Built for Speed

In the 1930s and '40s, it seemed as if the technology that made airplanes fly faster might also improve everyday life. PHIL PATTON examines the genesis of streamline.

The term "streamline" was born in the wind tunnels of 19th-century industrial engineers, but in the thirties and forties, the word also came to define a style of design that romanticized movement and was applied to everything from kitchen appliances to office equipment. Sandwiched between Art Deco (with which it is often confused) and midcentury modernism, streamline was one of the first design crazes to sweep through all facets of the American manufacturing world.

Historians have long been fascinated by the period, but only now is it getting its due among collectors. Interest will no doubt be fanned by American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow, a traveling exhibition that debuts in May at Musée des Années 30 (Museum of the Thirties) in Paris. The show tracks streamline's evolution, from the efforts of engineers to make trains and airplanes aerodynamic to its application to everyday objects, and finally to its use in architecture, including such masterpieces as the Racine, Wisconsin, Johnson Wax headquarters, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. "The twentieth century loved machines," says David A. Hanks, the independent curator who assembled the show. "Speeding cars, trains, and planes promised to conquer space and time; their sleek aerodynamic styling and shining metal skins embodied a new and modern beauty."

This was the era in which industrial designers first enjoyed star status. Raymond Loewy, who claimed he could reshape anything "from a lipstick to a locomotive," appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Norman Bel Geddes sketched giant imagined airliners the size of cruise ships and floating airports for GM's now-iconic Highways and Horizons "Futurama" exhibition at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Walter Dorwin Teague's Texaco stations can still be seen on the back roads of America and his cheap thirties Kodaks sleep in attics and basements by the thousands.

What was so unique about streamline was that marketers and consumers literally co-conspired in making the look an American idiom—the style of that quaint concept called progress. Streamlining helped sell mundane innovations as somehow kindred to the sophisticated technologies used to make airplanes. Aerodynamic vacuum cleaners and irons, for example, held the promise of pleasant household chores. For a nation struggling with the Great Depression, the trend also represented hope and faith in the future. Business was sluggish; streamlining offered assurance that the country would get moving again. This optimism, with its touch of Hollywood style, infected the rest of the culture as well. To streamline something, as Duke Ellington did with "Streamlined Solos" in 1935, was to distill it to its most perfect form.

When World War II broke out, however, the bright visions of a high-tech tomorrow suddenly seemed naïve. The sleek shapes now streaming through the air were those carrying death and destruction. As quickly as it had swept the nation, streamline became passé. And after the war, there was no turning back: The world had fallen for modernism and the notion that form must follow function.

Streamlining never quite went away, though. Applied with varying degrees of irony and abstraction, it resurfaced in force after postmodernism demolished the modernist myth of design as pure function. Hanks was careful to include contemporary pieces by Ross Lovegrove and Massimo Iosa Ghini; in these, the aerodynamic morphs into the ergonomic and functional is again sensual. Employed by today's designers, the style appears more human, perhaps because the future to which streamline so hopefully looks is our own recent past.

American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow opens May 12 in Paris at Musée des Années 30. At 28 Ave. Andre Morizet; 33-1/55-18-46-50; www.annees30.com.


COLLECTOR'S JOURNAL

Great examples of streamline—from flea-market finds to auction-house gems—abound. A few that caught my eye include one that recently sold at auction plus several available at presstime.

A pristine wood-and-leather Kem Weber Airline Chair (1935), which was designed for Disney's executive boardroom, sold in March for $9,400 at Treadway-Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Illinois (www.treadwaygallery.com). Weber, something of an icon in the movement, even streamlined his own name: Born Karl Emanuel Martin Weber in 1889 Berlin, he began using his initials as his first name after immigrating to California.

In Hudson, New York, Mark McDonald Ltd. (www.markmcdonald.biz) offers a classic black enamel-and-chrome desk lamp by Gilbert Rohde (1933) for $3,200.

Streamline was used in commercial as well as household applications. Thomas G. Boss's Fine Books (www.bossbooks.com), in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has one such prized (by collectors, at least) piece: an Egmont H. Arens and Theodore C. Brookhart Streamliner meat slicer (1940) for $2,500.

More common examples can often be found at estate sales and on eBay. Among my personal favorites are water pitchers made by the Hall China Company, of East Liverpool, Ohio, a producer of earthenware vessels for leading refrigerator makers during the thirties. Given free to customers purchasing an appliance, the pitchers now sell for several hundred dollars depending on condition and color. Many streamlined objects were made by the millions. I own a half dozen black plastic Kodak Bantams and Bullets designed by Walter Dorwin Teague in the thirties and forties; none cost more than $30.


OTHER PLACES TO SEE STREAMLINE

Brooklyn Museum Home to a comprehensive collection of American design from the 1930s and '40s. 200 Eastern Pkwy., Brooklyn; 718-638-5000

Wolfsonian-FIU Museum of Modern Art and Design Includes large-scale pieces and graphic design. 1001 Washington Ave., Miami; 305-531-1001

PHIL PATTON WRITES REGULARLY ABOUT DESIGN FOR DEPARTURES.