Archives & Libraries

Miami’s Modern Design Library: The Wolfsonian

A design library and museum at Florida International University features rare books, posters, and ephemera from 1885 to 1945.

By Laura Damon-Moore October 29, 2013

Located in the heart of South Miami Beach, Florida, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University houses a collection of approximately 150,000 items that offer an extensive view of design, cultural, political, and technological history from 1885 to 1945. At once a museum, special collections library, and research center, The Wolfsonian is focused on the intersection of objects and ideas and ideology.

The Wolfsonian–Florida International University facade

The Wolfsonian was founded in 1986 to exhibit, document, and preserve the Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection of Decorative and Propaganda Arts—a vast assemblage of objects that includes furniture, paintings, books, prints, industrial and decorative art objects, and ephemera. In 1997 it became a division of Florida International University (FIU) when Mitchell Wolfson (who continues to add to the collection) donated his collection and museum facility to the university.

“Art and Design in the Modern Age,” the Wolfsonian’s permanent exhibition of modern objects, gallery view

From The Wolfsonian’s website:

The Wolfsonian uses objects to illustrate the persuasive power of art and design, to explore what it means to be modern, and to tell the story of social, political, and technological changes that have transformed our world. It encourages people to see the world in new ways, and to learn from the past as they shape the present and influence the future.

Holdings are made up of objects, works on paper, rare books, and ephemera. Rare books and small-format print materials comprise The Wolfsonian’s special collections library.

Advertisement,“ Je me moque des tiers... mais pas du quart… !” [I Don’t Care about Thirds … but I do Quarts…!], c. 1930. Illustrated by Robert Roquin (dates unknown. Published by Pommery & Greno, Reims, France. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection. XB1992.1003

The library’s collection is strong in the areas of decorative art and design, political propaganda, advertising and promotional materials, ocean liners and other forms of mass transportation, and architecture. Material related to world’s fairs and expositions, Florida history, and automobile history, all from the 1851–1945 period, are also among the collection’s highlights. Library and curatorial staff work in tandem with Mitchell Wolfson, other collectors, and raise their own resources to shape and strengthen the holdings.

“The library,” says Cathy Leff, director of The Wolfsonian, “is an incredible resource for someone interested in history, industrialization, architecture, urbanism, and graphic design. There are so many different lenses through which to use the collection. Designers may use it as inspiration for their own work, and researchers can explore topics that defined the rise of modernity, along with aesthetic movements up through the international style.”

Chief librarian Frank Luca highlighted three volumes from the library’s collection of important design titles.

De Stille Kracht by Louis Couperus (1863–1923), published in Amsterdam by L. J. Veen in 1900

De Stille Kracht is a fine example of an occasion when it is better to judge the book by its cover. Couperus’s 1900 novel (variously translated into English as The Hidden Force, or The Silent Power) is about the dangers of race mixing as a degenerating force in the colonies (Dutch East Indies, or present-day Java and Indonesia). The cover design by Dutch designer, painter, and self-proclaimed “religious anarcho-Communist” Chris Lebeau (1878–1945), who spent six months in Indonesia, belies the subject matter by showing how the blending of the traditional European book form with an Orientalist (batik) cloth cover creates something more beautiful.

L’anguria lirica by Tullio D’Albisola. (The Lyrical Watermelon), published in Rome by the Edizioni Futuriste di Poesia and printed in Zinola, Savona by Lito-Latta in 1933(?)

L’anguria lirica is a rare Italian masterpiece in metal featuring the Futurist poetry of Tullio D’Albisola with designs by Bruno Munari (1907–1998). In keeping with the Italian Futurist vision of celebrating the “machine age,” this limited-edition book was printed on and has a binding produced by the industrial creator of the factory Lito-Latta, Vincenzo Nosenzo, entirely out of steel.

So-called “bolted book.” Designed by Fortunato Depero (1892-1960), published in Milan by Dinamo-Azari in 1927

The Wolfsonian possesses another Italian Futurist masterpiece, the so-called “bolted book” designed by Fortunato Depero (1892–1960) and published in Milan by Dinamo-Azari in 1927. Eschewing the old-fashioned sewn binding, Depero chose to bolt his book together using aluminum nuts and bolts. He hand-lettered the cover title, and the interior makes use of some of the most creative typesetting of the 20th century, including pages with text that forced the reader to turn the book in all four directions to ensure that reading would not remain a passive experience.

A Foreigner Looks at the TVA by Odette Keun, 1937. Published by Longmans, Green & Co., United States. The Wolfsonian–FIU Library Collection (RARE), accession no. 86.2.284

The library’s blog, curated and written by library staff members, highlights interesting items around particular subjects and is a good starting point for casual browsers. Recent highlights from the library include: ephemera related to the Tennessee Valley Authority; items representing Norwegian history and design; and a sobering historical retrospective prompted by the tragedy in the Bangladeshi garment factory.

Another fascinating entry point is the library’s website devoted to its displays, which are pulled from the collection and installed regularly at the library. The digitized materials are then collected into online exhibits. Displays have included “Wine, Bubbly, and Their Merchants,” “New Deal Americana,” “Fashion and Passion: Deluxe Pochoir Editions.”

The library is open to the public by appointment so that librarians can fully assist with users’ interest. The Wolfsonian makes a growing number of items from the collection available for viewing online—a process that requires the collaborative efforts of catalogers, object handlers, and photographers. Researchers can browse collection highlights by categories like Architecture and Textiles, or by themes like Art Deco and War and Political Propaganda. The digital collection is also searchable by keyword.
Library/Research website:
Wolfsonian Collection Online:

Special thanks to Cathy Leff and Frank Luca of The Wolfsonian for their assistance with this article.

All images courtesy of The Wolfsonian—Florida International University.

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