Inventing the Modern World showcases nearly 200 of the most extraordinary works of furniture, metal works, glass, ceramics, textiles, and jewelry first shown at the world's fairs.
World’s fairs showcased the latest in design, with manufacturers displaying the most stylistically and technologically sophisticated objects. From the 1850s to the 1930s, fashionable tastes changed enormously—from revival designs that recalled the past to those that displayed the cross-cultural influences of an increasingly global marketplace; from the effusive curves of Art Nouveau to the streamlined, minimalist forms of Art Deco.
During the 19th-century world’s fairs, many of the manufacturers’ stands were filled with objects laden with historical associations. The succession of revival styles coincided with advancements in machine production, thus uniting the past with modern industry. Long-forgotten processes made anew were also relevant for demonstrating a craftsman’s dexterity and skill.
World’s fairs were the greatest global gathering places of their era. For the first time, manufacturers, designers, and an enthusiastic public had immediate access to objects, materials, and technologies from around the world—India, the Middle East, China, Japan, Europe, America, Africa, and beyond. This confluence of cultures left an indelible mark on design and production of the decorative arts.
Participating countries took great pride in the objects they exhibited at the world's fairs. National identity was evident in objects that evoked past handicraft traditions, or drew upon national symbols, motifs, resources, and techniques. Objects might reference the distant—and sometimes mythical—past, or look ahead to a country’s bright future.
World’s fairs aimed to instill in their audiences an appreciation of modern manufacturing and the creativity behind it. The quest for ingenuity would remain a common thread from 1851 to 1939. Inventive materials and manufacturing processes—such as aluminum, cast iron, steam-bent wood, plastics, and plate glass—transformed everyday life, creating a wider range of products for public consumption.
Generous national support for this exhibition was provided by Wells Fargo, the Windgate Charitable Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Lead support for the Pittsburgh presentation was provided by Ritchie Scaife.
Major support for the Pittsburgh presentation was provided by the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, The Bessie F. Anathan Charitable Foundation at the request of Ellen Lehman and Charles Kennel, William E. and Janet Hunt, The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, PPG Industries Foundation, the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation, and Westinghouse Electric Company.