This 107-page catalog is one of the many treasures that can be found in Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library’s collection of world’s fairs materials. Produced on the occasion of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco by the San Francisco Bay Exposition Company, the catalog is unique in that it is entirely devoted to the decorative arts, and their role at the Exhibition. Dorothy Liebes, a leading textile designer and weaver who acted as Director of the Division of Decorative Arts (and whose work is part of Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection), wrote in her foreword: “[Decorative arts] embrace the arts which we know to be useful and beautiful – art which is functional, yet distinguished by the “creative idea,” and which satisfies exacting aesthetic standards. Fine craftsmanship is part of this aesthetic standard.” In this simple opening paragraph, Liebes managed to capture the essence of decorative arts, in a manner that is as applicable today as it was in 1939. Embracing contemporary design, the catalog covers everything from ceramics, bookbinding and book illustration, costume design, furniture, glass, jewelry, rugs, textiles, and metals – as long as they are “modern”. Divided into sections that followed the organization of the exhibition, the catalog contains references to and photographs of some of the works of leading artists and designers of the time, including: Aino and Alvar Aalto, Donald Deskey, Josef Albers, Rene Lalique, Puiforcat, Jean Lurçat, Alexander Calder, and Herman Miller, all of whom are represented in Cooper Hewitt’s collection. As a special treat, the catalog contains a photograph of the Long Chair designed by Marcel Breuer, which is currently on view in Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition Making Design.
Catherine Powell is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at Parsons The New School For Design, and an intern at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Library.