The Vassar College Art Library is a rare example of a complete modernist interior from the pre-World War II period in the United States. Built in 1937, the interior was designed by John McAndrew, an architect as well as educator, who taught architectural history and drafting in the Vassar College Department of Art from 1932 to 1937.
The clarity, openness, and textured warmth of the space is in keeping with the American or what McAndrew termed a "naturalized" version of the machine aesthetic, which he would go on to promote in his role as Curator of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art between 1937 and 1941. The vivid colors of the library interior draw on Le Corbusier’s purist principles and their relationship between color and space. McAndrew's Art Department colleagues referred to this dynamic and forward-looking space as the expression of a new functionalism in architecture.
As a learning environment it was exactly that, an elegantly-crafted machine in which every surface, volume, and design element was shaped and illuminated for the efficient appropriation of a knowledge of the history of art through group and individual study. McAndrew's space has now been carefully renovated to recover its original function through a restoration of the original interior on designs by another architect/educator, the late Paul Spencer Byard, and his partner Charles A. Platt, of the New York-based firm of Platt Byard Dovell White.
For a beautifully illustrated historical account of the life and work of John McAndrew, his design of the Vassar College Art Library, and the contribution of McAndrew and Vassar to the development of modernist art and architecture in the United States, see the architectural historian Mardges Bacon's new monograph, John McAndrew's Modernist Vision: From the Vassar College Art Library to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, published in 2018 by Princeton Architectural Press, also available at a substantial discount through Amazon. For the Library Cafe interview of Mardges Bacon by Art Librarian Thomas Hill about the book, click here. For contemporary images of the Art Library taken for Bacon's book by Andrew Tallon after the Platt Byard Dovell White renovation, click here.