Autumn 2007

A place in the sun

An Art Deco warehouse in Miami Beach throws unexpected light on the dark arts of design

For the past eleven years the Wolfsonian Museum in the heart of tropical Miami Beach has been steadily building a unique repository of artefacts rooted in aesthetics and visual styles identified with the twentieth century’s leading nations, both democratic and totalitarian. Housed in the massive Art Deco Washington Cold Storage Warehouse, its ‘Collection of Decorative and Propaganda Arts’ – mostly from Europe and the United States, and created between 1885 and 1945 – has become one of Florida’s most surprising cultural treasure troves, not only for the local community but for international scholars. The Wolfsonian’s holdings – including graphics, books, magazines, banners, posters and other everyday products such as cutlery and radios – shed light on intersecting currents of mass culture absent from other historical study centres in the country.

One of the reasons scholars are turning to the Wolfsonian (which has been part of Florida International University since 1997) is its accessible store of objects illustrating how the darker twentieth-century ‘isms’ were so brilliantly yet diabolically designed.

I have spent considerable time in its library stacks looking for research on the way Fascist, Communist, imperialist and colonialist regimes, abetted by talented graphic and industrial designers, were so effectively ‘marketed’. Yet I have also been sidetracked on the way by the rich cache of ephemera.

Perhaps the most valuable Wolfsonian contribution is the window it has opened on how such historical moments and movements were manifest, promoted and chronicled through type and image – which arguably makes it America’s premiere design museum. ‘We have always referred to our collection as a design collection,’ explains Cathy Leff, the museum’s director. ‘While we do have sculpture and fine arts, the majority of the collection is decorative, graphic, architectural and industrial arts.’

The Wolfsonian Museum, Miami Beach, Florida;