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Color drawing of an interior for a stage production, featuring black, white, red and blue geometric patterning.

Joseph Urban (American, b. Austria, 1872-1933), Set Design: Madame Butterfly, Act II, 1912, watercolor, Joseph Urban Archive, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University



Hello, my name is Jill Cleary and I am Visitor Services Coordinator at the museum. I will be reading the Opera and Theater section in Unlocking an Art Deco Bedroom by Joseph Urban.

Urban came to the United States in 1911 to serve as art director for the Boston Opera. There, he introduced Americans to modern European stagecraft, which relied on the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk: the creation of a "total work of art."

(Urban would later apply this concept to all his projects, including the Wormser Bedroom.) This approach depended on the harmonious synthesis of all artistic elements: setting, costumes, lighting, stage movement, and sound—something that is so commonplace today that it is hard to imagine a time when this was not the norm.

After the Boston Opera was shuttered in 1914, Urban worked for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Here, his creations drew the attention and praise of an even larger audience. From 1917 to his death in 1933, he created designs for more than fifty Met productions and directed his studio workshop in Yonkers, which built the scenery and oversaw installation and lighting. Many of the devices and forms that Urban used for operatic and theater sets were also used in his work in other modes, including Elaine Wormser’s bedroom.

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