From May 2 to May 7, 1927, New York City retail giant R.H. Macy's and Company held the Exposition of Art in Trade to demonstrate the growing influence of merchants over the design of manufactured products, the increased connection between art and commerce, and the ability of consumers to fill their homes with everyday beauty. To legitimize its role as cultural tastemaker, the department store retained the Metropolitan Museum of Art to assist with the weeklong exhibit and lecture series. Art in Trade proved a popular success, and Macy's soon enjoyed the flattery of imitation as other stores, such as Lord & Taylor's and Marshall Fields, followed suit with shows of their own. However, the exposition also demonstrated that a large cultural gap separated retailers from the artistic elite.

Macy's, a household name in retail since 1858, lent its reputation and space to the exposition, but its business executives remained noticeably absent from the actual proceedings. The store attempted to fill the position of cultural arbiter, but achieved this feat at a superficial level only. The catalog, which was printed by the store but identifies no specific author, claims the following as a purpose of Art in Trade: "to show actual exhibits of modern products, each chosen to illustrate the new alliance between the manufacturer and the arts" (3). Ironically, then, not even the name of Macy's President Jesse Strauss appears within its pages. Metropolitan Museum of Art President Robert DeForest served as chairman, stage designer Lee Simonson filled the post of Art Director and Designer, and a plethora of leaders within the art world rounded out the Advisory Committee. The only evident business voice within the eleven-page brochure comes from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who comments:

I am greatly interested in the whole subject of art and industry and an exhibit of the kind contemplated by your committee because of its fine influence on cultural and educational standards in this country. I feel that such an effort serves a peculiarly useful purpose in its tendency toward the elimination of designs in our production which on exhibit evidence the absence of those qualities which make for artistic progress in industry (5).

The rather broad and somewhat convoluted statement demonstrates the as yet strained relationship between business and art. Hoover's difficulty in articulating the benefits of the show mirrors Straus'--or any other Macy's administrator's--inability to define a role, besides financier, for himself within the Art in Trade project. The quote also is indicative of the struggle to justify machine-made products as art. These, after all, were mostly commonly used items found in households and stores across the United States, not elaborately framed and showcased canvases from the European masters.

Although the Met played a key role in the Macy's exposition, the advisory committee made a show of legitimizing their effort to display household projects as serious art. Records indicate that the Macy's people, who also wanted to showcase their new West Building on Broadway and Thirty-fourth Street, incited the project. Regardless of the motive, however, it is significant that Art in Trade took place within a retail space and not a museum. The public did not yet accept manufactured products as pieces of art, and would not have supported such an event had it been solely museum-sponsored. To boost the cultural aspect of the exhibition, DeForest invited international submissions and mixed more conventional art--such as sculptures and paintings--with glassware and furniture. For example, the catalog lists both Edward Steichen and George Bellows as contributors, though the actual names of the included pieces were omitted. DeForest's attempts to avoid offending art connoisseurs seems to have succeeded. An announcement in the New York Times recognized the primacy of modern machine art in the exhibit. However, the writer carefully includes mention of more traditional forms: "[The exhibition] will portray the application of modern, classic and primitive art to objects of everyday use, the modern note predominating" ("To Show Beauty of Art in Trade"). Still support for the machine-made spectacle was apparent. A post-exhibition commentary in the same paper proclaims: "This past week has seen an extraordinary movement in art and an extraordinary triumph in the art of showing art. With concerted action the museum, the theatre, modern interior decoration, dominated that field and told the public precisely what to expect between the new alliance between the manufacturer and the artist" (Cary).

The catalog offers descriptions of neither the design of the installation nor the presentation of the objects. However, contemporary observations indicated that the exposition layout captured the essence of the machine by artfully displaying raw manufacturing materials. To quote Times critic Elizabeth Cary at some length:

If the effect desired was dark marble with veins of gold as a background for our glorious modern glass, and dark gold-veined marble was obviously out of the question, what matter? To the artist of the theatre dark rubber floor covering streaked with veins of gold did every bit as well--did for that matter ever so much better--in meeting the fluent requirements of a temporary show. And again, the panelings and frameworks of the rooms into which the exhibition gallery was divided were affairs of angle and straight line, not a curve anywhere. Two purposes were served. The keen, energetic spirit of modern art was embodied and a great saving of labor and material was accomplished (Cary).

This observation eloquently captures both the slowly developing appreciation for machine-made modern art and the growing respect for function as well as form. Simonson's line-oriented design filled all the available space, even the crevices that a curve-dominated design would have sacrificed, and his rubber floor allowed for easy installment and removal. Commenting on his use of "metals, asbestos, cork, and other raw materials," the designer argued: "They have a beauty of their own, and they also eliminate much of the labor that is necessary for the finishing of woods" (American Store Window 28).

Despite the efforts of DeForest and Simonson, however, the Macy's advisers deemed the exhibition too weak to stand alone and offered verbal arguments, in the form of a lecture series, as well. The six-day affair included no less than twenty talks, not counting the opening address given by both DeForest and New York City Art Council President John Finley. Topics of discussion ranged from "Taste and Waste" and "Art for All of Us" to "Good Taste in Clothes" and "The Skyscraper in Decoration" (R.H. Macy & Company). Only on the final day was there "no afternoon program, the remainder of the day being given over to inspection of the various exhibits" ("Art in Trade Show Attracts Many").

Still Macy's and DeForest took the first step toward commercializing art while aestheticizing modern manufactured products. The retail outlet demonstrated both its influence on the market and, therefore, its ability to sway the type and style of product manufactured. Good Furniture magazine, which noted the immediate availability of the displayed items, describes consumer interest in the new goods:

[T]he selling has eclipsed the fondest expectations. Although manufacturers seem to see little in the modern vogue, consumers eagerly snap up everything that is available. The demand is unmistakable, but its volume may, of course, not be sufficient to encourage commercial manufacturers. It does exist, though, and it seems reasonable to think that volume will develop as soon as it is possible for these demands to be fulfilled…. Macy's recognized this trend of public taste and is prepared to profit by it (Qtd in Johnson 23).

It seems that most critics, consumers, and retailers expected the popularity of machine art to soar. Regardless of sales, though, perhaps no one fathomed the cultural heights that not only furniture and lighting, but also ball bearings would attain.

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Art in Trade Machine Art
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