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  • Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas by Virginia Bayer et al.
  • Douglas Schaller
Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas. By Virginia Bayer, Linda Florio, and Donna Ghelerter. (New York: West Madison Press, 2017. Illustrations, chronology. $39.95.)

As evident in the 2019–20 Jewish Museum exhibition on Edith Halpert's legacy and her astute promotion of Pennsylvania German designs and folk art more broadly, our changing understanding of this material's early proponents recalibrates contemporary perspectives on the work. This recent monograph on the 1920s and '30s designer Marguerita Mergentime (1894–1941) belatedly recognizes the foresight in broadening the mass appeal for Americana. Like Halpert, Mergentime grasped the inherent design appeal of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century fraktur and painted furniture but boldly reimagined their adaptation into everyday living and modern fabrics. As documented by the sales tallied in department store advertisements with her name prominently featured alongside the designs, she successfully reached middle-class urbanites. A member of the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen, Mergentime's signature style achieved prominence rapidly enough to be name-branded in ads and to produce a linen collection, titled "100 Years of American Design," for Lord & Taylor in 1936.

The volume's forward, by the scholar Madelyn Shaw, notes that "good design" as defined by frequent Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art exhibits of the 1920s and '30s united forces among manufacturing, design, and curatorial spheres to challenge domestic production to raise both its profile and allure. It was an opportune time for a forward-thinking and historically inclined designer, such as Mergentime, to launch domestic furnishings that would affirm tasteful, modern, yet homegrown idioms.

Although antiquing in rural Pennsylvania was by the 1920s a popular pursuit for fashionable and affluent women, Mergentime eyed these handworks not solely with the intention of collecting but more shrewdly as design inspiration. In her essay, Donna Ghelerter cites Mergentime's loan of items from her collection of Pennsylvania German folk art to the 1939 Popular Art in America exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and her unorthodox pairing of these finds with her family's penthouse duplex in the Beresford in New York City, designed by Frederick Kiesler.

The collectors Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Electra Havemayer Webb, advised and shaped by Halpert, significantly altered American [End Page 92] museums' approaches to and connoisseurship of folk art. Mergentime viewed the same objects as both central to American identity and a vernacular tradition for modernism to draw upon, though she took a more business-centric approach. Indicative of how fluidly Mergentime could pivot in her design idioms and inspirations, she drew from Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts for her first printed tablecloths and napkins, naming the patterns after phrases ("Once in a While" and "Have to Have") from Stein's libretto.

That fluidity is perhaps the strongest argument to be made for Mergentime's visionary strategy for injecting "good design" Americana into the modern American interior (one cut short by her death from cancer). Further evidence of her democratic and progressive stance is Mergentime's ten-foot Americana tapestry (1939, created for the Golden Gate International Exposition), which combines colloloquialisms, personalities, products, and pastimes in such a flattened typographic manner that regionalisms collapse. Prescient in its utilitarian and box stenciled typefaces, it projects unity and a pseudo-folk identity decades before the 1960s, when the aesthetic became more popular. Just as Mergentime's business strategies and forecasting skills anticipated those of the better-known Halpert, she also foreshadowed another 1960s tastemaker, the textile designer Vera Neumann.

This provocative volume accompanied an installation of Mergentime's designs at the Cooper Hewitt; each essay succinctly frames the exceptional craft and historicism that characterize Mergentime's work. With this invigorating light shed on Mergentime's legacy, it is time to delve more deeply into her career and its influences. [End Page 93]

Douglas Schaller
Temple University


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