In celebration of Women’s History Month, March Object of the Day posts highlight women designers—and  today, patrons—in the collection.

While this month we’ve been celebrating women designers, today’s post considers the role played by women patrons in the arts, architecture, and design.[1] Where modernism in America is concerned, one of the most influential actors in the early twentieth century was Abigail “Abby” Aldrich Rockefeller, whose husband was John D. Rockefeller, Junior.[2] Aldrich Rockefeller began seriously collecting in 1925, acquiring paintings, drawings, and sculpture by modern, contemporary, and folk artists both European and American. In 1929, she commissioned industrial and interior designer Donald Deskey, along with architect Duncan Candler, to transform the children’s seventh-floor playroom of the Rockefeller’s 54th Street residence into the “Topside Gallery” to which she could invite friends and fellow modern art enthusiasts.

Design for chromium-plated bronze floor lamp for the print room of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s Topside Gallery, located within the Rockefeller townhouse at 10 W 54th Street, New York, New York. Above at center, object shown in elevation: circular foot in brushed chromium supports four lengths of rectangular brushed chromium straps that angle upward, stabilized by a pair of rings below and a single ring above, to hold polished chromium, semispherical shade. Below, object shown in plan.

Design for Floor Lamp, Topside Gallery, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Apartment, 10 W 54th Street, New York, NY. Published in David Hanks with Jennifer Toher, Donald Deskey: Decorative Designs and Interiors (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987): 80.

The print room in particularly exemplified Deskey’s modernism. He sheathed the walls in gray Bakelite and installed four pairs of grooved aluminum tracks around its perimeter, allowing artworks to be hung and rehung with ease and subtly invoking streamlines, the chief motif of American moderne design. He also designed the room’s furnishings, including the floor lamp above, here shown in situ. The chromium-plated bronze torchière featured a circular, brushed-finish foot from which rectangular metal straps extended, stabilized by a pair of rings below and a singular ring above, to hold a polished hemispherical shade. The upward-cast light would have played off the gray Bakelite and aluminum accents to create a shimmering yet neutral machine-age backdrop for Aldrich Rockefeller’s print collection. When Aldrich Rockefeller wrote in 1929, “what attracts me most about the art of our time is its vitality—the way it explores new possibilities and makes use of new materials,” she must have had Deskey’s Bakelite and aluminum galleries in mind as well as her growing assemblage of modernist masterworks.[3]

Even as Deskey was designing the Topside Gallery, Aldrich Rockefeller was working with Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan to develop what would become the Museum of Modern Art. The Topside Gallery was lost in 1938 when the Rockefellers’ townhouse was demolished to make room for MoMA’s first permanent building, opened the following year. Its legacy lives on, however: the site is now occupied by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, and in 1999, the Deskey-designed Topside Gallery was recreated for the Museum’s exhibition “Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Print Collecting: An Early Mission for MoMA.” The show commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Aldrich Rockefeller’s bequest of her 1,600-work print collection, a gift that marked the establishment of the first study room in the United States dedicated solely to modern works.[4]

This case is just one example of the tremendous impact of women clients on the arts as well as the built environment. Thanks to recent scholarship in design history and patronage studies, this aspect of cultural history—and the women who propelled it—is finally enjoying the attention and recognition it deserves.

Rachel Hunnicutt is a graduate student of History of Design and Curatorial Studies at Parsons School of Design|Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Donald Deskey Cataloguer in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department.

[1] For further reading on women patrons and patronage studies, see Jaynie Anderson, “Rewriting the history of art patronage,” Renaissance Studies 10, no. 2 (June 1996): 129-138, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24412264; Heidi A. Strobel, “Royal ‘Matronage’ of Women Artists in the Late-18th Century,” Woman’s Art Journal 26, no. 2 (Autumn 2005–Winter 2006): 3–9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3598091; Alice Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); Susan Taylor-Leduc, “Designing Legacy: Marie-Antoinette and Josephine as Garden Patrons” (lecture, Bard Graduate Center, February 7, 2018), https://www.bgc.bard.edu/events/786/07-feb-2018-designing-legacy; and Sheryl E. Reiss, “Women’s Agency,” Frieze Masters Magazine no. 7 (2018), https://frieze.com/article/female-patrons-throughout-history.

[2] Known as “the Woman in the Family,” Abby was instrumental in transforming the Rockefeller dynasty from one whose soul focus was fossil fuels and finance to philanthropy and cultural patrimony. See Bernice Kert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family (New York: Random House, 1933).

[3] Aldrich Rockefeller quoted in Nelson A. Rockefeller’s preface to the catalogue for Twentieth-Century Art from the Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller Collection (New York: Museum of Modern Design, 1969): 11.

[4] “The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room, 1949–1958,” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 25, no. 3 (July 1958), 3-17, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4058279.

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