NEW YORK — Music gave the Jazz Age its name, but the era was as much about appearance (and attitude) as sound. The look of the ’20s took in everything from bobbed hair to roadsters, dropped waistlines to cocktail shakers.
The decade’s style was variously sleek, industrial, unfussy, glamorous, winking, more geometric than organic, luxurious yet functional in ways the Belle Époque could never have imagined. The decade was assertively contemporary. Even designs with historical motifs made sure the history came on Jazz Age terms. Think of those radiator-cap gargoyles on the Chrysler Building or how the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb made Egyptian decoration seem up to the minute.
There are more than 400 items in “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s.” As appealing as it is large, the show spreads over two floors at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where it runs through Aug. 27. It’s so big it takes in not just America but crosses the Atlantic (Paris as chief destination) and spills over into the ’30s. That’s as it should be. The richer the design era, the less it respects borders or timelines.
The Cooper Hewitt organized “The Jazz Age” with the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it will run Sept. 30-Jan. 14.
Design is imagination liberated — or limited — by circumstance. Conditions after World War I guaranteed liberation. The poet Robert Graves titled his 1929 memoir “Goodbye to All That.” Those four words could serve as an alternate name for the Jazz Age. So could “Hello to All This.” “That” would be the overstuffed world swept away by the war. “This” would be wider prosperity, less restrictive mores, new materials (chrome, plastics, tubular steel), a diminished distance between Europe and America.
The great symbol of that shrinking distance is Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic solo flight, in 1927. How does that relate to design? “The Jazz Age” includes a flask of Spirit of St. Louis perfume, which went on the market soon after Lucky Lindy landed. Aviation is present in the show in specific objects, like that perfume and a zeppelin-shaped cocktail shaker. Its larger impact can be seen in the prevalence of streamlining as a design principle and a sense of dash, at once indefinable but unmistakable, that evokes being high in the sky with a guy.
Cole Porter makes a brief appearance, as do George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. Listening to live jazz often meant going to a speakeasy. The Jazz Age coincided with Prohibition. Drinking may have been illegal, but smoking wasn’t. Some of the more attractive objects in the show are cigarette cases, cigarette holders, even a Donald Deskey textile design called “Party Ashtray.” It looks a whole lot better than it sounds.
The list of social and technological innovations influencing design extends to the automobile, movies, and skyscrapers. With Paul Frankl’s “skyscraper” desk, made of redwood and black lacquer, the Manhattan skyline enters the home.
Another innovation that figures in “The Jazz Age” gets its own show. “The World of Radio” runs through Sept. 27. The exhibition takes its title from its centerpiece, a 1934 tapestry that singer Jessica Dragonette commissioned for her apartment. “Radio was young, and so was I,” she later wrote. “I decided to develop with the newest entertainment.”
Development is the key word for the show. We see multiple examples of radios. The earliest is from 1933, the latest from last year. There are also drawings, photographs, designs, and a 1942 brochure, “Electronics — A New Science for a New World.” Radios, as we now know, were the least of it. What may be the most distinctive item here is a Japanese portable phonograph-radio, from 1962. That stylus must have gotten bounced around a lot.
There are two pronounced elements in radio’s development: stylization and miniaturization. What began as a piece of furniture eventually became accessory-sized. Stylization and miniaturization are also central to “Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection.”
The show consists of more than 100 vanities, compacts, cigarette cases, watches, and even a mechanical pencil made by Cartier in 1929. Using it to write would be an aesthetic sin. Other designers include Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, and Bulgari. Dating from 1910 to 1938, these glorious, gorgeous objects transcend swank and attain pure exquisiteness. Each is more dazzling than the next. A 1925 pocket watch, also from Cartier, has an Egyptian look (King Tut, remember?). It’s made of coral, enamel, blued steel, and gold. It also tells the time — the numerals are quite legible — but that’s not exactly the point, is it?
THE JAZZ AGE: American Style in the 1920s
THE WORLD OF RADIO
JEWELED SPLENDORS OF THE ART DECO ERA: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection
At Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, through Aug. 27, Sept. 24, and Aug. 27, respectively. 212-849-8400, cooperhewitt.org.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.