On Exhibit: designs that covered the country | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: designs that covered the country 

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This year the Seville fair is plastered all over the travel sections, and Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition has been memorialized in half a dozen recent books. But Chicago's Depression-era world's fair, the Century of Progress, rarely rates a mention. True, it never drew the crowds or dollars the city expected, but it may have played a greater role in shaping national tastes than any fair before or since. Exhibitions in architecture, industrial design, and home fashion played key roles in solidifying trends that continue today.

A small but significant view of the Century of Progress's impact on American tastes can be had at the Harold Washington Library's current exhibition, "Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quilts of the Great Depression Era." This collection of quilts, most made by rural women in Tennessee in 1920s American colonial-revival styles, may seem an unlikely example of modern popular culture. Nevertheless these quilts, all hand-pieced and most hand-sewn, reflect powerful trends in the 1930s that broke down regional preferences in taste. Yet the emerging nationally popular styles often had regional roots. The Roosevelt administration saw the development of folk arts as a way to rekindle America's sagging spirit and economy in the 1930s: several New Deal programs were meant to record and display the riches of folk life. The Federal Writers' Project sent government workers out to collect folktales, and another project collected regional songs. Some of the quilt makers in this show worked in sewing circles connected with the massive works projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

At the same time that the government was broadening the base of local arts, the private sector was exposing regional populations to a huge variety of new styles. Home magazines helped manufacturers and retailers market their products nationwide. Women who had copied quilt patterns from their mothers and grandmothers or assembled samplers from their neighbors' patterns could in the 1930s buy preprinted patterns offered by professional designers.

Millions of women bought the designs of Anne Champe Orr--several of which hang in this show--making her something of a celebrity in sewing circles. Orr, who produced several thousand patterns and sold them through Good Housekeeping, was largely responsible for popularizing the colonial-revival styles that pervade this exhibit. Her patterns adapted a traditional motif, often a flower basket, for the quilts' central medallions. For fabrics, however, Orr suggested newly fashionable pastels, then being mass-produced in America for the first time by large textile companies and promoted aggressively to designers. The design "Heirloom Basket" reflects this fact not only in its soft pinks and greens but in the bright sapphire blues made possible by advances in chemical dyes. Though Orr freed women from sketching their own designs, her products demanded hard work and great expertise. The patterns in this show required stitching together as many as 2,000 one-inch-square pieces.

Professional designs also influenced women who chose not to buy them or who could not afford them--ten cents was a high price in the depressed rural South. Those formerly devoted to local styles reasoned that if someone like Orr, an outsider, could catch on in their communities, they too could create or adapt a wider variety of patterns.

In the early 30s, Sears, Roebuck & Company did a robust business in fabrics and quilt patterns. At the Century of Progress, Sears built a large pavilion at the fair entrance where visitors could eat, rest, and survey a selection of the retailer's products; the most popular exhibit was a display of quilts. Six months before the fair opened, Sears had announced a nationwide quilt contest, with $7,500 in prize money for quilts done in original designs. Many of the quilts in this show were made for that contest. From January to May 1933, quilt makers put in an estimated five million hours of work to produce 24,000 entries. First they were judged on the regional level, then sent to the Art Institute, where the best ones were picked by a panel that included Orr and other professional designers. For years afterward Sears marketed a selection of the winning patterns, thus disseminating throughout the country the tastes of the judges.

Though quilt making has a long history, the current public enthusiasm began with an exhibition in 1974 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, attended by the fashion-savvy viewers of New York. Today dissemination of fashion is far more rapid and sophisticated than it was in the 1930s. The two decades of the latest quilt revival have placed quilts in the mainstream of American design and introduced the craft to millions of new quilt makers with no traditional background in it. The AIDS quilt, a work so enormous that it travels across America in football-field-sized sections, is composed of thousands of panels sewn by people all over the country to commemorate those who have died of AIDS. It has not only transformed the craft into a literally national medium but, as the Century of Progress did, into a national forum.

"Soft Covers for Hard Times" will be open through May 30 in the main exhibit hall, lower level, of the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State. Library hours are 9-7 Monday-Thursday and 9-5 Friday and Saturday. Admission is free; call 747-4876 for further information.

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