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Looking for America: The Index of American Design

New Deal arts projects were guided by two novel assumptions: artists were workers and art was cultural labor worthy of government support. That commitment was demonstrated most dramatically in the Federal Art Project (FAP), a relief program for depression-era artists. Some painters and sculptors continued working in their studios with the assistance of relief checks—their work was placed in libraries, schools, and other public buildings. Others lent their talents to community art centers that made art training and appreciation accessible to wider audiences. FAP also sponsored the Index of American Design, which set out to discover what was “American” in decorative arts: several hundred artists produced illustrations of thousands of objects in museums and private collections, a source that remains invaluable for historians of American art, society, and culture. In essays written as part of the New Deal’s documentation of its own efforts, two editors of the Index of American Design explained the exhaustive search for a distinctive American art in the artifacts of everyday use and decoration.

What Is American Design?

Constance Rourke

American design has many ancestries, but this circumstance does not exclude the possibility of a distinctive character. All art is in some measure derivative; and for us, relationships with European design have been obvious and inevitable because of our origins and because of the many interchanges with Europe which have belonged to our history from its inception.

These ancestral ties have perhaps received undue emphasis in the field of design; and the forthright adaptations, changes, and fresh inventions showing themselves on American soil have on the whole been neglected. The impact of life on the frontier—on our many frontiers—through successive generations has continually produced simplifications even until a recent date, as local craftsmen have worked in new country, often without models, for impatient customers anxious to obtain objects for immediate use

A definite turn toward functionalism inevitably took place under these conditions. The highboy, useful in the compact frontier home because of its convenient and ample storage space, became a typical and widely spread form, which perhaps had its influence—again in conjunction with need—in inducing the selection of other pieces of furniture which were capacious, simple, and strong enough to stand many removals by ox-cart or covered wagon. Functionalism reached a peak in the craft of the Shaker communities in the last century, where every object was fluently given the form demanded by the uses to which it was to be put, where chests, for example, never followed a few stereotypes, but appeared in literally dozens of forms. We are accustomed to think of the Shaker crafts as limited and special in influence, but the communities were widely distributed, reaching even into the early West; Shakerism had a long and sturdy history, and its crafts were constantly received into “the world” as Shaker wares were sold through channels of trade. Thus these little-known crafts represent a definite native impulse in American design.

Need, combined with thrift, produced the hooked rug and the patchwork quilt and the multitude of stoneware jugs, of many fine sculptural forms, made from local clays on our frontiers; and the great variations in these homely products suggest a further strong element which tended to enter, even to crowd into American design from an early date—pleasure in individual taste or idiosyncrasy. This individualistic expression was not universal; often the craftsman lacked time for it. It does not appear in Shaker design at all, where the consciousness of the community was always uppermost, where the individual lost himself in the sense of the whole, and where in consequence an abstract or generic quality in design is strikingly apparent.

But elsewhere, individual assertions often appeared with great energy. The scrimshaw of American sailors on whaling ships is a prime example. Though the tooling on bone or shell often followed well-known classical patterns, the modeling of small and beautiful crimping-wheels almost consistently reveals vigorous, free individual outlines that range from naturalism to abstraction. On a larger scale, figureheads of Atlantic sailing ships showed similar broad variations, including sculptures which were severely classical, others that were definitely Gothic, still others that developed realistic portraiture of native American types or even individuals. The aesthetic impulse which produced them was positive, generous, and widespread; it reappeared in the familiar cigar-store Indians and the many related figures which adorned stores or taverns and were often amazingly fine in plastic and decorative values. These often followed a type or a stereotype, yet a wide swing toward individualism often appeared in the handling of posture, costume, color, and, more broadly, form.

An unmistakable richness becomes clear as the arts of design in this country are surveyed with anything more than a cursory glance. Their strong diversity is further indicated by two major classifications, the folk arts, and what, because of their origins, may be called the aristocratic forms. The latter obviously include the work of such distinguished craftsmen as Duncan Phyfe and the fine groups of furniture workers who flourished in seaboard cities from Boston to New Orleans in the first half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the folk arts run all the way from homespuns and simple furniture and ironwork to the distinctive creative forms of the Pennsylvania German and those of the old Spanish Southwest in painting or sculpture.

Whether dominant and recurrent strains have been created which can be called distinctively American is a question that cannot be easily settled. We do not know enough. Whether in essentials such strains have survived the development of the machine, or have been lost, is another significant problem. In our haste to conquer a continent, many examples and even whole phases of design have been covered over or neglected. It is the object of the WPA Index of American Design to document as many of these as possible. The Index presents the decorative and utilitarian arts of this country broadly by the vivid means of pictorial rendering, in a large series of portfolios. As a result, if this work is carried to full completion, the questions “What is American design?” or “Have we an American design?” may answer themselves, possibly with some surprises, certainly with a wealth of fresh materials. In any event, these many-sided and many-colored evidences will represent basic traditions in design which, as a people, in the past, we have chosen as our own.


Recording American Design

C. Adolph Glassgold

At no time in the history of our country had there been undertaken a comprehensive survey of American design comparable to those publications in Europe with which students are so familiar. This was in part due to our relative unconcern with our own cultural traditions, and in part to the vastness of the undertaking. But within recent years that indifference toward our artistic background gave place to an avid interest. It became generally felt and variously expressed that we had too long neglected that phase of our cultural heritage which had evidenced itself in the humbler arts and crafts, and that the picture of our plastic tradition would be incomplete if limited to the so-called fine arts.

Although many scholarly studies on special aspects of America’s decorative and practical arts have appeared during the past thirty years, those desiring a panoramic view of American design have not found these publications completely satisfying. Not only would one have to spend much time tracing articles in scattered periodicals, or consulting unrelated volumes, but they would be found, by and large, inadequately illustrated, and vast areas, such as the folk arts, or the handicrafts, or religious communities, sparsely treated. There was a growing belief that a comprehensive collection of illustrations in colored drawing and photograph, depicting the history of American design in the applied and decorative arts, was a need that the WPA/FAP alone could fill, since the magnitude of such a task was beyond the resources of all but the Federal Government.

So it was that in the fall of 1935 the WPA/FAP as part of its broader national program, set up the Index of American Design, which was to be a series of portfolios consisting of plates in color and in black and white, pictorially and graphically recording the history of American decorative and utilitarian design from the earliest days of colonization until the late nineteenth century.

Under trained supervision and with the assistance of research workers, the four to five hundred artists variously employed on the Index throughout the country make colored drawings or paintings of selected objects in public and private collections. It is no exaggeration to say that many of the plates done by the Index artists are without parallel in the field of illustration by reason of their high fidelity to the original object, their accuracy of color and draftsmanship, their sense of material and texture.

A diversity of objects, such as glassware, ceramics, costumes, textiles, metalwork, toys, furniture, and all the other “lares and penates” that were characteristic of the varied American modes of life, are being recorded. Particular attention is given to material which has not been studied or illustrated elsewhere, and emphasis is placed upon those examples which may be considered typical.

It is, of course, too much to expect this first project for an Index of American Design to do an encyclopaedic work. That would be too ambitious a program for any department other than one operating on a permanent basis. It is possible, however, to do the preliminary spadework, to produce a number of selected, beautifully colored portfolios which can be made accessible to scholars, teachers, artists, designers, and to the general public interested in the arts as exemplifying cultural traditions. A dozen portfolios have already been definitely outlined and others are well under way.

All material collected by the Index of American Design units in the various states will finally be edited and correlated by a central planning committee composed of the administrative staff and a body of specialists in the various fields of the decorative and useful arts.

Of particular interest is the work being carried on in the more obscure fields of American Design. The Pennsylvania unit, for example, is doing an exhaustive piece of work on the Pennsylvania-German culture; Northern California is busily engaged in reconstructing the era of mining and the riotous expansion of the seventies; Minnesota is specializing in the early contributions made to American design by the Swedish immigrant; Louisiana has produced more than a hundred plates of the exquisite costumes typical of ante-bellum New Orleans; Utah is recording the applied arts of the Mormons; New England, with contributions from Ohio and Kentucky, is making what will probably be the first definitive compilation in color of the practical arts of the Shaker Colonies; and here and there, the little known and less appreciated folk arts, such as ships' figureheads, tavern and storefront figures, the nautical arts of scrimshaw and bone carving, are being recorded.

The question, “Will not the accumulation of traditional material inevitably lead to imitation?” quite naturally comes to mind when considering this project. It would be futile to argue that this is not a possibility. Yet to contend, on this account, that the Index should not be compiled would be equally absurd. Imitation, even slavish copying, has always existed, and for those who practice it, models are never lacking. Only by destroying every last vestige of our tangible heritage can the dubious pursuit of “compliment by imitation” be eradicated. On the other hand the eventuality, equally possible, of the Index’s serving as a fertilizing influence more than compensates for courting the danger of imitation.

Were it not for the Index of American Design, the superb costumes, saddle trappings, furniture, and “santos” from the old Spanish Southwest might never have been recorded. As it is, units in New Mexico, Colorado, and Southern California are making plates which when published will come as a pleasant surprise to many. Along with this factual task, Southern California is performing another valuable service. There, in the old mission, the Index workers, removing layer on layer of whitewash from the walls, are disclosing painted ornamentation hidden for decades. These they then record with the utmost fidelity of drawing and color.

Exhibitions of Index plates throughout the country have already done much to stimulate interest in our design heritage. About twenty exhibitions have been held in large department stores, including Marshall Field of Chicago, R. H. Macy of New York, Stix Baer & Fuller of St. Louis, Hutzler Bros. of Baltimore, Bullocks of Los Angeles, and Rike Kumler of Dayton. Outstanding museums that have displayed the Index are the Cleveland Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Dallas Museum, the Milwaukee Art Institute, the San Diego Fine Arts Museum, the Cincinnati Museum, and the Worcester Museum. The material has been shown in about thirty Federal Art Centers and by a large number of cultural organizations, such as the University of Pittsburgh, the University of California, and Yale University. A vast number of hitherto disregarded or little-known collections and individual items of Americana have been brought to light as a result of these shows.

We must also mention the constantly growing body of research material which constitutes a background for the drawings and photographs. Exhaustive lists of craftsmen, biographical sketches of artisans and designers, stories of historical interest about the original owners and the manufacturers, and sidelights on the vicissitudes of the objects themselves are forming a vast reservoir of illuminating information about the material gathered by the Index. Fresh knowledge about American design and designers is continually being unearthed by Index research workers who study the yellowed files of old journals, newspapers and documentary records in museums, historical societies, and libraries. As a result, attributions become clearer and the snarled history of America’s design heritage is slowly but surely being untangled.

The varied character and forms of American design stand at last in the way of being presented as a comprehensible whole. What it may mean to the cultural future of America one cannot at this time prophesy, but that its meaning is more than mere antiquarianism is self-evident.

Source: Available in Francis V. O’Connor, Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 156–66, 167–70.

See Also:"Art Within Reach": Federal Art Project Community Art Centers
Painting the American Scene: Artists Assess the Federal Art Project