Book Review: Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression

Living well despite depressed times

Kristina Wilson has covered an area not normally considered in books about products and design in the Depression though I thought it was editorially weak because it didn't cover kitchens and bathrooms. The book kicks off with two stunning photos that sum it all up. One is of an austere modernist living room designed by Schindler minus any signs that anybody actually lived in the room. Below it is a typical traditional living room with a man sitting in a comfy chair surrounded by all the things that one would expect to find in a middle-class home. The book looks at the way the modernism of the top photo was created and marketed to the folks who lived in the bottom photo room. The page with the two photos is included in my `customer images' upload.

The three chapters look at the Living room, Dining room and the Bedroom. Wilson explores the conflict between Bauhaus and Art Deco European design that influenced American streamline to produce a whole range of household products. Marketing was important here because Modernist products had to be softened for the buying public. Few households wanted a too Moderne looking house. I think it would have been worthwhile to include kitchens and bathrooms because these were areas where streamline was more acceptable because it was extremely functional. Companies like American Standard, Crane and Kohler and stressed the clean lines of their bathroom products, Crane also designed streamlined kitchens.

There are 113 illustrations throughout the book which fall into two categories. First, the color photos of furniture and products which were used in an exhibition at Yale Uni Art Gallery (the book was published in conjunction with the show) and secondly, period photos and graphics. I thought the selection was adequate but a much bigger choice is available in Decorative Arts 1930s & 1940s (Varia) and nicely the book covers all aspects of house interiors and some pages of house exterior photos.

'Livable Modernism' is an interesting read though the book has an annoying design conceit. Throughout the pages there is an irregular shaped light gray panel that that surrounds certain photos, graphics and runs across the text. The idea, I understand, was to indicate which items were in the exhibition (no gray shape) and those that were used only in the book. The concept seems a dismal failure and at least half the pages have this silly gray over part of them and that includes the text. The book's design is pretty bland and the wide margins on each page could well have been used for the extensive footnotes instead of putting them on the back pages.

Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression is available at Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | IT | ES | JP | CN)

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Two other interesting books that cover the same subject.

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Title spread.

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Two remarkable photos that sum up the book. Top: a room designed by Schindler in the Moderne style and a below, a typical lived-in middle class living room.

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Silly irregular gray shape running across the spread and does nothing.

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Notice how the gray shape cuts across the text for no reason.

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