Marketing American High Design to Europe: MoMA’s “Design for Use, USA”, 1951-1952

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As we are poised on the cusp of the next paradigm shift driven by digital technology, it is timely to reflect on the nature and outcomes of an earlier paradigm shift: the global proliferation of American consumer items in the postwar period. From late 1954, the dispersal of US goods reached a point of acceleration after the Eisenhower Administration began to aggressively promote the notion that a global consumer economy on the US model was the only effective means of preserving civilization from the Communist threat. To this end the Office of International Trade Fairs, with substantial donations from the corporate sector, sent American consumer items to international trade fairs and world’s fairs to promote American business methods and to open up the economies of European nations to American companies. What then should be made of the Museum of Modern Art’s decision to join forces with the US Government four years earlier to mount exhibitions of American design for circulation in Europe? On the face of it, this little known initiative, with its government sponsorship and attendant political aspirations, should perhaps be identified as an important precursor to the trade shows of American mass-produced consumer items sent to Europe by the Eisenhower Administration. However, this paper pursues the case that political agendas account for only one dimension of MoMA’s design initiative. While the narrative for each exhibition varied, collectively MoMA through its judicious selection of the contents and through the rhetoric of the catalogue essays, respectfully announced the arrival of an American ‘high design”. The exhibition organizers did this to persuade Europeans of the strength and viability of American postwar design and in the process to insert American design within the history of design. The paper uses as a case study of “Design for Use, USA,” (1951-1952) the first MoMA design exhibition sent to Europe, to trace the exhibition organizers’ motivations for the show. It examines the connections and continuities between MoMA’s local promotion of American design via the Good Design program established to improve the quality of American consumer items and the museum’s subsequent promotion of American design throughout Europe.
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McDonald, Gay
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