California textile artist Lydia van Gelder (1911-2012) created this piece for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) in San Francisco. Having taken up weaving only several years before, her inclusion in the GGIE marks the beginning of a distinguished career as both an exhibiting artist and textile arts educator. Best known now for her contributions to the fiber art movement of the 1960s and 70's, it also serves as a unique reminder of her early engagement with the modernist aesthetics championed at the Exposition.
The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition unfolded over the course of eight months on San Francisco's newly-minted purpose-built Treasure Island. The exhibition’s architectural program merged design elements from both eastern and western pacific coasts in a modern style then dubbed pacifica. Massive windowless exhibition palaces over 100 feet high were intended to "give the effect of an ancient walled city." Pictured here, the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts reflects this aesthetic. Inside, the Palace was divided into three main exhibition halls: contemporary American Art, contemporary European art, and Decorative Arts, positioned center front. Selected under the direction of textile designer Dorothy Wright Liebes, Van Gelder was among 110 artist-craftspeople exhibited in the Decorative Arts hall. Nearly a quarter of those exhibited were Californian, signaling the vitality of the state’s arts and crafts sector to the Exposition’s more than ten million visitors.
Historian Melissa Leventon describes California textile design of the 1930s as largely architecture- and industry-focused, responding to California's recent population surge and subsequent housing boom. Textile designers, she explains, were often called upon to soften the hard lines of modernist interiors. Houses on a Street was one of three pieces donated to the museum by van Gelder in 1996. The other two, Study for Houses on a Street and a placemat of the same subject, reveal the development of the motif and its multiple interior applications. This piece reflects the reciprocal relationship between modernist textile and architectural design, not least in its subject.
Mae Colburn is a master’s student in the Parsons-Cooper Hewitt History of Decorative Arts and Design program. Her focus is textiles.
 Wendy Kaplan, Bobbye Tigerman, and Glenn Adamson, California Design, 1930-1965 Living in a Modern Way (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011), 233-288.