The Epitome of Collections

A major museum chronicles the evolution of the decorative arts through the lens of world’s fairs held from 1851-1939

by Leigh Elmore
photos provided by the Nelson-Atkins Museum

It’s hard to imagine that a true antiques aficionado could not be moved by the special exhibition, “Inventing the Modern World, Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs 1851-1939,” that opened April 14 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It’s a groundbreaking exhibition of extraordinary decorative arts and design, which were shown at world’s fairs from 1851 to 1939, representing the pinnacle of artistic and industrial ingenuity of their day.

Walking into the exhibit space and the reaction is “Wow! These are the most beautiful objects in the world.” In fact, many do represent the “best in class” whether they be a porcelain vase, glass pitcher, silver service or a wooden bookcase – you know they’re totally out of reach for 99 percent of all antique collectors, but just knowing they exist gives us all reason to keep on keeping on. Many have been museum pieces since they were created.

Keller Frères, France (1881–1922). Pitcher, 1900. Gilded silver. Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Spanning the most dynamic period in craftsmanship and manufacturing history, the mid-19th century through the outbreak of World War II, “Inventing the Modern World” is organized chronologically and thematically, with the overarching premise of innovation. Works exemplify technological and scientific invention, cross-cultural influence, national pride, modernism and historicism, according to the exhibition curators. Many of the objects are being seen in the United States for the first time.

“Inventing the Modern World” includes about 200 objects shown at every major and several minor world’s fairs from 1851 to 1939. The exhibition was co-curated by Catherine L. Futter and Jason T. Busch.

Futter is the Helen Jane and Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts at the Nelson-Atkins. Busch serves as Curatorial Chair for Collections and the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, where the exhibit will travel after closing in Kansas City on Aug. 19.

From international museums and private collections, Futter and Busch carefully selected the finest and most compelling objects shown at major and minor world’s fairs from the 1851 London exhibition to the 1939 New York fair.

“Decorative arts selected for our_ exhibition were the physical manifestation_ of progressive ideals embodied in the _fairs,” said Busch. “They are among the_ only surviving elements of these_ephemeral events, and technological triumphs in their own right.”

“We associate world’s fairs with fun, and also signature architecture like the Eiffel Tower and the Crystal Palace,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, director & CEO of the Nelson-Atkins. “But the importance of world’s fairs was reflected in the objects that continue to inspire elegance and creativity. Now, for the first time ever, those objects have been brought together for this major exhibition.”

During the time period represented by the exhibit, world’s fairs were the most important vehicle for debuting technological and stylistic advancements on an international stage. They functioned as showcases and marketplaces for design on a global, national and individual level. Above all, they democratized design unlike any previous or concurrent forum, Futter said.

“We looked at literally thousands of decorative arts from around the globe,” said Futter. “We kept refining our choices to find the objects that really spoke about innovation. We are excited to bring them together for the first and only time to convey the sense of discovery and energy that these magnificent works at the fairs created.”

“The exhibition checklist comprises decorative arts unattainable as a group in any one museum in the world,” said Busch. “Objects were selected according to themes that resonate throughout ‘Inventing the Modern World,’ including technique, cross-cultural influence and nationalistic inspiration, all of which shaped the competition inherent to the fairs.”

“Many of the objects touch upon multiple themes in their form, in their decoration or in the way they were fabricated,” said Catherine L. Futter, “But the overarching theme is innovation. Every object was the newest, most modern work of its time.”

Examples of innovation include a Thonet rocking chair that demonstrated new bentwood processes at the 1862 London International Exhibition; a vase with a complicated Black Iris glaze and electroplated mounts created by the Cincinnati-based Rookwood firm and shown at the 1900 “Paris Exposition Universelle”; a dazzling bracelet of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds set in platinum and osmium that Boucheron displayed at the 1925 Paris exposition to showcase progressive designs and metalsmithing techniques; and a lighted plate glass radiator by the Saint-Gobain factory from the 1937 Paris fair.

Marcel Breuer, designer, American (b. Hungary), 1902–1981, Embru Werke AG, manufacturer, Switzerland, 1904–present, Chaise Lounge No. 313, 1934, Plywood

“We take some of these things for granted,” said Futter. “Chromolithography in ceramics was new in 1867, but remains one of the most popular methods of decoration in ceramics production today.”

The stylistic progression is impressive in the examples of furniture represented. A furniture standout is the monumental bookcase that Gustave Herter and Ernst Plassmann teamed up to create for the first world’s fair conducted in the United States – the “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” in New York in 1853.

Created in the Gothic Revival style popularized by libraries, the gigantic piece was decorated with elaborate spires, arches, buttresses and figures dressed in medieval style. It is in complete contrast with the clean, spare lines of the “skyscraper” bookcase and desk created in the 1930s by Paul T. Frankl on display near the end of the exhibition space. Yet, you cannot help but love them both.

The exhibition includes works made by noted international artists and manufacturers, ranging from a dazzling chromium plated woman’s vanity designed by Gilbert Rohde and manufactured by the Herman Miller Furniture Co. to a 1930s streamlined Art Deco glass chair, to masterworks of jewelry and objects in glass, silver, and porcelain by such world-renowned artisans and designers as Baccarat, Tiffany, Cartier and Sevres.

“It’s not only because they are beautiful that they are here. It’s because at that particular moment when they were premiered at a world’s fair, it was the highest achievement a nation could do, an artisan could do, an artist could achieve,” said Zugazagoitia.

The exhibition makes clear that during the time period represented, the world was becoming a much “smaller” place with the advent of steam ships, the telegraph, telephone, electric light, automobile and airplane. Consequently, decorative techniques began to be shared by different cultures around the globe.

For example, a Japanese vase created for the “1876 Philadelphia Exhibition” by Fukagawa Yeizaemon of glazed and enameled porcelain appears at first glance to be very Eastern with depictions of two samurai fighting in a plum garden. But on closer inspection, Futter said, the vivid hues of purples and pinks could only be achieved by the advent of German glaze technology.

“Something like that is fascinating to me, that a vase could be loaded with so many stories about style, nationalism and technology and the fact that it’s not Asian taste – but the Japanese interpreting European taste,” Futter said.

Tiffany & Co., United States, New York, NY (1837–present). Coffeepot, 1893. Silver with enamel, ivory, and jade. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Decorative Arts Purchase Fund.

Similarly, Belgian designer Raymond Ruys, working for Delheid Frères, created the stunning Zaire centerpiece bowl for the “Exposition Internationale Coloniale, Maritime et d’Art Flamand” in Antwerp, Belgium, 1930. Ruys adapted African form and styling to make a simple yet striking design in silver, using as inspiration traditional Congolese works, blending their solid forms with the clean lines of Deco styling.

Following World War II, Busch said, the role of decorative arts at the world’s fairs changed, as the exhibitions shifted to presentations on overarching themes–the legacy of the “Century of Progress” and “World of Tomorrow” envisioned at the fairs of the 1930s and late 20th century. At least through Aug. 19 a new world of beauty exists at the Nelson-Atkins.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

World’s fairs that celebrated the present

Over time even our conception of what a world’s fair is supposed to be has changed.

People growing up in our era associate world’s fairs with futuristic expositions, created to project a vision of the future – from Seattle in 1962 and in New York in 1964 to Seville in 1992 – most modern world’s fairs are looking far ahead into space and cyberspace.

However, 150 years ago the focus was different – world’s fairs provided a punctuation mark for the present. They were designed to highlight the best and the brightest of the existing age, providing a place and time to gloat a little about the accomplishments of the recent past, said Mark s Cordes, president of the Friends of Art associated with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City

And that’s one of the points made in “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939.” The 200 objects currently on display at the Nelson-Atkins represent the pinnacle of technique and achievement in creating beautiful, yet functional decorative art objects.

Visitors will experience “Inventing the Modern World” in an installation that evokes the spectacle of these highly popular events with chronological sections that group fairs by periods over the late 19th and 20th centuries. Although every major fair through 1939 is represented, the exhibition is not a march through the fairs but an impressive grouping of objects illustrating the most engaging and forward-thinking innovations of their times.

The great fairs of the 19th century often left architectural legacies that helped define their times, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Crystal Pavilion in London. But those structures expressed the pinnacle of engineering and architecture that was doable at the time. The fantastic futures predicted by some of the “Space Age” fairs have sort of dissolved in a big gulp of reality, although the Space Needle in Seattle remains a reminder of a more optimistic age.

In lieu of the Internet or even transatlantic flights, world’s fairs in the 19th century became global marketplaces where artistic and industrial advancements from around the world were gathered and shared with artists, designers, manufacturers and consumers.

“With greater contact among India, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa as well as Europe and the Americas, designers and manufacturers exchanged ideas, fabrication techniques and styles for an increasingly sophisticated, knowledgeable, and curious public,” said Catherine L. Futter, co-curator of the exhibition.

Due to the impermanence of the fairs, decorative arts from them are sometimes the only surviving elements. Decorative arts, particularly objects crafted in ceramic, metal, glass and wood, were the physical manifestation of the progressive ideals embodied in the fairs.

With 200 decorative arts objects assembled in the Nelson-Atkin’s exhibition space it’s a dramatic vista back on the best of our past.  – Leigh Elmore