Image of drawings by IIonka Karasz.

Drawing, Designs for Bowls, Vases, Candlesticks, and Teapots, ca. 1928, Ilonka Karasz

This vase by Karasz, related to the drawings above, can been seen in the exhibition The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, now on view through August 20, 2017.

This essay on geometric form by the American modernist designer Ilonka Karasz develops the triangle into a family of eighteen tabletop objects. While depicted as a series of flat planes, these designs were meant to be fabricated with conical bodies on X-shaped cruciform bases. The various object types include vases of different sizes and proportions, candlesticks, covered and uncovered bowls, sugar and creamers, teapots, and coffeepots. Some of the examples have inverted triangular or cone-shaped knops; some have square tube or columnar handles. A few pieces have handles consisting of flat, rectangular planes with semicircular finger openings. Two pieces, the large vase and creamer on the lower part of the sheet, have rims that taper out to the shoulder of the bodies.[1]

This very significant drawing counts among the rare extant design drawings documenting the explorations of an American designer working in the 1920s and 1930s who reinterpreted the European modernist style into an American modern aesthetic. The sheet also represents the contribution of one of the few women designers whose work and talent were considered equal to that of her male counterparts, including Paul Frankl, Kem Weber, Winold Reiss, Eugene Schoen, and Walter von Nessen.

Ilonka Karasz was born in 1896 in Budapest, where she trained at the Royal School of Arts and Crafts. After settling in New York in 1913, she became part of a lively community of young émigré artists and designers. She initially worked as a graphic designer, creating covers for the New Yorker and advertisements for New York shops, as well as textile and wallpaper designs. By the late 1920s, Karasz’s textiles, metalwork, and furniture were shown in modern design exhibitions in New York and around the country. She was also a leader in the important organizations of designers working in the modern style. Her work was featured in the 1928 Macy’s International Exposition of Art in Industry that traveled to ten cities. She became part of the alliance of modern designers known as AUDAC (American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen) and exhibited in the two AUDAC exhibitions of 1930 and 1931 at the Grand Central Palace and the Brooklyn Museum, respectively. She also showed work at the 1928 and 1929 American Designers Gallery exhibitions, for which she was on the executive committee and designed the catalogs. For the 1929 installation she created a modern dining room with furniture characterized by simple rectilinear shapes and flat planes. A photograph of the installation reveals, on the sideboard, an uncovered conical bowl resting on a cruciform base corresponding to the sketch at the center left of the Cooper Hewitt’s drawing. This bowl, like the related coffee and tea services, vases, candlesticks, and bowls, was meant to appeal to progressive young apartment dwellers, devotees of the latest avant-garde styles. The bowl and some of the forms in the drawing were fabricated in electroplated nickel silver by Paye and Baker Manufacturing Company in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. A vase, candlestick, and small bowl (candy dish) as well as the creamer and sugar bowl from this group are represented in Cooper Hewitt’s collection.

The relationship of Karasz’s conical forms on cruciform bases to the 1924 series of geometrically based teapots, tea infusers, and ashtrays on cruciform bases by the Bauhaus designer Marianne Brandt is often cited, though no proof that Karasz knew Brandt’s metal objects has been found. Brandt’s pieces were published in several German periodicals, including Dekorative Kunst (1928) and in two exhibition catalogs, which Karasz probably saw on her own or in the collection of her German-born colleagues, including Paul Frankl. However, Karasz made essential alterations to the body and base of Brandt’s objects that demonstrate her insights into harmony and proportion. Karasz changed Brandt’s hemispherical forms into conical bodies and, most importantly, enlarged the cruciform bases so they reached approximately half the height of the body. Each base becomes a major design feature, both a support and an alternative geometry to the conical body. Karasz’s objects developed from this sheet of designs represent the most austere, geometrically radical examples of modern American metalwork in the 1920s.


This essay is excerpted from the book Making Design, available through SHOP Cooper Hewitt.


[1] Jewel Stern, Modernism in American Silver (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 84.

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