“Intimately and unquestionably our own.”

Beginning in 1915, New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) embarked upon a mission to inspire and energize the American design industry by giving textile designers and manufacturers unprecedented access to the museum’s ethnographic collections. The movement, which at first was limited in focus, was sparked by the disruption in creative direction from Europe caused by World War I. Drawing upon the imperialistic notion that Euro-American culture could lay special claim to indigenous artifacts from the Americas, AMNH anthropology curators sought to innovate a distinctly “American” design idiom based on the museum’s vast collections of Native American, Mesoamerican, Andean, and South American objects. Paralleling the globalization of national consciousness as the United States entered the war in 1917, the AMNH began to embrace a wider array of non-Western material from a more global selection of cultures, such as Koryak (Siberian) fur coats and West African robes.

An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915–1928 situated the AMNH’s efforts to engender a distinctly American design aesthetic in the context of the United States’s search for cultural moorings that began with the American Arts and Crafts movement and proliferated through World War I. By examining the disciplinary intersection of early twentieth-century anthropology and American industrial design, as well as the influence of modernist (or American) primitivism, the exhibition presents four major themes: The AMNH’s promotion of “American” sources for design inspiration; global sources and fashion designs; the 1919 Exhibition of Industrial Art; and the legacy of this effort into the 1920s.


A Focus Project curated by Ann Marguerite Tartsinis, Associate Curator, Bard Graduate Center. Focus Projects are small-scale academically rigorous exhibitions and publications that are developed and executed by Bard Graduate Center faculty and postdoctoral fellows in collaboration with students in our MA and PhD programs.