The designer and manufacturer of this textile are unknown, but the subject is telling of the cultural climate that produced it. If I didn’t know its approximate date, I might have guessed it was designed in the 1930s.
The photo-collage pattern clearly depicts New York City architecture, from older landmarks like the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, to brand new skyscrapers like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Like Clayton Knight's Manhattan and textile design of the same name by Ruth Reeves , this design, by depicting dynamic scenes of America’s most glamorous city, seeks to set a distinctively American national style.
The conspicuously factual approach also functioned as a morale booster, much like the murals produced and funded by the Works Progress Administration in the same period. In a time of woeful economic depression, highlighting American accomplishments and industries, and turning them into art, was often meant to inspire pride. The photographic style of the pattern speaks to some of the WPA’s other initiatives, which used photography to document the lives of Americans. The push to emphasize and define an American style was also directly fueled by our nation’s failure to participate in the 1925 Paris Exposition, due to the simple fact that we had nothing to contribute.
The perfect storm of inspiration may have ultimately resulted in a dizzying array of American styles rather than a definitive one, but that urge to defend our reputation for taste and innovation undoubtedly inspired some wonderful designs for us to reflect on. And when we consider our melting pot of people, that variety of designs produced in the 1930s is arguably a fairly appropriate representation of the United States after all.
Carly Lewis is currently earning an M.A. in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons. She has a B.S. in Textile Design from Philadelphia University and is focusing her studies on gender issues in regard to textile design practices in the 20th century.