Europe and America. Some of these craftsmen-artists, designers, and architects are household names still (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Carlo Bugatti, Walter Gropius, Georg Jensen, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frank Lloyd Wright) while other are less prominent now but were profoundly influential and renowned and admired at the time--figures such as Charles Robert Ashbee, Christopher Dresser, Emile Galle, Edward Colonna, Taxile Doat, Archibald Knox, Louis Majorelle, Galileo Chini, Chris van der Hoef, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Gustave Siegel, Josef Maria Olbrich, Peter Behrens, Max Laeuger, and Richard Riemerschmid. The ROM is drawing on its collection (considered to be the most important in Canada) of significant works by these key designers to capture this fascinating era.

Around 1914 explores how these designers and craftspeople attempted to respond to the broader ideological and social challenges of their day through the disciplines of art, architecture, and design. Moving through the years and across the European continent (indeed, across the ocean), the exhibition takes as its point of departure the Arts and Crafts Movement in England and America. Its adherents exposed the social and economic ills they blamed on poorly produced industrial design and proposed a return to handcraftsmanship as a means of counteracting this decline. Although they produced high-quality works, their inherently high costs made them available only to a limited market.

At the time, artists and designers in Europe were gradually turning away from the historicism and the misuse of historical precedents that had dominated much of 19th-century design and architecture. Instead, they were attempting to develop wholly new art-forms that together created a more organically coordinated approach (or aesthetic unity) in the interiors for which they were intended. This was seen in various artistic manifestations in France and Belgium in the movements known as Art Nouveau, in Holland as Nieuwe Kunst, in Italy as Stile Floreale, as Skonvirke in Denmark, and Jugendstil in Germany and Austria.

By the early 1900s, the functional qualities (though not the expensive handcraftsmanship) of much of English Arts and Crafts design began to profoundly influence German design reformers. Realizing the commercial potential of good design, the German government fostered design reform in state-sponsored applied-art schools and workshops directed by prominent teachers. This led to the founding of German Work Federation or Deutscher Werkbund, (the subject of the last section of the show), whose advocates brought about fusion of the contributions of artists, craftspeople, and industrialists that after the Great War led ultimately to the founding of the Bauhaus school in Weimar, and the acceptance of industrial design.

Today, as we compare the merits of iPhone versus tablet, we might think back on some of the early design pioneers who got us here.

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

(English, 1872-1898)

The Peacock Skirt, plate V from

Salome by Oscar Wilde

London, England

Lithograph printed on wove paper 1894

946x97.7. Plate V

Inspired by the works of Toulouse Lautrec and especially the graphic qualities of Japanese prints, Beardsley quickly became a prodigious artist with his striking contrasts of black and white combined with an idiosyncratic use of form and line, best exemplified by his 1893 illustrations for Oscar Wilde's erotically charged one-act tragedy Salome that show Beardsley's characteristic, developed style.

Adjustable Letter Rack

Christopher Dresser (English, 1834-1904)

Made by Hukin and Heath

Active in Birmingham and London

Electro-plated nickel-silver

About 1880

Christopher Dresser, often considered the first freelance industrial designer, developed works by exploiting the possibilities of mechanized production and new technologies such as this modest adjustable letter rack, made in England about 1880 by the Birmingham firm of Hukin and Heath, one of several firms he successfully worked for in Britain and the U.S.


Designed circa 1898-1900

by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

(Scottish, 1868-1928)

Made circa 1898-1900

probably by Francis Smith and Son

Glasgow, Scotland

Oak, stained dark, horsehair fabric cover

An iconic example of early 20th-century design, Mackintosh used chairs of this design in the dining room of his own house. When grouped around a dining table, these chairs, with their very high backs, would have conveyed a sense of intimacy, enclosure and ceremony that Mackintosh felt was appropriate to dining. The small circular recess on the oval back-rail may have been intended to receive a small decorative painted panel.

Claret jug

Designed circa 1900-1905,

under the supervision of Albert Mayer

(German, 1867-1944)

Made by the Wurttembergische

Metallwarenfabrik (W.M.F.)

Geislingen, Germany

Silver plate, green glass

Tableware like this claret jug was produced as popularly priced items for a middle-class market throughout Europe until about 1914. Its curvilinear whiplash motifs and stylized floral decoration were considered avant-garde from the 1890s until about 1905, after which their very popularity would have been condemned by certain design-reformers in Germany as being vulgarized and debased. By then simpler, more functional, geometric forms were beginning to be preferred by avant-garde German designers, in no small measure due to Austrian influence.

Table Lamp "Daffodil"

Design attributed to Clara Driscoll

(American, 1861-1944)

Made by Tiffany Studios, active 1902-1932, founded initially as The

Tiffany Glass Company in 1879 by Louis Comfort Tiffany

(American, 1848-1933)

Corona, New York

Leaded glass, patinated bronze, metal fittings

About 1902-1910

Although the products that bore the Tiffany Studios label reflected the artistic vision and genius of Louis Comfort Tiffany, many works were actually the creations of his collaborators. Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), head of Tiffany's women's glass-cutting department, was responsible for creating several new designs for the firm, especially the glass shades for lamps which exploited stained-glass technology to accommodate the new phenomenon of electricity. The "Daffodil" lamp, thought to be one of her earliest creations, is an early instance of women assuming an important role as designers.

Side chair

Designed circa 1907 by Josef Hoffmann (Austrian, 1870-1956)

For the "Fledermaus Cabaret," Vienna

Made from circa 1907 to 1916

by Jacob & Josef Kohn

Vienna, Austria

Bent beech wood, moulded laminated wood,

refreshed painted finish and modern

replacement upholstery

Although architect-designer Josef Hoffmann usually designed expensive handcrafted artifacts for the Wiener Werkstatte, he is also known for the bentwood furniture designs made by mechanical processes like the chair he designed for the "Fledermaus Cabaret." By integrating his characteristic rectangular and compass-drawn curvilinear forms into his design, Hoffmann updated the ever popular bentwood cafe chair developed earlier by Thonet.

Stained glass panel

Designed in 1912 by Frank Lloyd Wright

(American, 1867-1959)

For the Avery Coonley Playhouse, Riverside, Illinois

Possibly made by the Niedicken-Wallbridge Company

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Clear and coloured glass, lead latticing, wood

This window is one of a series from the Children's Playhouse, part of one of Wright's major commissions for the Coonley family of Chicago. Inspired by the two-dimensional abstract art of Frantisek Kupka and Robert Delaunay that he had seen in Europe in 1909, Wright has here, paradoxically, used the traditional craft of stained glass to create a work that reflects the emergence of abstract art. The shapes in the glass panel suggest those of balloons, confetti, and streamers, elements appropriate to a children's playhouse.


Around 1914: Design in a New Age, the ROM's appealing new exhibition in the Samuel European Galleries, explores transformative innovations in architecture, the decorative arts, and design in Europe, Britain, and the Americas in the period of extraordinary change at the turn of the 20th century.


Mona Campbell Curator of European Decorative Art
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Title Annotation:WORLD ART & CULTURE
Author:Little, Robert
Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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