“Think about how things were nearly 100 years ago,” said Darien Historical Society Historian Ken Reiss, as he led a tour of the new exhibit Darien 1925-1950: Golden Age of Art & Design.
“It’s 1920; the Victorian and Edwardian Ages are over, as is the Great War. Things don’t look like they used to… cars are starting to look like planes; aluminum is the popular metal rather than steel; there are four-color magazines, people are becoming aware of design; there are silent movies — wow! Everything visual is different.
“All kinds of things are happening, much of it in New York City — it was the center of art, advertising, graphic arts, music, museums; people are experimenting with new ideas and techniques, and thanks to the trains, this modern world was easily accessible to those living along the Connecticut coast. And those living in the city could now live in the country.
“There was still the strong presence of the farmers who had been here since the 1600s,” Reiss continued, “but the creative class was having an impact. This show, Darien 1925–1950: Golden Age of Art & Design, is how about how this little town, then about 4,000 people, responded to all of that.”
The Silvermine Guild was established in 1922; the Darien Guild of the Seven Arts — architecture, crafts, dancing, drama, fine arts, literature and music — was established in 1927. It was open to everyone and embraced by the community; half of its members were not artists, Reiss notes. The exhibits changed every few weeks and encompassed a wide range of artists and media, as can be seen in the numerous copies of clippings about exhibits and entertainers at the Guild Hall, initially 182 Boston Post Road, on display at the beginning of the exhibition.
In addition, classes, readings and performances of all sorts were presented on a regular basis and innovative products were introduced, including a clavilux, a keyboard that projected colors, known as light art.
The Guild’s original sign is on display, as are drawings, paintings, watercolors, sculpture, pottery, metalwork, photography, boat and other designs and collaborations between members.
One example is the bust portrait of noted Impressionist painter John Huffington by Filippo Lagana, who studied at the Beaux-Arts Institute in New York, and settled in Darien in the early 20s. A shoemaker by trade, he also had a sculpture studio. The bust is displayed amid a selection of Huffington’s works.
Visitors to museum are greeted by a pirate-themed mural created by Robert Pallesen for his son’s bedroom in their home next to the Congregational Church, which was rescued by a subsequent owner. His wife Katherine Pallesen was also a member of the guild and their daughter, artist Nina Pallesen Craig Richardson, loaned a number of her father’s designs for murals on silver leaf paper to the exhibit. He also worked for the Public Works of Art Project, predecessor of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), turning the walls of Darien’s then-new high school, and now Darien Town Hall, into a pictorial map of historical Darien.
Several other artists created murals and panels at the then-school; two tall WPA panels by Arthur Gibson Hull, circa 1935, are on display — “We believe for the first time,” said board member David Polett — that were among five found in the basement of town hall. “They fit between the windows of the auditorium; there are eight spaces, but if there were more panels, we have no idea what happened to them.”
The names or designs of some of the Guild members are well-known or familiar — photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, Buckminster Fuller designs, yacht designer W. Starling Burgess, Lurell Van Arsdale Guild’s Electrolux vacuum cleaner, the Edward Steichen-photographed advertisements created by Gordon C. Admar as art director at J. Walter Thompson — but, most are lesser known, some virtually unknown today.
“Frank La Farge was a total surprise to me,” admits Reiss. “Until we came across his portrait going through the collection, I’d never heard of him. Turns out he was considered the premier accompanist of his day. He started playing by ear at the age of four, so his older sister taught him to play without looking at the keys; he’d even practice in the dark. He never used sheet music and had more than 3,200 pieces committed to memory. He died while playing a benefit concert in 1953.”
The collection itself was a surprise to Polett, who joined the historical society’s board about three years ago, as well as to many others. “We were putting together a holiday exhibit and I said it would be nice if we had some old artwork to illustrate the show and our secretary said, ‘Maybe there is something among the Guild stuff.’ This was the first I knew of it; turns out there was an exhibition of Guild work 30 or 40 years ago and parts of it had been stashed in various places. We owe lots to the Collections Committee for the work they did getting it all together, inventoried and prepared to show.”
Reiss added, “Fortunately, most of it was in pretty good condition. We have wonderful things, and enough to do shows on some individuals in the future. We can thank Colonel Howard Stout Neilsen for much it; he collected work of the Guild members and began to do so in earnest in the early 50s.”
As curator of the show, Reiss said he had the most fun researching the “Genius At Work” segment featuring Buckminster Fuller and his many ideas and inventions and W. Sterling Burgess, who designed three America’s Cup defenders. They worked together on the Dymaxion car, a three-wheeled vehicle. Three prototypes were built in Bridgeport, and the first one was demonstrated at the Darien Railroad Station in April 1933. A clip of the car is shown, along with other material, on a TV nearby. (Clips can also be found on YouTube.)
“People know the Darien Historical Society for the restored 1736 Bates-Scofield Home and its Colonial and early American antiques, as well as our incredible costume [clothing] collection, “but we are delighted to introduce this tremendous new material and want people to come and enjoy it and learn about our more recent history and contributions,” said Polett.
Darien 1925–1950: Golden Age of Art & Design is slated to run through Sept. 11.
The museum, at 45 Old Kings Highway North, is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 5 p.m., Sundays, noon to 3 p.m., $5 suggested donation. For additional information, darienhistorical.org or 203-655-9233