Exhibition opening



Spotlight on Winold Reiss: Art and Design in New York 1913-1953

Exhibition at the German Consulate in New York City
December 5, 2013 to January 3, 2014

“This is Winold Reiss’ Christmas gift to New York City"

Exhibition Talks by Julie Kennedy and C. Ford Peatross

The German-American artist and designer Winold Reiss (1886-1953) arrived in New York in 1913, and this exhibition is occasioned by the 100th anniversary of that event. The installation features original artworks and designs as well as archival material highlighting Reiss’s student work in Munich and his extensive career in America, especially in New York City, from 1913 until his death in 1953. The objects emphasize the artist’s personal and professional circle and the range of his accomplishments, from portraits and graphic art to interior and commercial design, advertising, and even metalwork. They explore his influential contributions in introducing German modernism and color to this coun- try and in helping to create a lively and diverse visual identity for New York City during the first half of the twentieth century.

More than an artist, Reiss was a teacher and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance and in the founding of the profession of industrial design. For four decades, his creative energies provided the city with interior and exterior decorative schemes for a vast range of projects, including the Music Building for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair and the interiors and graphic identities of such New York institutions as the Crillon, Longchamps, Rumpelmayer’s and Lindy’s restaurants; the Alamac, St. George and St. Moritz hotels; Scribner’s publications, Steinway’s pia- nos and Barricini’s candies; shops and stores and much, much more.

The wall on the right features portraits, what the artist called “imaginatives,” a woodcut print, and poster-style works, all with personal meaning for Winold Reiss. They range from an early self-portrait to representations of his wife, the artist Henriette Reiss; his son, Tjark Reiss, as a young boy; his brother and sometimes colleague, the sculptor Hans Reiss; and his intimate friend, Erika Lohmann, a Duncan dancer, or “Isadorable,” whom Reiss helped to train and nurture as an artist. All those portrayed worked with Reiss at various points in his career on his larger commissions, where an artistic team was required.

One of Reiss’s colorful imaginatives is an abstract winter representation of Woodstock, New York, which Reiss frequented soon after his arrival from Germany and where he maintained a summer school from 1916 to 1924. In another kind of “imaginative”, the untitled but boldly conceived woodcut print, the Dream, Reiss employs highly personal symbols and proto-Art Deco motifs to represent the travails of love. A Decorative Panel depicting a strongly featured and stylized male head in profile, and an early depiction of three men in traditional Black Forest dress are both executed in the bold, flat colors of the “poster” style that Reiss brought with him from Munich.

The center wall features images of and design drawings for two of Winold Reiss’s most extensive and avant-garde hotel design commissions, the 20-story, 350-room, Hotel Alamac at 71st Street and Broadway, which opened in December 1923; and New York’s largest hotel, the St. George, with 2,632 rooms, including an expansion which opened in Brooklyn in 1930, featuring a 400-foot high tower addition, a huge saltwater swimming pool, and the city’s largest ballroom.

One of the original decorative metal panels from the Medieval Grill of the Hotel Alamac is shown in this exhibition, with a preliminary design sketch for it. The scheme of alternating metal and mural panels depicting medieval scenes in the Grill Room is shown in a photograph.

The Congo Room (or Congo Roof) was located at the top of the Al- amac, and its wildly imaginative and colorful interior decoration was based upon tropical African themes, from its menu and table settings to the design of its booths as straw huts. Wall murals and furnishings feature exotic flora and fauna. All of this was in keeping with the venue, home to Paul Specht’s Hotel Alamac Orchestra, which broadcast its jazz rhythms directly from the Congo Room over station WJZ and dis- tributed them nation-wide as exclusive recording artists for Columbia records.

An even more ambitious decorative program that Reiss carried out seven years later is the Hotel St. George, detailed in an advertisement for its opening. The “Colorama” ballroom featured a color “organ” that played an infinite variety of hues against the angular planes of its zigzag modernistic moldings. Reiss’s innovative designs for wall, ceiling, and lighting treatments were evident throughout, especially in the use of air- brushing and reflective “Duco” metallic paint on various surfaces. One of the elegant original portraits of “American Beauties” commissioned for the Hotel St. George is also featured.

Winold Reiss was especially admired for his sensitive and artistically accomplished portraits of a wide range of ethnic, social, and profes- sional “types.” The left wall features a wide range of examples of this genre. It begins with an elegant “society” portrait of his student, the artist Marion Greenwood, in its original frame, as exhibited in “The Architect and Industrial Arts” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929.

The full-size study of a steel worker standing on a beam with a modern metropolis behind and below him was done in preparation for his mon- umental mosaic murals for the Cincinnati Union Terminal, completed in 1933. The scene is much more Manhattan than Cincinnati, which no ocean liners ever reached.

An early portrait of a native American, one of the subjects for which Reiss is best known; a dramatically composed image of a young Mexi- can Indian in a sombrero; and a portrait of a Chinese woman in an elaborate headdress, pressed against the picture plane, demonstrate Reiss’s cosmopolitan bend as do the colorful depictions of an African king in his native costume and of a very contemporary looking young Harlem girl wrapped in a boldly striped blanket. An intimate portrait of two young Harlem girls; a fashionable woman, stylishly silhouetted against a gold background; and an old glazier sitting on a crate in his New York City workshop complete the sampling.

Today Winold Reiss is best known for his portraits, for which his artistic studies at Munich’s Royal Academy provided an excellent base. Few, however, are aware of his role as a teacher and of his prolific and influen- tial career in the graphic arts, and in architectural, interior, and industrial design, where his training at Munich’s School of Applied Arts gave him a comparably firm foundation. The images displayed on the Mezzanine level are organized in five groups to provide an introduction to Winold’s Reiss’s early works and his various studios and schools; to the richness and diversity of his creative activities in designing advertising, promo- tional materials, and packaging; and to his many commissions to design the exteriors, interiors, signage, and furnishings for American commer- cial enterprises and homes. Highly original, boldly composed, and often strikingly colorful, they introduced entirely new forms, colors and materi- als to American graphic art, architecture and interior and industrial and furniture design.

Early Work; Teaching; Design Studios: In Reiss’s early designs for graphic art the strong influence of his training in Munich, under teach- ers like the noted poster artist and illustrator Julius Diez, is evident, as is his interest in German themes. Four works here were done before Reiss left Germany in 1913: a large poster for Stadt Meersburg featuring a knight in armor, an early interior design, and two smaller graphic works.

After arriving in America Reiss continued to employ the theme of the knight in armor, and German folk motifs. Jugendstil forms are evident in many of his graphic works, as in the various announcements and promotional materials for Reiss’s studios and schools, but Reiss soon began to transform them into his own abstract, modernistic, and very original vocabulary. Early on Reiss introduced the distinctive falling or italic “s” seen throughout this exhibition. Today we associate this peculiar “s” with both his signature and his work, and it continues to be copied widely.

Furniture & Interior Design; Murals & Mosaics: A distinctive aspect of Reiss’s interior designs is that they often incorporate his work as an artist and muralist. Whose day could not be made more joyful by his vividly colorful murals for the Restaurant Crillon or for Schrafft’s?

Reiss popularized “scaping” or the air-brushing of abstract patterns or murals on walls and ceilings, evident in the Mosse offices, the Shellball Apartments, and the Hotel St. George. In these decorations he often used Du Pont’s new pigments, like its metallic Duco. He also employed mosaic and ceramic tiles in his murals and decorations, as for the Res- taurants Longchamps, the Hotel St. George, and on a vast scale in Cincinnati’s Union Terminal. Reiss’s designs for furniture and metalwork also were highly original, as in the Shellball Apartments, Mosse offices, the Tavern Club, and in the Merrill residence. He produced some of the first aluminum furniture in America for the General Fireproofing Company, Rumpelmayer’s at the St. Moritz, and, most notably, the Walden Book Shop, where in 1930 he introduced the prototype for the so-called “Navy chair”, now seen everywhere.

Graphic Art; Book Design; Magazine Covers: In the field of graphic art Winold Reiss was a prolific and highly original designer who pro- duced colorful and eye-catching prints, posters, book jackets, maga- zine covers, and illustrations for many of New York’s leading publishers.

The examples included here range from 1915 to 1930 and were done for Albert and Charles Boni; Harcourt, Brace & Co., Houghton Mifflin & Co.; the “little” magazines, like the Pagan and Touchstone; and Charles Scribner’s Sons, where, with an introduction from the noted illustrator and family friend Ernest Peixotto, Reiss began work soon after his arrival in America. Reiss was the primary artistic force behind much of the content in the M.A.C., or Modern Art Collector, and his wife, the artist Henriette Reiss, was the model for its second cover.

The bold compositions and flat colors of Reiss’s poster designs show the influence of the German Jugendstil and the work of artists like Ludwig Hohlwein and Julius Diez, Reiss’s professor at Munich’s Kunstgewerbeschule. Most notable are his graphic designs for the Harlem Renaissance, where Reiss adapted motifs from African art to create an entirely new and powerful artistic vocabulary that influenced other designers, like his student Aaron Douglas.

Restaurant Graphics; Promotional Materials; Packaging: Munich’s Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) provided Winold Reiss with the skills necessary to embark on a highly successful career designing promotional materials, packaging, and a wide range of graphic tools for American restaurants and business enterprises. Bold, color- ful, handsome, and graphically innovative, they introduced entirely new colors and a wide variety of fonts to the public.

Reiss provided brochures and catalogs for Mercedes roadsters, Du Pont’s new synthetic materials, and Steinway pianos. For Longchamps, Rumpelmayer, Barricini, Heller, and Baumgarten confections, he designed a wide range of elegant packaging. Many top hotels, eating establishments and bars commissioned Reiss to provide their graphic identities, from menus to matchbooks and advertising. These included New York’s Alamac, St. George, and St. Moritz hotels; its Café Bonaparte and the Crillon, Robert, Voisin, St. James, as well as all twelve Longchamps restaurants. Beyond Manhattan, Reiss provided graphic designs for a wide range of purposes, for clients as diverse and dispersed as the Apollo Theatre in Chicago, the Hotel President in Kansas City, Mike Lyman’s restaurant and bar in Los Angeles, and the Hess Bros. department store in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Hotels, Restaurants, Shops & Stores, Theaters: In New York Winold Reiss provided interior “stylings” for the Alamac, St. Moritz, Ritz-Carl- ton, St. George, and Roger Smith hotels, as well as for the Sherman House in Chicago, the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, the Hotel Du Pont-Bilt- more in Wilmington, and the Hotel President in Kansas City. He redefined the look, layout, furnishing, lighting, and decoration of Gotham’s best restaurants and bars, with elegant and stylish exteriors and ininteriors for the Café Bonaparte, Steuben Tavern, and the Crillon, Robert, Rumpelmayer, Dunhall’s, St. James, Lindy’s, and all of the Longchamps restaurants. Reiss exported his New York “look” with designs for the Hess Brothers Patio Room in Allentown, the Hotel President in Kansas City, the Longchamps in Washington, the Tavern Club and Sherman House in Chicago, and the Chic-n-Coop in Montréal, while many others copied his work nationwide. Reiss’s New York area shops and stores for the Busy Lady Bakeries, Mosse linens, Barricini candies, and Browning-King men’s clothing featured innovative color schemes and lighting fixtures and were admired and copied. His modernistic Walden Book Shop in Chicago provided the stage for a new line of aluminum furniture, including the prototype for the now ubiquitous “Navy chair.” His many other commissions included distinctive interior and exterior decorations for a wide range of purposes. In New York he designed the exterior and interior treatments for the Music Hall at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40, the Elgin (now Joyce) Theater, today an important venue for dance, and the Manhattan Center. Elsewhere, his work included murals decorations for the Cincinnati Union Terminal, and the Santa Fe Railroad’s ticket office in Kansas City.

C. Ford Peatross

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