Exhibition Review: “In Full Bloom: Margaret Armstrong’s Decorated Publishers’ Bindings Revisited” at the Met Fifth Avenue Thomas J. Watson Library
Library Exhibitions Review, Issue 1, March 2023
Beata Kozlowski, Research and Instruction Librarian
Savannah College of Art and Design
The Met Museums’ exhibit In Full Bloom: Margaret Armstrong’s Decorated Publishers’ Bindings Revisited sheds renewed light upon the artist and her decorative book cover designs from the turn of the 20th century. The exhibit successfully spotlights a representative sample of Armstrong’s body of work, and provides overviews of her career, while providing a historical context, and fine descriptions of the visual elements Armstrong employs in her book cover designs. While the exhibit was previously on view at The Met Fifth Avenue, Thomas J. Watson Library from June 2nd – September 21st, 2022, this exhibit review will focus on the online exhibit viewable on the Met’s website.
Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) was an accomplished artist, illustrator, and writer who left a distinctive mark on the history of book design. Early in her career, she operated under the name of M.N. Armstrong to circumvent the then often male-dominated arena of publishing and book cover art, blazing a trail for herself, and other women who followed. As her career progressed, her popularity rose, and Armstrong’s work proliferated. She is credited with producing a total of 270 book designs, working for twenty-one publishers during her career.
Armstrong’s book cover art is most striking in her bold and novel use of design, largely rendered in the style of art nouveau often inspired by nature. Many of her designs depict flowing, organic depictions of various botanicals, including forms such as; flowers, trees, vines, and stems. Her illustrated forms are rendered with a highly evolved understanding and sensitivity to symmetry. There is much to see and admire in viewing this exhibit.
The online exhibit is finely organized with three easy-to-navigate subpages: an overview, a visiting guide, and exhibition objects. The organization of the online exhibit is well-devised and inherently logical, the viewer is guided through the wide variety of Armstong’s designs which are grouped thematically appropriately honoring the legacy of Margaret Armstrong’s output. The accompanying descriptions provide historical context and insight into her designs, granting the viewer greater understanding, and better engagement through an increased understanding of each piece and the time and history in which it is produced.
The initial page of the exhibit, the overview introduces the viewer to Armstrong’s career trajectory as a book designer and lays out the aims of the exhibit: to highlight book covers designed by Armstrong from the 1890s to 1927. The subsequent subpage, the visiting guide goes on to divide the book cover designs into six groupings by theme: designs invoked in the patterns of stained glass; botanical designs; design variants; lesser-known designs; yellow and blue designs selected to honor the war in Ukraine; and the lavender series, largely showcasing the themes that Armstrong often worked in. Each section offers a textual analysis of each selected theme, paired with a photograph from the actual exhibit granting the online viewer of the exhibit a feeling of actual attendance in the physical space of the exhibit, as well as offering a curated corresponding section of selected artworks that the viewer can scroll through. The textual analysis is of a suitable length and depth, granting the reader enough information to be informed, yet not overwhelmed, and thus suitably equips the visitor of the exhibit to more fully enjoy Armstrong’s visual imagery through this informative context. The third subpage, exhibition objects are close-up images of Armstrong’s book cover designs, and photographs showcasing each book, allowing the reader the opportunity to scroll through and view each design individually, with clickable images opening up to a page to read more information about the book design, it’s relation to the content of the text, publishing information, etc. Additionally, the view full object mode provides additional information for the viewer, including the objects corresponding metadata, as well as information about their API access and suggested related content to browse through. These kinds of features offer some unique benefits and possible pedagogical applications that perhaps a physical exhibit doesn’t.
Overall, the Met did a fine job in curating and celebrating Armstrong’s book design output, highlighting suitable themes that spotlight her style, and organizing the online exhibit in a way that showcases and celebrates the artist’s work in an organized fashion that grants the viewer maximum context with the correct amount of information.
Margaret Armstrong’s book cover designs can be heralded as beautiful timeless designs, ones that elevated and turned the contents of the author’s writing into truly beautiful objects. They offer the viewer and careful observer not only a window into turn-of-the-century design but into history itself, all while reawakening interest in Margaret Armstong’s work. Fans of this stylized design work and book collectors alike will continue to clamor for their favorite editions of Margaret Armstrong’s beautiful book covers, long out of print, yet still timelessly appealing.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Margaret Armstong’s Books on Display, Photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 15 2022,