It’s been nearly five years since the blinding Fitzgeraldian spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby reignited a popular obsession with the 1920s, and if metastasizing Gatsby-themed parties and Zelda-inspired TV series are any indication, Americans remain hooked. “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” now at Cooper Hewitt, makes a strong case for why the decade still dazzles: Despite nearly a century of time in between, no other design period speaks as directly to contemporary tastes.
The first museum show dedicated exclusively to 1920s design, “The Jazz Age” is a collaboration between Cooper Hewitt and the Cleveland Museum of Art, to which the exhibit decamps on August 20. According to Sarah Coffin, who organized things on the Cooper Hewitt side, the idea arose spontaneously as she and her colleagues sorted through the collection during Cooper Hewitt’s recent years-long renovation and noticed a lot of acquisitions from the period; accordingly, about a third of “The Jazz Age” was sourced in-house. To try to make sense of these and the other 250 or so objects on display, Coffin and the Cleveland Museum’s Stephen Harrison proffer six official themes (which, for an exhibition of this size, is about three too many): The Persistence of Traditional “Good Taste,” A New Look for Familiar Forms, Bending the Rules, A Smaller World, Abstraction and Reinvention, and Toward a Machine Age. When you visit (and do visit), put them out of your mind; the pieces here need no explanation for the weight of their beauty to fully settle.
On the third floor, smartly considered tableaux narrate the unprecedented flow of ideas between designers, cultures, and mediums that emerged as modernity swept the globe. In one presentation, triads of vertical lines in an Edward McKnight Kauffer carpet mirror the rigid grid of a blond-on-black desk set by influential Austrian designer Paul T. Frankl (who helped decorate a likely-now-dismantled modernist room for Mar-a-Lago). Nearby, the jaggedly ascending panels of a solid metallic screen lead to Rachel Hartley’s dreamy 1933 painting of the Chrysler Building — a bit on the nose, but no less striking for it.
Individual gems abound, too; Art Deco design was, among other things, really cool. In a Prohibition-era side-eye toward the U.S., master couturier Jean Patou designed a perfume set that mimics a cocktail bar, with four “vermouth” scents for the wearer to blend. A few well-placed pieces of fashion design highlight the scandal in which Jazz Age women reveled by asserting their freedom to move, whether via a shorter hemline or, in the case of a Liberty of London dress, triangular neckline cutouts that expose the collarbone and just a hint of bust. The only thing missing here is the music. There is, it turns out, very little jazz in “The Jazz Age.”
Things take a turn downstairs, where the exhibition suffers from perplexing presentation. A stunning screen, backed in rich blue velvet, depicts a nude (inspired by Josephine Baker) playing the violin. It’s so arresting it graces the cover of the exhibition catalog, but that’s somewhat less true of its reverse, which offers the unadorned wrong side of the velvet and undercuts a bit of the grandeur. Throughout the floor, assemblages of pottery, glasswork, and homewares like table lamps are spaced far apart in cavernous vitrines, where they drown in empty, bright-white space; perhaps the curators were afraid that grouping the pieces closer together would blunt their impact. Of course, any of the cultural figures who tower over the decade — Stein, Picasso, Fitzgerald — might scoff at such an impulse.
That’s the thing about the 1920s: They overwhelmed. The era was not at all about modesty or restraint. Buildings soared, cars stretched, blocky angles cohabited with blooming curves. Design was thrillingly inconsistent (something that the show, at times unintentionally, illustrates well). We love to look back at this decade because it was bursting with abandon. In presenting the evidence of this freedom haphazardly, the exhibition occasionally drains the life from the objects that accompanied Americans through a lively time. For the most part, though, “The Jazz Age” animates its inert subjects into seductive characters thoughtfully placed into revealing conversation. Take some time to listen in.