Index of American Design
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The Index of American Design is a remarkable pictorial archive that illustrates an important part of this nation’s cultural heritage. In more than 18,000 watercolor renderings it portrays weather vanes, quilts, toys, tavern signs, figureheads, stoneware, and many other examples of Americana, most made by anonymous craftsmen between the early years of European settlement and around 1900. The Index is one of the most significant and enduring products of a search for national cultural identity that was conducted in this country during the 1920s and 1930s. This campaign to define our nation’s aesthetic character began in response to some Americans’ concern that the United States lacked a rich historical background in the arts, like that of European nations, and therefore had no foundation or “usable past” on which to build an art of the present or the future. It seemed that we might be destined to imitate European styles and forms--a dependence at odds with our strong sense of nationhood. Many artists and critics refused to accept this disparaging view of American culture. Instead, they began a patriotic exploration for evidence of a national creative style, focusing on the previously unexamined realm of our folk, popular, and decorative arts. It was this quest to confirm our status as a nation with its own aesthetic tradition that led to the creation of the Index of American Design.

  Toy Horse
  Mina Lowry, American, 1894-1942, Toy Horse, 1939, 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.

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