Book examines Kentucky’s contributions to WPA’s Index of American Design

"Kentucky by Design" the Decorative Arts & American Culture" was recently published.
“Kentucky by Design” the Decorative Arts & American Culture” was recently published.

Lexington, Ky. – Eighty years after Federal Art Project, a program under the New Deal Works Progress Administration’s banner, began, a new catalogue has compiled Kentucky’s contributions to the project’s Index of American Design.

The Federal Art Project’s primary goals were to provide work for unemployed artists and to create narrative art for government buildings, such as post offices, courthouses, schools, libraries and hospitals. In addition, the project was charged with training new artists in surveying and recording the history of American material culture. The research culminated in the Index of American Design, which sought to discover what was uniquely “American” in decorative arts. Thirty-seven states, including Kentucky, participated. Hundreds of artists produced illustrations of thousands of objects in museums and private collections, focusing on vernacular designs in utilitarian objects like furniture, textiles, pottery, and ironwork. The Index was intended for broad public distribution, but it was never published, leaving it little remembered today.

Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture,” sponsored by the Frazier History Museum and edited by Andrew Kelly, has gathered the contributions of experts from across Kentucky and around the nation, cataloging prime examples of the state’s decorative arts that were featured in the Index, pairing the original FAP watercolors with contemporary photographs of the same or similar artifacts.

In addition to a wealth of Shaker material, the objects featured include a number of quilts and rugs as well as a wide assortment of everyday items, from powder horns and candle lanterns to glass flasks and hand-crafted instruments. An exhibit of many of these artifacts along with the original illustrations from the IAD is planned at the Frazier History Museum in 2016.

Kelly’s work brings to fruition the final goal of the FAP, but only in part. By at last making these works available to the public, Kelly has realized an objective of the long-abandoned project—presenting prime examples of Kentucky decorative arts and documenting the Commonwealth’s contribution to an American aesthetic. The original vision, however, encompassed more than just Kentucky. With the path forged by Kentucky by Design, other states that participated in the Index now have a model to follow. Kelly has opened the door for the FAP’s original vision to finally be realized in its entirety and showcase uniquely American design to the nation.

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