Index of American Design
Dapper Dan
Index Home
How it Worked
Artists' Challenge
Garret to Gallery
Making a Drawing
Tour the Index

With the Great Depression in the 1930s, an opportunity to foster the development of this new art seemed to present itself in the form of federal work-relief programs for unemployed artists. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933, millions of American workers had lost their jobs and become destitute. To help alleviate the economic misery of the nation, Roosevelt instituted a series of work-relief programs, the most comprehensive and lasting of which was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Index of American Design was one unit of the Federal Art Project (FAP), a WPA program for artists. The Index project began at the end of 1935 and continued for just over six years, providing temporary--and desperately needed--work for about one thousand artists.

  Civil War Drum
  Wayne White, American, 1890-1978, Civil War Drum, 1940, watercolor over graphite

The idea for the Index of American Design came from two women in New York City, both involved directly or indirectly with modern design. Ruth Reeves was a textile designer who occasionally consulted the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library in search of fresh inspiration. There she met Romana Javitz, head of the collection, who regretted that her picture files did not provide modern designers like Reeves with adequate visual resources from American material culture. Reeves and Javitz discussed the idea of creating a pictorial guide specifically for American design. When the Federal Art Project began they proposed their scheme to Holger Cahill, its director. Cahill, an authority on both American modernism and folk art, as well as an advocate of modern industrial design, enthusiastically endorsed their plan. Once the Index started as a unit of the FAP, Reeves joined its administrative staff while Javitz remained at the library. Two other important Index administrators were Constance Rouke, an eminent cultural historian and folklorist who became editor of the Index, and Adolph Cook Glassgold, a leader of the modern design movement in New York who became national coordinator of the Index.

Dower Chest  
Charles Henning, American, active c. 1935, Maria Stohlern Dower Chest, 1938, watercolor over graphite  

The Index opened a central office in Washington, D.C., and eventually extended its operations to thirty-four states and the District of Columbia. Every region and state in the country had produced artifacts that the project leaders deemed worthy to record in the Index, and they hoped to represent them all. Northeastern states had the most active projects, illustrating artifacts made locally as well as some brought there from other places such as this Civil War Drum and Dower Chest. A number of western and southwestern states also made significant contributions to the Index. To locate works for inclusion in the survey, state administrators sought the help of local museums, historical societies, universities, antique dealers, and private collectors. They also printed notices in newspapers and distributed questionnaires to solicit information on the whereabouts of artifacts. Once a sufficient number were found, lists were drawn up and sent to Washington for approval. This step aimed to eliminate redundancy--very similar objects represented by more than one state--and to ensure that each rendering supported the project’s goals.

  Gordena Jackson, American, 1900-1993, Native American Presentation Basket, 1938, watercolor over graphite

The Index pictures the material culture of our nation’s past, but it was not intended to be an antiquarian catalogue. Its creators were dedicated modernists who hoped that Americans would recognize a unique, national style in the design of Index artifacts. This recognition would help accomplish their most cherished goal: the development of a truly American modern art. In the 1930s “national design” meant the visible expression of the collective, creative spirit of a nation, which was embodied in its works of art and, above all, its folk art. The Index founders, like other modernists of the day, maintained that a genuinely American modern art would express anew the simplicity and the powerful, abstract design seen in such appealing folk objects from our past as a hand-carved toy horse from Pennsylvania. Emerging from America’s vernacular, egalitarian spirit, this modernism would also synthesize the fine and applied arts. It would reform industrial design so that manufactured items could become paradigms of modern art for everyday use, enhancing the lives of all Americans.


terms of use | home | Go to our page on Facebook Go to our page on Twitter