While there were many opportunities for “fine artists” no projects were initially devised for America’s commercial artists. Realizing that there was yet no thorough visual survey of American design Romana Javitz, head of the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection and Ruth Reeves, a textile designer and painter conceived the plan for the Index of American Design. It was begun in December 1935 ultimately employed over 300 commercial artists who created primarily watercolor reproductions of traditional American craft. This included every form of craft made from the colonial period through the end of the nineteenth century from works found in museum collections.
The artists employed for this project were taught techniques by a curator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts who insisted upon strict objectivity, accurate drawing, clarity of construction, exact proportions of objects and faithful rendering of material, color and texture. The exception to watercolor was the use of oil technique for tobacconist’s signs and Pennsylvania German folk art. Objects include ship figureheads, tavern signs, ceramics, coverlets, quilts, glass, tinware, weathervanes, retablos, costume, circus wagons, Shaker furniture, caballero suits, fire helmets, cornhusk dolls, kitchen equipment, etc...
The question begged, “Why not just photograph these objects?” Apart from the intent to employ commercial artists, another reason for not using photography was that the camera, except in the hands of its greatest masters, could not reveal the essential character and quality of objects as well as an artist. At that time color photography was an expensive process and perishable while watercolor remains one of the most durable of artistic mediums.Photography presented problems in distortion and lighting. As Holger Cahill wrote in the book's introduction: "The camera cannot search out the forms of objects deeply undercut or modeled in high relief, match color as closely as the artist, or render the subtle interplay of form, color and texture which creates the characteristic beauty of so many products of early American craftsmen."
The Index of American Design and subsequent expanded edition The Treasury of American Design remain the most thorough visual record of the rich, vast body of traditional American crafts. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC has a webpage for the Index of American Design which includes an online tour.
Dress, rendered by Julie C. Brush, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paperboard, 53 x 36.9 cm (20 13/16 x 14 1/2 in.) from the Index of American Design