The Decorative Arts Display at the Golden Gate International Exposition

Alexa Griffith Winton

To enter the Decorative Arts Display, curated by Dorothy Liebes for the Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939, visitors first passed through a compact space filled with 29 miniature rooms, built at a scale of one inch to one foot, depicting historic interiors from France and England. These highly detailed rooms, commissioned by Chicago socialite Narcissa Niblack Thorne in 1932, were tiny immersive environments of extraordinary detail that invited viewers to imagine themselves occupying the luxurious and antique interiors. The theatrical display of the miniature rooms aspired to historical accuracy and focused entirely on elite and aristocratic examples. The Thorne rooms were displayed at Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition in 1934 and at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937, where they were enormously popular with visitors and garnered extensive press attention. [1] 

By directing visitors to enter the Decorative Arts display through the miniature room exhibit, Liebes provided them with a theatrical and highly digestible framework for experiencing the modern and designer rooms and decorative object displays she had curated in the larger display beyond. Visitors emerged from the dark room into a larger space with an elevated platform on which the exhibition displays are arranged. A floor plan for the Display reveals a central platform with twelve small (16 x 20 feet) display rooms radiating out on either side of a central circular stage (Figs. 1, 2, & 3).  

The model rooms included designs by a range of celebrated architects and designers from across the United States and Europe. Liebes pulled together a stylistically disparate range of interiors, with a clear emphasis on modernity uniting the assembly. She included rooms by East Coast designers Gilbert Rohde and by Hollywood decorator William Haines; other rooms exhibited the stark luxury of Jean-Michel Frank, and the molded plywood furniture by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and Bauhaus-trained Marcel Breuer. For many visitors, it was their first opportunity to view firsthand the work of these designers. Showing the work of California designers alongside that of better-known East Coast and European designers was especially provocative and important. [2] 

A color-coded plan diagram shows the Decorative Arts Display at the center of a large open-plan building, surrounded by several of the fair’s other exhibits, including the Arts of the Pacific, European and American Art, and Old Master paintings (Fig. 4). In addition to the twelve model rooms, there were three “ateliers,” or workshops, where visitors could see artisans at work. Liebes described these rooms as resembling surgical theaters, with circular, raised seating areas around a stage on which artisans demonstrated their skill. Featured artists included Bay Area ceramicist Sorcha Boru, weaver Maja Albee, and bookbinder Peter Fahey (Fig. 5). [3]

For Liebes, showing a very diverse selection of modern design was a way to make designers’ work accessible to fair visitors who might not be drawn to the fine arts on display throughout the larger fair. As she explained, “This panorama of the fine arts would appeal to artists and those with a special appreciation for art. But what about the general public? Would not the average woman and man be more interested in objects found in the home?” [4] 

In a celebration of one of the signature elements of California design—indoor/outdoor living—the display also featured five terraces designed by the Vienna-trained Southern California modernist architect Richard Neutra. The purpose of these spaces was to emphasize the growing importance of designs for living spaces that were intended to blend the boundaries between the interior and the outside. These terraces were then composed around themes by teams of architects and decorators, including a Seaside Terrace by William Wurster and the American Institute of Decorators; a Space for Living by Gardner Dailey and Paul Frankl; an Outdoor Dining Terrace by the San Francisco department store Gump’s with Eleanor Forbes, Rudolph Blesh, and Leonard Linden; and a Sports Terrace by Neutra himself. Landscaping for the Neutra terrace was by modernist landscape architect Thomas Church, and American decorator and painter Lockwood de Forest designed the landscaping for William Wurster’s terrace, while Julius D. Girod oversaw the overall landscaping responsibilities for the fair. 

As curator of the display, Liebes understood that the terrace displays were important; she wrote, “Our section was the first effort on a large scale to stress the relationship between the architecture of outdoor design, particularly terraces, and interior design. The great Southern architect, Richard J. Neutra, designed the terraces. Just as I believe the exposition had a strong impact on American taste in general, I believe we succeeded in stimulating popular interest in indoor-outdoor living.” [5] 

In addition to the model rooms and ateliers, the display included sections devoted to modern glassmaking, textiles, jewelry, furniture, lace, liturgical textiles, and other examples of modern design (Fig. 6). Artisanal handwork was the throughline tying these disparate categories together, and Liebes emphasized the importance of both artisan and designer throughout the catalog published in conjunction with the Display, writing, “The closest collaboration between the artist and the master craftsman is essential, and often we find these attributes in one person. In many examples of the work here shown, form and function are one, as a result of the perfect unity between design and execution” (Fig. 7). [6]

Breuer, recently arrived in Cambridge after several years in London, displayed several of his plywood furniture designs, manufactured by Isokon, the British furniture manufacturer for whom Walter Gropius worked as design director from 1935 until he immigrated to the United States in 1937. On view in the severe, plywood-paneled room were Breuer’s short and long chairs, nesting tables, and dining table and dining chairs, all in plywood. Correspondence between Liebes and Breuer indicates he was anxious about the small size of his display area and needed assurance that the display would be assembled to his standards. Breuer included an abstract sculpture from his Bauhaus colleague László Maholy-Nagy, who had also recently immigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago, where he founded the New Bauhaus (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1937. Liebes hired San Francisco architect Ernst Born to oversee the installation, and the Unit gave many Americans the opportunity to see Breuer’s furniture firsthand (Fig. 8). [7]

In this glamorous and modern interpretation of a Western interior, former actor and Hollywood decorator William Haines built a room around a Georgia O’Keeffe skull painting; the paneling was ancient Joshua tree wood. The desk, backgammon table, and chairs were burnished leather with rawhide accents, while the longhorn wall lights were dramatically fashioned from Lucite, with silver hardware. Even the andirons and fireplace adhered to the Hollywood Western theme; the fireplace was silver with turquoise, and the andirons were crystal and Lucite. Chicago architect Samuel Marx acquired several items from the Haines room, including the chairs and wall lights, both of which appear in photographs of his Chicago apartment taken in 1941 (Fig. 9). 

This interior featured furniture and objects characteristic of the Stockholm interior design firm and shop Svenskt Tenn, founded by Estrid Ericson in 1924. This room, designed by Ericson and Frank, combined Swedish country house style with modern elements in typical Svenskt Tenn style. The upholstered armchair was covered in Frank’s Aralia pattern on hand-printed linen. The rya rug in the form of a zebra skin adapted a traditional Scandinavian carpet technique to a whimsical object. The green, leather-upholstered secretary shelf suspended directly from the wall, together with the three-light brass and leather lamp, provided additional modern styling to this version of a country sitting room (Fig. 10).  

This outdoor space—part of the overall outdoor living space created by Richard Neutra—was designed by furniture designer Eleanor Forbes, Rudolph Blesh, and Leonard Linden. The room featured the sculptural glass designs of Dorothy Thorpe, along with accessories from the luxury San Francisco retailer Gump’s. Protection from harsh sunlight was provided by a dramatic photo screened textile by James West (Fig. 11). 


[1] K. L. H. Wells, “The Uncanny Design of the Thorne Miniature Rooms,” in Interior Provocations, eds. Anca I. Lasc, Deborah Schneiderman, Keena Suh, Karin Tehve, Alexa Griffith Winton, and Karyn Zieve (New York; Oxford: Routledge, 2021), 11–29.  

[2] For a full account of the display, see Liebes, ed., Decorative Arts: Official Catalog, Department of Fine Arts, Division of Decorative Arts, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco (San Francisco Bay Exhibition Company, 1939).   

[3] Dorothy Liebes, undated memoirs, 225. Box 10, Folders 33–34, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 

[4] Dorothy Liebes Papers, 233. 

[5] Dorothy Liebes Papers, 234. 

[6] Dorothy Liebes, Introduction to Official Catalog, 7. 

[7] M. Breuer, letter to Dorothy Liebes, November 19, 1938. Marcel Breuer Papers, Special Collections Resource Center, Syracuse University Libraries,;query=liebes;brand=breuer. 

[8] Liebes, memoirs, 234. 

A darkened room with several illuminated miniature rooms, fully furnished in a variety of historic European and English styles, placed into the wall.

Fig. 1 The Thorne miniature rooms as shown at the Decorative Arts Display; Dorothy Liebes Papers

An image of a large space on which sits a long, raised platform containing exhibition spaces and room displays.

Fig. 2 View of the Decorative Arts Display; Dorothy Liebes Papers

An architectural floor plan showing all display spaces and workshops at the Decorative Arts Display

Fig. 3 Floor plan for Decorative Arts Display; Shepard Vogelsgang; Dorothy Liebes Papers

A diagrammatic sketch showing all the exhibition areas at the Golden Gate Exposition’s exhibition hall. The spaces are titled and each he by color coding.

Fig. 4 Color-coded plan diagram of Decorative Arts Display and other exhibits at the Golden Gate International Exhibition; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Two women in a circular work area; one woman is at a wooden loom with carved rams head decorations.

Fig. 5 Dorothy Liebes and unidentified woman in the textile exhibition at the Decorative Arts Display of the Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, California, 1939; Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

A display area built into a wall and containing examples of modern glassware for domestic use. The display is illuminated, showing off the transparency of the glass objects.

Fig. 6 View of the modern glass installation at the Decorative Arts Display; Dorothy Liebes Papers

A spread from the Decorative Arts Display catalogue explaining the value and importance of showing artisans working at the fair. The words are printed in black on orange paper.

Fig. 7 Workshops from the Official Catalog, Department of Fine Arts, Division of Decorative Arts, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco (San Francisco Bay Exhibition Company, 1939), 22–23

A plywood paneled room filled with modern molded plywood furniture, including nesting tables, chairs, and lounge chairs.

Fig. 8 UNIT, designed and assembled by Marcel Breuer, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Installed by Ernst Born, San Francisco; Dorothy Liebes Papers

A room with rounded walls and a fireplace; a clear lucite sconce in the form of a bulls head hangs on the walls and there is a false window in which an aloe vera plant is placed.

Fig. 9 Desert Living Room, designed and arranged by William Haines, Hollywood; Dorothy Liebes Papers

A small room with white walls and a false fireplace. There is a large chair upholstered with an oversize pattern of leaves, vines, and flowers.

Fig. 10 Country Bed and Sitting Room; Assembled by Svenskt Tenn, Stockholm; Designed by Estrid Erikson and Josef Frank, Stockholm; Dorothy Liebes Papers

An outdoor dining area is pictured at night. There is a table set for a meal with dining chairs around the table. This entire area is covered by a textile awning with a printed design of abstract fern leaves.

Fig. 11 Outdoor Dining Terrace; Designed by Richard Neutra; Dining Room by Eleanor Forbes, Rudolph Blesh, and Leonard Linden for Gump’s, San Francisco; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Alexa Griffith Winton

Alexa Griffith Winton is a design historian and educator. She is currently Manager, Content + Interpretation at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She has researched and published on the work of Dorothy Liebes for over ten years. Griffith’s work has been published in scholarly and popular publications, including the Journal of Design History, Dwell, Journal of the Archives of American Art, and the Journal of Modern Craft. She co-edited A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes (Cooper Hewitt and Yale University Press, 2023) with Susan Brown. She has received research grants from the Graham Foundation, the New York State Council for the Arts, Center for Craft, Nordic Culture Point, and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.