Todd Merrill Reexamines and Expands ‘Modern Americana’ After 10 Years

Modern Americana book and editor Todd Merrill
Modern Americana and Editor Todd Merrill

Every once in a while, a book hits shelves that defines an era, a movement or generation and presents a general paradigm shift that changes everything moving forward. On a microcosmic level, Southampton art and furniture dealer Todd Merrill’s 2008 tome Modern Americana: Studio Furniture from High Craft to High Glam did just that for the world of 20th century studio furniture design and its most vaunted makers from 1940 to the late 1990s.

The beautifully illustrated and well-researched book was the first authoritative examination of these particular designers—men who controlled their creative process and aesthetic vision from start to finish—and it resurrected many names that may have otherwise been lost to time.

20th century furniture in "Modern Americana"
20th century furniture by Wendy Maruyama (left) and William Haines (right) in “Modern Americana,” Courtesy Todd Merrill

An instant hit, Modern Americana sold out quickly, with copies soon fetching large sums in the aftermarket. Now, a decade later, Rizzoli has published a brand new expanded 10th anniversary edition that delves deeper and builds greatly upon the original, adding 60 new pages and nearly doubling the number of featured makers. Along with updates to all the original chapters, the weighty new volume includes chapters on Women Makers and The Showrooms to further broaden its scope.

“It’s like a second book,” Merrill says, noting that the additional content fills holes from the previous edition. “I never really got to the last 20 years of the 20th century.” This is why women were left out 10 years ago, Merrill points out, explaining that they only came of age and began popping up in galleries during the late 1970s and 1980s. “They weren’t encouraged in the ’40s and ’50s to make,” he says. “Their stuff was not in the secondary market.” It came to auction houses later.

Blunk House in "Modern Americana"
Blunk House in “Modern Americana,” Courtesy Todd Merrill

The new chapter about female makers, written by New York Times writer Eve Kahn, looks at the women’s studio furniture movement, covering a dozen artisans working from the late 1970s to 2000. Profiles of women such as Judy Kensley McKie, Wendy Maruyama, Kristina Madsen, Bertha Schaefer, Willa Kim, Joyce Anderson, Erica Wilson, Mira Nakashima and Roseanne Somerson, among others, are featured alongside photographs of their inspired creations.

“I’m unbelievably happy to have it in the book,” Merrill says of the Women Makers chapter. “It’s such an integral part of the story.”

The Showrooms section, written by Roberta Maneker and loaded with images and advertising from the period, chronicles what Merrill calls a “lost era” of department store furniture and their elaborately designed displays. “It was very theatrical, creative,” he says. “Understanding the marketing and sales of furniture in the 20th century is important to understanding what is bespoke, craft or manufactured.”

Just as the first edition of Modern Americana cemented the names and work of many great makers into history and launched a more academic exploration of the period, the new book should help bring its latest subjects to the fore.

Espenet Bolinas home and Wendell Castle office in "Modern Americana"
Espenet Bolinas home and Wendell Castle office in “Modern Americana,” Courtesy Todd Merrill

“They had been forgotten,” Merrill says of featured artists such as Karl Springer, a genius New York furniture maker who drew high prices during his time, but then died of AIDS in 1991. “By 2005, nobody knew who he was because nothing was written about him—now there is,” Merrill says.

And as one good work begets another, and another, individual makers profiled in Modern Americana have since been featured in their own books, creating a more vibrant and robust understanding of this magic moment in time.

For his part, Merrill still sells iconic vintage furniture, but he’s more focused on working with talented contemporary makers—some of them world famous, and others brought up from virtual obscurity—through his Todd Merrill Studio spaces in Manhattan and Southampton. He’s currently at work on a brand new book about major 21st century makers, which should be out by late 2019 or early 2020.

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