As it steamed across the Atlantic one day in 1926, the Isle de France was the site of a chance encounter. Ruzzie Green, at the time an illustrator and designer, was on his way to Europe, perhaps to the Swiss headquarters of the Stehli Silks Corporation, where he served as art director. On deck he chanced upon Edward Steichen, the artist whose pictures were revolutionizing fashion photography. The two struck up a conversation, and, in shorter order, a deal: Steichen would contribute designs to Stehli’s popular “Americana” line of fabrics. The fruits of their collaboration, when released to the public the following spring, would prove to be not only a commercial success, they would also draw together a remarkable number of aesthetic, social, and economic trends: celebrity, artistic abstraction, mass production and consumption, the creative appropriation of everyday consumer objects—in short, much of what we identify with modern American society and culture.
Green and Steichen’s meeting came at an auspicious moment. Historians of American culture, including Lizabeth Cohen and William Leach, have described the mid-1920s as an era of standardized production, mass consumption, corporate expansion, and increasingly influential advertising. America had emerged from the wreckage of World War I relatively unscathed and the stock market crash was still a few years away. Five-cent theaters featuring ethnic films were losing ground to the Hollywood system; mom-and-pop shops were being displaced by department stores and national chains. Recognizable brands were being promoted by familiar names and faces.
Stehli’s “Americana” line capitalized on these transformations, deploying celebrity name recognition to sell its mass-produced textiles. Green hired nearly one hundred prominent figures to create—or at least lend their names to—these patterns, which were sold by the yard for dressmaking and other domestic applications. Participants included Helen Wills, an eight-time Wimbledon champion, the cartoonist John Held, Jr., and the fashion designer Pierre Mourgue.
The fruits of Steichen and Stehli’s collaboration would prove to be not only a commercial success, but also draw together a remarkable number of aesthetic, social, and economic trends
Green commissioned dozens of artists to create modernist patterns for Stehli, but Steichen was the only photographer who contributed to the “Americana” line. His popularity among fashion cognoscenti and his willingness to collaborate with others made him a natural fit for the endeavor. Already recognized for his talents, he had returned to New York in 1922 and was soon hired as the chief photographer at Condé Nast. Working in collaboration with Nast and Edna Woolman Chase, Condé Nast’s top editor, Steichen had introduced the clarity and clean lines of photographic modernism to a field still in thrall to the soft-edged Pictorialism of his predecessor, Baron Adolphe de Meyer. Steichen was committed to joining the visual language of modern art to commerce, and would, in addition to his work for Stehli, design glass for Steuben and pianos for Hardman, Peck, and Company.
As with the creative collaborations that characterized his magazine work, in making his textile patterns Steichen built upon experiments Stehli’s art director Ruzzie Green had attempted himself. Gathering together small-scale common objects—sugar cubes, mothballs, carpet tacks, beans and rice, and the like—Steichen arranged them into grid-like patterns on a seamless backdrop. It was through his artistry, in particular his ability to control dramatic lighting, that Steichen turned these objects into semi-abstract patterns that, he felt, were “justifications of the Machine Age.” They were successful as commercial products, yes, but he also believed they were successful as art—that the force of his attention elevated these pedestrian goods and encouraged others to see in them similar aesthetic qualities. Steichen would thank Green for enabling a new way of working, writing on the back of a photographic print: “To Ruzzie … for opening up this beautiful opportunity into a new field of photography. This sounds pompous, but ‘taint meant that way.”