The first opened in London in 1851 with the goals of showing how technology can inspire art and help sell new products. The best ideas drew adoring masses, competitors, and copycats.
Now visitors to the Carnegie Museum of Art can see what all the fuss was about. A new traveling exhibit—"Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs"—features a variety of pieces displayed at World's Fairs over the years, up until 1939. The exhibit highlights the marriage of art, science and industry.
"It was their Internet. This is where they came to see what was new and what was great in decorative arts," said Dawn Reid, a curatorial assistant for the show.
While craftspeople have experimented for thousands of years, the combination of international audiences and new technologies led to intense bursts of innovation and competition at the fairs, said Jason Busch, a co-curator of the exhibit.
For example, one dressing table was made entirely out of silver—something that Colonial craftsmen would never have dreamed of doing. "It's about 1,200 ounces of silver, and 2,500 hours of labor to create it," Busch said.
Sometimes the techniques were traditional, but the end product had a modern feel.
One multi-screen panel created by Japanese artists used thousands and thousands of strands of silk, in 250 shades, to create a shimmering, shifting picture of waves and a horizon at sea. The work is so detailed that from a distance it can be mistaken for a photograph.
A quirky masterpiece is an 1867 piano made out of exquisite layers of papier mache with mother-of-pearl inlays. And when a Pittsburgh-area religious order, the Harmonists, made silk textiles, they raised the silkworms themselves.
Over time designers experimented with less precious materials, such as a curved lounge chair from 1936 made out of bent plywood. Pyrex, nylon and stainless steel were used, too. In 1925, J. & L. Lobmeyr added uranium to the glass in a group of bowls, causing the colors to change under different types of light.
The exhibit opened Saturday and runs through Feb. 24. It also will make stops at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., co-curated the show.