Published: June 11, 2007
American industrial design has long been popular with collectors, yet scholarship has seemingly lagged behind. Streamlining, an influential style during the 1930s, has been the subject of a few books and exhibitions, yet it is only now that just tribute has been paid to all the furnishings and appliances that made that decade, stylistically speaking, such a wonderful time.
“American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow,” the first major survey exhibition devoted to the subject, is on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal (MMFA) through October 28.
The show comprises an exquisite selection of iconic items from the private collection of New York businessman Eric Brill, who recently donated more than 750 pieces to the Liliane and David M. Stewart Collection at the MMFA. Curated by David A. Hanks and Dr Martin Eidelberg, the show has been termed “the most comprehensive exhibition ever mounted on the subject.”
Brill’s gift as a collector is also evident in the fully researched and clearly illustrated catalog. It says something about his perseverance that he was able to acquire so many objects made for daily use that remain in virtually unused condition.
The emergence of streamlining was influenced by the Great Depression. At a time when up to one-fourth of the population was out of work, it took some ingenuity to persuade Americans to part with their precious dollars. One way was to manufacture useful, high-quality products. Another was to encase those products in a style that was bright, novel and optimistic.
If any style can be called optimistic, it is streamline. In the streamlined interior, everything seemed to be in motion †everything, that is, except the person who was effortlessly using all those rocket siphon bottles, zeppelin potato bakers and boat-shaped roasting pans. The most mundane objects were infused with dynamism. In a stagnating economy, it helped to have at least the illusion of moving forward.
And then there were the colors. Fiesta ware, introduced in the 1930s, is one of the most enduringly popular products, thanks to its cheerful colors. The pitchers, circa 1936, have a curved form and decorative concentric rings. The round body contrasts with the abruptly flat bottom and the thick, sculptural spout.
Likewise, the containers, circa 1939, were designed by Ralph Kruck (1906‹4) to store leftovers, a staple of frugal diets. Each was decorated with simple horizontal banding and a zippy U-shaped handle. The containers came in red, blue and yellow †vigorous colors that lent flavor to even the most warmed-over dish.
The origins of streamlining were practical, despite its later decorative application. The practice dates back to the Eighteenth Century, when shipbuilders realized that a teardrop or bullet shape reduced a boat’s resistance to wind and water. This principle was later applied to modern transportation.
The increased speed of trains was popularly associated in the 1930s with streamlining. It was due, in fact, less to visible mechanical advances, but to the sleek, curving forms that captured the public’s imagination. Symbolically, streamlining packed a wallop. Manufacturers could plausibly associate their wares with the chic and comfort of travel. Sleeper trains and cross-country flights were viewed as part of an enjoyable trip.
There was, moreover, a crossover among industrial designers between household products and transportation. The railroad companies employed some of the leading proponents of streamlining. During the 1930s, the New York⁃hicago run was served by both Raymond Loewy’s Broadway Limited and Henry Dreyfuss’s Twentieth Century Limited.
Thus, in the 1930s, it made sense for Westinghouse to compare an electric iron with a commuter train †a success symbol at a time when many Americans did not have a job to commute to.
Streamlining was applied freely to stationary objects. In some cases, a sense of movement was compatible with the object’s purpose. When Robert Heller (1899‱973) designed the Airflow fan, circa 1937, he was influenced by aerodynamics. With its swooping pedestal base and propellerlike blades, the form suggests the prospect of powerful, levitating gusts.
There was nothing new about the fan itself. Electric fans had existed for many years, but the old models had never suggested the drama of air circulation. It was this type of “repackaging” that inspired the criticism that streamlining was more of a marketing strategy than a style.
In other cases, the use of streamlining was paradoxical; hence, the many chairs on view that suggest both movement and inactivity. The lounge chair, 1934, by Kem Weber (1889‱963) is perhaps the most famous example of tubular steel furniture to have ever been made in this country. Weber, a German immigrant, followed closely the artistic developments in Europe. The chair reflects his familiarity with the furniture designs of Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier. In Weber’s version, the armrests and legs form one continuous teardrop loop, and the seat is tilted back as if in ascent.
Streamlining was an amalgam of styles circulating in Europe and America. Art Deco and the International Style were especially important. Futurism, which emphasized mechanization and speed †two themes at the heart of streamlining †was another influence.
Its composite origins led to the charge that it was not truly Modern. In a time of crisis, theoretical consistency might have been the least of the worries borne by industrial designers and manufacturers. Nonetheless, there was some truth in the assessment that streamlining was an aesthetic patchwork.
Sometimes, a piece drew on the International style; such is the case with the portable hair dryer with simple horizontal banding, circa 1944, that was made by the A.C. Gilbert Company.
At other times, the designer was influenced by what was happening in Germany. The “Normandie” pitcher, 1935, by German émigré Peter Müller-Munk (1904‶7) recalls the work of Bauhaus metalworker Marianne Brandt, although the nautical theme is in the streamline idiom.
Then there was the criticism that streamlining concealed function. The fashion for machine art †the coils and ball bearings †that was being advocated by the Museum of Modern Art, was at odds with sound business practice. Manufacturers understood that buyers preferred the gears and cogs to be hidden beneath a colorful and shapely carapace.
The variety of portable hand mixers is a case in point. The Mixmaster Junior, circa 1945, has a black arched handle and a white body with a horizontal band that ends in a tapered tail. It was much easier to use than an old-fashioned egg beater. More important, from a marketer’s point of view, it looked easy to use, with all the machinery buried inside the sleek, elegant body.
American industrial designers had little of the artist’s traditional ambivalence to business. Their commercial experience included advertising, window displays and magazine work. Also, some were employed by middle market retailers like Sears, Roebuck and Howard Johnson.
Harold Van Doren (1895‱957), for one, was for many years a toy designer. The Skippy-Racer scooter, circa 1933, which he designed in collaboration with John Gordon Rideout, is an example of streamlining for the junior consumer.
This market know-how was in contrast with the noncommercialism of many European designers. The Bauhaus in Germany was a state school that had, at best, a fitful understanding of what the average hausfrau wanted . Many French designers were likewise dependent on a few wealthy patrons rather than a mass of nameless shoppers.
Like many American fashions, the streamline style was, in part, the work of immigrants. The exhibition includes the work of foreign designers, notably Raymond Loewy, who was French, and John Vassos, who was Romanian.
But it is the native-born designers who dominate the show. Many, like Gilbert Rohde (1894‱944), were from New York City. He is represented by the “Semi” chair, circa 1935, which has a Z-shaped tubular steel frame.
The Midwest was another, less obvious forcing ground of Modern design. Michigander Norman Bel Geddes, one of the most well-known designers of that era, moved to New York City. Joseph Palma (b 1909) and Robert Davol Budlong (1902‵5) were among those who built their careers in Chicago.
Palma’s Amplicall intercom, circa 1947, is made of Bakelite, and its curved form is dominated by the concentric graduated rings of the speaker.
Streamlining is important not only for its influence on household appliances many years ago, but for its transformation of the American home. It was due, in part, to this style that some rooms came to look the way they do.
The bathroom, which had been very much like other rooms, with its upholstered chairs and potted plants, was transformed into a minisanatorium during the 1930s. In the new bathroom, all that porcelain and linoleum were meant to survive the most puissant disinfectant. The cupboards were stocked with drugs and a range of novelty gadgets †the massagers, shavers and hairdryers that are with us still.
It was at this time, too, that the kitchen became a locus of style-consciousness. With coordinated cabinets and attractive laborsaving appliances, the kitchen lost some of its reputation for behind-the-scenes drudgery. The catalog has informative chapters on these changes.
The catalog also has a chapter on the Richard H. Mandel House in Bedford, N.Y., a classic example of the International style shrewdly adapted to incorporate the client’s American tastes. The house was faithfully restored by Brill and his wife, and for many years his collection was kept there.
In its pure form, the International style had little following in America. (“Flat-chested” was Frank Lloyd Wright’s epithet for the work of Le Corbusier and his disciples.)
It thus fell to the architect Edward Durrell Stone (1902‷8) to integrate a streamlined bay with white concrete blocks and ribbon windows. The interiors by Donald Deskey (1894‱989) had an airy sparseness suitable for fashion shoots. (They were used for that purpose by Edward Steichen for one of his Vogue assignments.)
Many of the objects in “American Streamlined Design” are nearly a century old, but they look as if they were made yesterday. This historic but resonant show, having already been on view in France, Italy and in the United States at the Georgia Museum of Art and The Bard Graduate Center, is currently scheduled to travel to the Montgomery (Ala.) Museum of Fine Arts, December 1, 2007⁍arch 2, 2008; the Chicago Historical Society, March⁍ay 2008; and the Wolfsonian, Miami, September 2008⁊anuary 2009.
The exhibition’s catalog, American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow, by David A. Hanks and Anne Hoy was published by Flammarion and is priced at $75 hardcover. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion is at 1380 Sherbrooke Street West. For information, 800-899-6873, 514-285-2000 or www.mmfa.qc.ca .
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