A very insightful exhibition opened today (and will be on view through October 30th) at the Museum of the City of New York called “The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis.”
The exhibition was inspired by the museum’s own home, which was built during the Colonial Revival period. Its primary goal is to reintroduce and define the movement and show that New York made an important contribution to a style that is truly American. According to the exhibition’s curators, Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins, the style was “sparked by the 1876 centennial and the nation’s impulse to look back—both to measure and inspire progress—the refined style achieves much of its elegance from economy, restraint, and attention to proportion.”
“The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis” is not a very large show but there is a lot to see. What I loved most about it is all of the photographs of New York City buildings that remind us that Colonial Revival architecture played a large role in shaping this city. In architecture this style is identified by “red brick, white painted clapboard, shingled siding, columned porches, multi-paned windows and shutters, paneled wood doors framed by rectangular sidelights and topped by leaded fanlights.”
The show isn’t just filled with photographs and paper ephemera but with wonderful examples of furniture and decorative arts, including rarely-seen examples of Colonial Revival furniture from the Museum’s collection and a series of commemorative plates created by Wedgewood in the 1930s which were mass-marketed by Bloomingdale’s, from the 1870’s through the 1930’s. One object in particular that struck my fancy is a fully furnished 1930’s Colonial Revival dollhouse.
Since the show is about the revival of a style, we are reminded that even after its heyday, in the 1930’s, architects still look back to Colonial times for inspiration. New York’s landmark Gracie Mansion is the perfect example of this. We are provided with an inside look into the Susan B. Wagner Wing at Gracie Mansion, designed by Mott B. Schmidt and completed in 1966. According to the exhibition curators, the mansion “played a pivotal role in ushering in more contemporary adaptations of Colonial Revival.” These contemporary adaptations include contributions from artists like Ted Muehling and James Boyd. For a recent Currents item in the New York Times Home section (“Colonial Revival Decor on Display”, Thursday, June 9, 2011) , I wrote about A Head By A Nose, a smart and whimsical wallpaper created by Boyd of Boyd Reath Studio, which is featured in the show.
Boyd also created two backdrops specifically for the show, “Call It Macaroni” and “Vitruvian George”, based on the objects on display. According to Boyd, A Head By A Nose, as well as the backdrops, are “comments about the ‘colonial’ (and really classical) iconography that was celebrated formally in the ‘Colonial Revivals’ of the past and still play in our thoughts about new American design.”