Thursday, September 2, 2010

Index of American Design

Beverly Chichester, Doll Quilt, c. 1937

During the Great Depression the federal government funded several projects for artists and about art.

Sylvia De Zon, Patchwork Quilt, c. 1939 
Romana Javitz, who administered the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, and textile designer Ruth Reeves proposed an Index of American Design, a visual survey of American crafts.

Detail of a pieced quilt by Mae C. Clarke
The project began in 1935. Over 300 artists rendered objects in great detail. Coverlets, baskets, beadwork, weathervanes and quilts from the Colonial era to 1900 were captured in watercolors.

Marion Curtiss, Quilt, c. 1938

Why paint the objects instead of photographing them? At the time there was no reliable color film, so the only way to truly record the art was in a color painting. Out-of-work commercial artists received training in the complex process of capturing one piece of art in another.

Magnus Fossum painting a coverlet

Many of the pieces in the survey were from museums but others were in private collections. The Index rendering is sometimes the only record we have of the piece.

Byron Dingman, Quilt, c. 1941

At a time when American folk arts were often considered second rate, the Index of American Design brought new respect to crafts from many cultures. The publication of the pictures helped define American traditions.

In 1950 many of the paintings were published in a book set The Treasury of American Design by Clarence P. Hornung (expanded in 1972). Other authors, for example, Dolores A. Hinson, published quilt pictures. Hinson also patterned out several of the complex appliqués in her American Graphic Quilt Designs.

They've also been used on notecards and posters over the years.

18th-century dress by Julie C. Brush

The National Gallery of Art has a website with pictures of objects in various categories. There are 17 in the textile tour:

Read more about the Index by clicking here:


  1. I never would have thought they did that!
    That's amazing! And beautifully done also!

  2. I always learn something from reading your blog, Barbara. I also appreciate the links that send me looking for more.
    Thank you!

  3. Thank you for reminding us of this project. I've always wondered why the objects were painted and not photographed!! Work for artists, of course, but just very realistic copies of someone else's creation. Now I get it!

  4. I have used the quilt index to look at old quilts, will have to check theirs out. Thanks for the link and the history behind it.


  5. Thank you for this overview. I'd like us to figure out how to reference those paintings in the Quilt Index. Your point about the painted record being possibly the *only* remaining evidence of a quilt has been part of the aim with the Quilt Index as well. Even if some of the photography isn't perfect, it's still a record and may inspire further research for that quilt or maker, or be the only thing that remains of a quilt and quiltmaker's work. Thanks!