MADDIE GILMORE | DATE 3/24/2017
Marguerita Mergentime has largely been forgotten in the history of American design, but she is the subject of West Madison Press's sprightly new book Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas. Born into a wealthy German-Jewish family in New York City in 1894, she embarked upon an "unorthodox" education in design, beginning with the progressive, hands-on approach of the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan, and culminating in evening art classes and self-directed independent study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mergentime and her vibrant, uninhibited printed kitchen linens emerged on the New York design scene in the post-war 1930s—a time when manufacturers and industrial art institutions alike were beginning to shape a uniquely American style, coaxing "Americana" into the design sensibility of modern homes.
'Food for Thought' tablecloth, 1936.
Early in her career, when she was still designing shower curtains and beach accessories for a manufacturer, Mergentime was recruited by noted industrial designer Donald Desky to produce a carpet for Radio City Music Hall, which remains today as one of her most enduring productions. The first public viewing of her work was hosted by the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (AUDAC), a who's who of (mostly male) designers that was eventually disbanded during the Great Depression. From there, she began to sell her dynamic, sometimes provocative runners, placemats, napkins and, especially, her tablecloths, in New York City department stores like Lord & Taylor, which marketed them under her own name, and eventually sold them throughout the country.
'Jolly Geranium' tablecloth, 1937.
It is remarkable that a largely self-educated woman could break into the boy's club of early twentieth century American industrial design and leave as a significant a mark on the future of home décor as Mergentime did. From an essay written by her granddaughter, Virginia Bayer, we learn that Mergentime was a wonderfully lively woman with a big personality – confident enough to dress in Schiaparelli tromp l'oeil knitwear and a variety of turban hats when out in public. These were "Always startling, always becoming," according to The New York Post.
Mergentime in the 1930s.
"Miss Mergentime," as she was known to her colleagues, was an avid gardener, sailor and student of art. Her passionate interests and the research that went into them often provided the inspiration behind the colorful tablecloths and linens for which she became widely known. "Informal table linen was pretty unimaginative until Marguerita Mergentime came along with her bright and gay designs which jolted the manufactures out of their lethargy," a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote in 1939. Mergentime married fresh color and untraditional motifs with a sense of the tablecloth's purpose: both its utilitarian function and its spot at the heart of the home where people gather.
'Sailing' placemat, 1936.
Marguerita Mergentime is a joyful celebration of an innately experimental woman and her colorful designs. Divided loosely by motifs and supporting essays (including Linda Florio's exploration of Mergentime's innovative use of type), the book lays Miss Mergentime's world out like a bolt of cloth. Of all her remarkable qualities, the one that most impressed me was her ability to draw from sources of inspiration without appropriating them, a skill that is becoming ever more important today as ideas get distributed and redistributed across all channels until they are virtually unrecognizable. More editor than author, Mergentime mined popular linguistics, politics, history and folk art and breathed into them new life. Always sure to design her signature or initials into her textiles, she rightfully claimed her seat at the table.
WEST MADISON PRESS LLC
Hbk, 8.25 x 10 in. / 144 pgs / 145 color / 39 b&w.