Skip to main content
SearchLogin or Signup

Skyscrapers and Streamliners

Published onApr 22, 2021
Skyscrapers and Streamliners

… the new office of industrial designer can claim no superiority over the well-trained architect.

Architectural Forum, December 1934 ([94], 409)

Once again, in 1934, the Metropolitan Museum held an exhibition of industrial art in modern home furnishings. However, despite the pressure on the museum to avoid “the self-consciously clever design of five years ago, supported by an economic scheme only a little more false than its accompanying social concept” (as it was put by Architectural Forum), the museum’s insistence that all of the objects in the exhibit be shown for the first time produced things that were again out of context with the economic conditions. The museum was still preoccupied with the notion that all design should stem from architecture, and thus most of the exhibits were commissioned from architects. In recognition of the growing importance of industrial design, however, a fair percentage of those invited to participate were professional designers, including Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey, Gilbert Rohde, Gustav Jensen, and Russel Wright.

It was inevitable, perhaps, because of the sympathetic attention of museums and the vested interest of the architectural press, that the popularity and potential of industrial design should attract the attention of young architects who were finding few architectural commissions and who had an inclination toward a broader application of their design talent and training. Montgomery Ferar, Dave Chapman, Ray Sandin, and Brooks Stevens were among the early architects who, followed by George Nelson, Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames, Walter B. Ford, and others, developed successful careers in industrial design. The range of their feelings about their career shift is reflected in Sandin’s “I got into this profession by accident and I am most happy that I did” (218) and Chapman’s “Frankly, I still thought of myself as an unemployed architect, pacing out the depression in an attractive, lucrative but, nonetheless, substitute career.” [217]

Over the years, design and architecture have enjoyed a warm but wary relationship. Architecture has largely ignored its upstart friend, yet has turned to it either in times of economic stress or in the search for that instant fame that comes with having one’s name attached to a unique chair. Design, on the other hand, has often hungered for the status of architecture (Walter Dorwin Teague doggedly pursued an architectural degree until he acquired it in 1938 at age 55) or looked for and caught the flame of the latest formalistic fashion from its senior associate.

Further evidence that architecture was reaching out for its share of the influence and affluence of industrial design is that, coincidental with the Metropolitan show in 1934, the young Museum of Modern Art, with Alfred H. Barr, Jr., as director and Philip C. Johnson as director of the department of architecture, installed an exhibition on “Machine Art.” Whereas the Metropolitan was catering to the personal environment and was preoccupied with formalism as personal expression in the current fashion of modern art, the Museum of Modern Art elected to meet human needs with mechanical means and found its formalism in the geometry of solid shapes—forms so mathematically pure that the object “loses all character and distinguishing marks of purpose,” as Geoffrey Holmes observed. It is evident that the theme of the MOMA exhibition was stretched to include the categories of geometrical shapes in household equipment and furnishings carefully extracted from the work of industrial designers who were also represented in the Metropolitan show with more personal and humane forms.

Alfred Barr was quite correct in pointing out that a product has a mechanical function (how it works) as well as a utilitarian function (what it does). Years earlier, however, as a teacher of art, he had invented for his students the wise game of having them search the outside world for well-designed objects selling for less than $1 in order to stimulate their sense of value. It is difficult to understand why he did not include a humanistic function (the why). Phillip Johnson properly objected to what he called “French-age aesthetics” and to the irrelevant styling and irresponsible streamlining that were gaining popularity. However, there still remained his presumption that solid geometry can be equated with utility.

Walter Dorwin Teague’s water glasses for Corning, conceived as pure cylinders, were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Machine Art exhibition in 1934. Museum of Modern Art.


This set of stainless steel mixing bowls manufactured by the Revere company was included in the Machine Art exhibition. Revere Copper and Brass Co.


The third attention-getting exhibition of 1934 represented the final side of the philosophical triangle of industrial design. If the other two sides were the formalisms of personal and impersonal aesthetics, the third was the formalism of public aesthetics. The exhibition, entitled “Art in Industry,” was held at New York’s Rockefeller Center (whose Radio City Music Hall, incidentally, now a national monument, had been designed by Donald Deskey). It was organized by industrial designers under the sponsorship of the National Alliance of Art and Industry to illustrate, according to the prospectus, “what designers are doing in the way of conscious creation of forms to help the engineer sell his mechanical devices.” ([93], 331) Once again the work of industrial designers, like Walter Dorwin Teague, Russel Wright, Gilbert Rohde, and Gustav Jensen, was included in the exposition together with about a hundred of their less famous colleagues showing more than a thousand designed products. The exposition provided a glittering showcase for many of the giants of the young profession. However, their very success led to a complicated situation that was eventually to draw industrial designers into a professional society.

The following year, 1935, when the National Alliance of Art and Industry decided to hold another exhibition, its officers decided to turn responsibility over to the manufacturer members of the Alliance rather than the designers. Many of the most prominent industrial designers objected to their having no part to play in the quality and contents of the exposition. Thus, when President Roosevelt tapped a golden telegraph key in the White House to open the showing in New York and Fiorello LaGuardia gave his opening speech praising the design of utilitarian products, examples of the work of these outstanding designers and their important clients were missing from the exhibits. Even the showing of a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Broadacre City” could not cover the fact that without their presence and aesthetic guidance the show was a carnival of bad taste and irrelevant exhibits.

The designers who had boycotted the show, feeling their strength, issued a manifesto stating that the Alliance “neither stimulates better design, represents the artist, nor improves the relationship between the designer and industry” and that “it does not promote the best standards of American design.” [191] As a result the leading designers, together with other interested designers, got together in a protest meeting. They compared their grievances against the Alliance and promised themselves to form their own organization soon.

With these exhibitions and others it became evident that the concept and promise of industrial design had caught the public imagination and that designers would be hailed as the heroes of the economy. Some magazines even suggested that designers may have been instrumental in pulling the nation out of the Depression. Designers became popular subjects in the Sunday newspaper supplements and the focus of innumerable stories in the business and general magazines. Editors of periodicals aimed at the higher classes discovered the subject of domesticated aesthetics and devoted themselves to articles on a higher and better life surrounded by the elegant vernacular of modern industry. In an article entitled “The Eyes Have It,” Business Week declared that “‘stylizing’ has become an effective weapon in meeting new competition.” [118] Forbes magazine, under the title “Best Dressed Products Sell Best,” suggested that “progress, profit and patriotism do mix.” [128] And the pamphlet “Dollar and Cents Value of Beauty,” published by the Industrial Institute of the Art Center in New York, accepted industrial design as “not a luxury, but an economy; not a fine art, but a practical business” and extolled the profit value of bringing out new models to whet buying interest. [215] On this last point, over which controversy raged for half a century, it must be remembered that planned obsolescence seemed to make sense at a time when the economy needed a jolt to get it moving again. The idea was given form by Earnest Elmo Calkins in 1930—in part, perhaps, as a tactic that would be beneficial to his own business of advertising: “The styling of goods is an effort to introduce color, design and smartness in the goods that for years now have been accepted in their stodgy, commonplace dress. The purpose is to make the customer discontented with his old type of fountain pen, kitchen utensil, bathroom or motorcar, because it is old-fashioned, out-of-date. The technical term for this idea is obsoletism. We no longer wait for things to wear out. We displace them with others that are not more effective but more attractive.” ([120], 153)

The major overview of the design profession in the early 1930s seems to have been Fortune magazine’s “Both Fish and Fowl” [129], which scored the failure of industry to produce new designs as the chief cause of the persistence of the Depression and attributed the fact that the nation’s economy was on the rise again to industrial designers. The article attributed the 900-percent increase in sales of the Toledo Company’s “Public Health” scale to its redesign by the firm of Harold Van Doren and John Rideout. Donald Dohner’s design was credited for a 700-percent increase in sales of a Westinghouse range, as was Raymond Loewy’s design of a radio manufactured by the Colonial Company. There are many other examples of market recovery for products after the doctors of manufactured aesthetics had applied their healing and renewing prescriptions.

Norman Bel Geddes’s most spectacular and perhaps only real success in industrial design was his transformation of the Standard Gas Equipment Company of New Jersey’s series of over 100 models of stoves into 12 standardized components that could be recombined to produce 16 different models. Bel Geddes developed a structural system that did away with the old method of bolting cast and pressed plates together in favor of a rigid skeletal frame upon which the various components and plates could be hung in a system not unlike the curtain wall structures that were becoming standard in architecture. His redesign saved the client thousands of manufacturing dollars and established a type-form for large appliances that is still standard in the field. Bel Geddes’s public status at the time was such that the client was able to capitalize on it by attaching his monogram to it as an added buying attraction—just as prestigious and fashionable products are emblazoned today with contemporary design stars’ marks.

Henry Dreyfuss opened his own design office in 1929, when he was 25 years old, and although he continued to design stage settings for a while he gradually turned to industrial design. The Westclox Big Ben and Baby Ben alarm clocks were early Dreyfuss successes; in styling and packaging they set a new direction for the clock industry. In 1932, Dreyfuss was contracted by the Sears, Roebuck Company, in its first venture into industrial design, to redesign its wringer-type washing machine. Dreyfuss enclosed the tub and motor of the machine with a metal skirt painted with a textured green enamel and held in place with the then-popular chrome bands, which also served to mask the connecting bolts. In addition, he convinced the manufacturer to move all of the machine’s controls to the top in order to make the washer simpler and safer to operate, and named the machine the “Toperater” in order to emphasize that particular advantage. Dreyfuss added his escutcheon to the product for status. The machine was a runaway marketing success for Sears.

A year later, when Henry Dreyfuss was under contract to the General Electric Company to redesign its “monitor-top” refrigerator, he felt obliged to turn down a second contract from Sears to redesign its line of refrigerators and recommended his colleague Raymond Loewy. Loewy took on the contract for $2,500, although he claims that it cost him three times as much to finish the job. Loewy’s design was the first Coldspot in a line of successful refrigerators whose sales grew from 15,000 to 275,000 units within five years. The acceptance of these first two major appliances established Sears as an important competitor in the major appliance field and convinced management to employ Jack Morgan to organize the company’s first industrial-design department. Furthermore, the Coldspot launched Raymond Loewy on the road to success and eventual international stardom. His first employee was Robert Jordan Harper, who joined him in 1932 at the grand Depression-era salary of $10 a week. Harper worked with Loewy until 1935, when he joined Walter Dorwin Teague, who at that time had six employees.

Norman Bel Geddes designed this stove in 1932 for the Standard Gas Equipment Company. The twelve standardized elements could be recombined into sixteen models. The structural concept followed the skyscraper method: the white enameled panels were attached to a steel skeleton. U.S. Patent 90,108, June 13, 1933.


The Bel Geddes stove attempted to set a standard for the dimensions of kitchen appliances, cabinets, and counters. Arts and Decoration, November 1933.


The alarm clocks that Henry Dreyfuss designed for the Westclox company demonstrate his sensitivity to public taste. The clock forms were a break from the traditional form with the bell on top, yet were reminiscent of the mantle clock form. They were weighted to compare well with the older clocks. Also, the packaging was in the moderne pattern of parallel lines. Design, January 1935.


The “Toperator” washing machine was designed by Henry Dreyfuss for Sears in 1933, at the height of the battle for the washing machine market. The body, done in mottled green enamel, was trimmed with chrome bands and carried a Dreyfuss nameplate. Dreyfuss Archives.


This Coldspot refrigerator, designed for Sears by Raymond Loewy in 1934, was developed with particular attention to the consumer’s needs and moved Sears from below tenth place to one of the top three companies in the industry. Raymond Loewy.


One of the most handsome products of the 1930s, and the first automobile to reach production after styling by an industrial designer, was Walter Dorwin Teague’s Marmon 16. To some extent the form of the Marmon may be credited to Teague’s son, Walter Dorwin, Jr., who, while a first-year student at Yale, worked on the automobile in his father’s office at every opportunity. However, Teague’s greatest marketing success was the Baby Brownie camera for the Eastman Kodak Company. The principle behind this camera was that such a product should be made as simple as possible for the amateur and dependable within fixed limits. Four million Baby Brownies were sold to the public at $1 each, the same price the original Brownie had sold for in 1900. By 1934 the Teague office was well established, with 14 clients across the country.

Russel Wright typifies a design position between the aforementioned marketing-oriented illustrators-turned-designers and the artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement. Beginning with a craft orientation, he developed (among other products) successful table accessories in various materials that could be produced with minimal investment in tooling expenses. Wright saw the humble products that serve the everyday needs of Americans as elegantly simple forms that express their material and method of manufacture in harmony with the purpose they were created to serve.

Industrial design had reached a comfortable maturity by the mid-1930s. Designers had demonstrated their ability to make manufactured products attractive to a reluctant public, and they were discovering a style that was uniquely American—a style that turned from the past to look hopefully to the future.

The sad economic realities at the opening of the 1930s had been challenged in New York by the soaring optimism of the neo-Gothic Chrysler building (1929), the sheer scale and dirigible mast of the Empire State Building (1930), and the modern classicism in the sculpture and architecture of the Rockefellers’ Radio City complex. With the establishment of building codes that required a decrease in volume as building height increased, the skyscraper style emerged. The new buildings’ vertical thrust and disappearing mass as they reached for the clouds, enhanced by Hugh Ferriss’s dreamy illustrations of modern castles in the air, became symbols of hope, and for a time the skyscrapers’ form and decoration were emulated by everything from radios and scales to furniture and packaging.

However, the vertical motif of the skyscrapers was not dynamic enough for smaller objects. The horizontal lines of speeding vehicles were considered truer symbols of progress. “Speed stripes” (usually three chromium-plated bands) became the distinguishing mark of the moment. They also proved to be a convenient and economically expedient way of applying a modern look to any product. Painted stripes could be substituted for metal bands if the occasion warranted it. “Straight lines,” wrote Paul Frankl, “are typical of present-day directness.” ([35], 47)

Then, as monocoque aircraft competed for speed, altitude, and endurance and as airlines began to spin their webs across the United States and around the world, their smooth shapes began to dominate the form of products for the remainder of the decade. Just as the great ocean liners of the last two decades, with their clean white surfaces, portholes, ventilators, and metal tube railings, had influenced the international style of white surfaces, furniture and furnishings made of metal tubing, and round windows and mirrors, so now the aerodynamic form was to set the aesthetic direction.

The perfect aerodynamic form was believed to be a teardrop plowing through space with the round end forward. After all, fish as well as aircraft were shaped that way, so the teardrop was accepted as the ideal shape for all vehicles. Steamships and locomotives sought to disguise their embarrassment at being left behind by the airplane by donning streamlined shells. In this they were simply following one of the fundamental laws of the design ethic, by which a product that is nearing the end of its period in history takes on the form of its successor in order to stave off oblivion. Another law recognizes that, in the hierarchy of products just as in that of humans, the dominant class at any moment will set the behavioral pattern and cultural form of the subdominant class. Therefore it should not be a surprise that the streamline form came to dominate other products. (This transference of form has never been more evident than today, when the television screen has directed the shape of most contemporary products, from automobiles to wristwatches.)

Walter Dorwin Teague’s 1932 Marmon 16 was one of the classic designs of the era. The replacement of the harsher geometric forms of the past with softer forms that were more suitable for stamped metal predicted the form of automobiles to come. Vanity Fair, 1932.


Teague’s all-plastic 1934 version of the Brownie camera had vertical stripes in the skyscraper style. Pencil Points, September 1937.


The distinctive form of the Chrysler building (William Van Alen, architect), with its machinelike stainless steel ornamentation and its gargoyles, has made it a New York landmark It is shown here between one of the towers of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel (right) and the RCA Victor building (left). Cervin Robinson.


The Empire State building (Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, architects) still dominates midtown Manhattan, and its additive masses established a typeform for the American skyscraper that has not been equaled by any other building. Hugh Ferriss drawing; Architectural Forum, June 1930.


Rockefeller Center, or Radio City. Thomas Airviews.


Donald Deskey’s grand Art Moderne interiors for the Radio City Music Hall have been compared to those of the best European designers. The main difference is that his have been preserved as a national monument while theirs have long since faded away. Anne Brown.


The new 1932 container for Ben Ami cleaning powder echoed the skyscraper form. It was promoted as the smartest and most convenient in the industry, and was intended to be so good-looking that it could be displayed in the home. House and Garden, December 1933.


Sketches by Kem Weber for furniture in the skyscraper style to be manufactured by Barker Brothers of Los Angeles. D. Gebhard and H. Von Breton, Kem Weber: The Moderne in Southern California (Santa Barbara: University of California Art Museum, 1969).


A bookcase from 1930, “rising up against the wall like some building against the sky” according to its designer, Paul T. Frankl. The piece was finished in two tones of lacquer and is set on a cabinet base. Frankl, New Dimensions.


Joseph Sinel designed this scale in the skyscraper style for the International Ticket Scale Corporation. He recalls: “… I made a model from a Del Monte fruit case.… I took the model in to show the executives of the company and they immediately OKed it and they paid me a fee of $10,000 and royalties for twenty-five years.” Sinel papers, California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland.


In contrast to the vertical stripes on the earlier Brownie camera, Walter Dorwin Teague’s 1936 Kodak Bantam Special was striped horizontally (some called this “streamlining”). Eastman Kodak Co.


Teague and his staff standardized Texaco’s gasoline stations, with three parallel lines as the main ornament. Architectural Record, September 1937.

Teague and his staff standardized Texaco’s gasoline stations, with three parallel lines as the main ornament. Architectural Record, September 1937.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art invited several industrial designers to assist the architects who were doing the 1934 Contemporary Industrial Art exhibition. Lee Simonson worked with Raymond Loewy (shown here) to create this mockup of an ideal industrial designer’s office. Note the three-line motif. Raymond Loewy.


In this 1932 photograph the Pan American China Clipper flies past the still-incomplete Golden Gate bridge on its inaugural trip to the Orient. Pan American Airlines.


When Norman Bel Geddes was asked to redesign the interiors of the Clipper airplane to provide long-range comfort, including sleeping and eating facilities, he created a system that also took into account maintenance and servicing. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.


More than any other aircraft, the Douglas DC-3 became the typeform for 1930s airliners. It went into service in 1936 on American Airlines’ Chicago–New York route. This plane set the character of aerodynamic form and thus influenced many other products. American Airlines.


Norman Bel Geddes secured patents in 1931 for his designs for a completely streamlined train that was quite reminiscent of Reverend Samuel Calthrop’s patent of 1865. Although neither of these trains was ever built, the designs influenced the new articulated train that was built and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. Within a short time all the railroads became aware that streamlining could help them counter the threats to the train’s near-monopoly in overland travel from the airlines (which were drawing away first-class passengers), from the highways (which were being built with government funds), and from trucks (which were using the highways to haul the freight that used to be carried by the railroads).

The first fully streamlined train, the diesel-powered Zephyr, with its stainless-steel exterior and air-conditioned cars, was billed as a new type of train. The Zephyr was promoted with several barnstorming trips (one to help open the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago) before it began full service in late 1934. By the end of 1935 every major railroad either was rebuilding or had rebuilt one or more of its passenger trains into a streamliner. These trains, with proud names like Flying Yankee, Rebel, Comet, and Royal Blue, captured the public imagination with their promises of speed. The two major eastern railroads, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central, dominated the field of streamliners.

Raymond Loewy was employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1934 to produce a streamlined shell for its GG-1 electric locomotive. Borrowing an idea from automotive production lines, he recommended that the traditional rivet construction be replaced by welding to achieve a smoother shell. Loewy’s second Pennsylvania Railroad assignment, to provide a shell for the PRR steam locomotives (beginning with Engine 3768), was considered particularly successful because, rather than disguising their boilers, he emphasized their form and promise of power.

Henry Dreyfuss’ first railroad assignment, from the New York Central, was to design the luxury streamlined train Mercury (whose locomotive was to be a remodeled 1916 machine). This was a complete job, including not only a new form for the locomotive but also an entirely new layout for the car interiors, down to hardware, furnishings, and tableware. Dreyfuss used spotlights to emphasize the locomotive’s powerful driving wheels—a device not unlike the illumination of vertical stabilizers and rudders on modern commercial airliners. However handsome and thorough his concept for the locomotive was, it still looked somewhat out of tune with the more familiar boiler-dominated typeform.

The era of the streamliners came to a climax in 1938 when the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited were introduced with great fanfare on the same day in New York and Chicago. For a special surcharge, their first-class passengers were treated to the ultimate in modern design, luxury, and convenience. The Twentieth Century Limited, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, was essentially an upgraded version of his earlier Mercury. However, the locomotive had been redesigned more along the powerful lines of Loewy’s PRR engines. The Broadway Limited, designed by Raymond Loewy in collaboration with Paul Cret, head of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, maintained the bold locomotive forms of the PRR while borrowing liberally from the interior design of the Mercury. Until the American entry into World War II, these two trains competed head to head for luxury-minded passengers on the lucrative Chicago-New York run.

Although aerodynamics had been considered appropriate for automobiles at the turn of the century, it was not until the 1930s that the technology for stretching larger sheets of thin steel into complex shapes and welding them became economically feasible for production automobiles. Both European and American designers and engineers experimented with various smooth-shaped bodies, usually for rear-engined vehicles. The Moglia and Claveau from France, Sir Dennistown Burney’s teardrop, Edmund Rumpler’s Tropferwagen, William Stout’s Scarab, and R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car were all conceived as airfoils or teardrops in order to decrease wind resistance, thereby improving speed and performance and reducing fuel consumption. None of these was ever manufactured successfully, but they helped to prepare public opinion for the automobiles that were to follow. In 1931 the Society of Automotive Engineers concluded that the teardrop was the ultimate form for automobiles and predicted that before long manufacturers would offer rear-engined teardrop automobiles to the public.

There was a strong feeling in the 1930s that, had the railroads wanted to, they could have competed effectively in speed and service against the fledgling airlines. Norman Bel Geddes proposed and patented this completely streamlined train that would have tested the premise had it been built. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.


Before” and “after” photographs illustrating Raymond Loewy’s 1934 redesign of Pennsylvania Railroad’s electric locomotive, the GG-1. The all-welded shell and the smoother contours increased speed and performance. Raymond Loewy.

Loewy designed the streamlined shell for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Engine 3768 after extensive wind-tunnel tests had shown that the engine’s wind resistance could be lowered by one-third. The locomotive was used to pull the Broadway Limited for two years, then was put on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Architectural Forum, September 1938.


The interiors of the Broadway Limited were designed by Raymond Loewy and Paul Cret. The interior view of the Bar Lounge car shows the thoroughness and cleanness of their design. Raymond Loewy


The 1938 Twentieth Century Limited was designed by Henry Dreyfuss and his staff after their work on the successful Mercury. In effect the Century was a new Mercury in a much more luxurious form. Its engine remains one of the most distinctive typeforms of the era. Architectural Forum, September 1938.


The dining room of the Twentieth Century Limited illustrates the elegant modern style upon which its fame was based. Dreyfuss used optical illusions to make the cars appear wider. The walls had cork to deaden sound, and the tables were cantilevered. Architectural Forum, September 1938.


Although industrial designers did not have an important role to play in the technological development of aerodynamic forms for automobiles, several of them were contracted by automobile manufacturers to develop design concepts that would explore the influence that the trend toward streamlining would have on their vehicles. Norman Bel Geddes for Graham-Paige, Raymond Loewy for Hupmobile, and Walter Dorwin Teague for Marmon recommended a softening of details and the use of slanted surfaces to reduce air pressure under speed. In general, their designs produced a much more handsome effect without a fundamental change in form. Although Loewy went so far as to build a full-scale model in an effort to convince Hupmobile management to manufacture the automobile, only Teague’s Marmon 16 was ever manufactured, and then only for three years. Nevertheless, the industrial designers were attracted to the possibilities that streamlining offered. Norman Bel Geddes designed, built models of, and secured patents for a teardrop automobile, a bus, a yacht, an ocean liner, and an airplane. Raymond Loewy also obtained patents in 1928 for an automobile with a strong streamline profile. In addition Loewy was commissioned to apply the characteristic sweep and curved nose of the streamline form to the boxy sides of buses for the Greyhound company. He was also able to carry through the handsome streamlining of the Princess Anne ferryboat.

Only one truly streamlined automobile by an American company was ever carried through to production. In 1934, the Chrysler Corporation, after several years of wind-tunnel studies under the direction of engineer Carl Breer (which proved that conventional automobiles of the era encountered less resistance when moving backward than they did when moving forward), introduced the Airflow automobile. It was as faithful as possible to the experimental aerodynamic form, with recessed headlights in a smooth front and a slanted back. In its first year of production, 11,000 Airflows were sold. In the following year 8,000 were built, with a protruding V-shaped grill designed by Ray Dietrich to overcome public resistance against the flat front. In 1936 an even smaller number (4,000) were manufactured, with other innovations, including an all-steel “turret” top and a fully enclosed trunk. Despite the fact that the DeSoto version had won two consecutive grand prizes in the Monte Carlo Concours d’Elegance for its aerodynamic styling, and despite the wide publicity its daring form and innovations had attracted (Norman Bel Geddes even appeared in advertisements, extolling its virtues), the Airflow was not a commercial success and was dropped by Chrysler in 1937.

The influence of the Airflow on other automobiles was unmistakable. The V front and the slant back became standard in the industry, and by 1939 the formal differences between one automobile and another were so slight that graphic identification had to be used to distinguish them.

The Lincoln Zephyr managed to capture the best expression of the style, but the Airflow is still recalled with respect as the first attempt by an American automobile manufacturer to break away from the typeform of the carriage. Although it was primarily a commercially motivated experiment in form, the Airflow illustrates that innovation in design carries a threat of failure that is commensurate with its promise of gain. Failure in the marketplace is the price the design ethic extracts from those who dare to step too far ahead of evolutionary development. Raymond Loewy has followed the motto that one should strive for a design that is “MAYA”—the most advanced yet acceptable.

R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car was shown and demonstrated at the Chicago fair Fuller is shown here with two passengers. R. Buckminster Fuller.


Bel Geddes’s streamlined double-deck motor coach would have reduced wind resistance to the same degree that it increased passenger comfort and convenience. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.


Bel Geddes designed this seagoing yacht for Axel Wenner-Gren. Although it seems like pure fantasy in retrospect, every detail was based on an environmental or operational conviction. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.


With Otto Kuhler, Norman Bel Geddes dreamed up Super Airliner 4 in 1929. It was to carry 450 passengers and 115 crew members at a cruising speed of 100 mph, driven by 37 propellers. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.


Raymond Loewy’s design patent for “combined automobile body hood, and fenders” shows an interest in achieving a unified streamline effect—no matter what the underlying body form was. U.S. Patent 79,147, August 6, 1929.


In 1933, Loewy redesigned a ferryboat for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Put into service in 1936 and rechristened the Princess Anne, it is generally considered the most successful streamlined vehicle of the time. Raymond Loewy.


The Chrysler Airflow was the first production automobile to be designed according to aerodynamic principles. It made a clean break with earlier designs and established an aesthetic base for the Lincoln Zephyr and other cars to come. Chrysler Corporation.


Once a viable design form is established, all of the competitors adopt it without hesitation. The louder they proclaim their difference the more they are the same. Mark Waterman.


The Lincoln Zephyr, built for Ford by the Briggs Manufacturing Company in 1935, was called the “first successfully designed streamlined car in America” by the Museum of Modern Art. The front and the rear were shaped to a “V.” Fortune, May 1936.


The Lincoln Zephyr trademark had the teardrop shape that was considered aerodynamic perfection. Fortune, May 1936.


If other manufacturers had followed the lead of the Airflow a real change in automotive form may have occurred. They did not. However, in 1938 the cornerstone was laid at Wolfsburg for the factory that would produce the German equivalent of the Airflow, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen. Over 40 years later the “Beetle” still appealed to the public and was still being manufactured in several countries, and its total sales had surpassed the Model T’s 15 million.

The public’s interest in streamlining offered designers the rationale they needed to make it an aesthetic base for mass-produced objects. For a time it was applied to every product possible, resulting in what some have called the “streamlined era,” and in the process it seems to have fixed in the public mind the notion that industrial designers are “streamliners.” For a few years the characteristic streamline was accepted as the ideal form for many American manufactured products, much to the dismay of some observers. Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., wrote sarcastically that “the teardrop swelled, divided and multiplied, became garnished with ribbons of chrome and elevated on an altar of sales, while statistical Magnificats were sung in its honor.” ([146], 89) Laszlo Moholy-Nagy saw streamlining as “superficial styling” to which industrial designers had succumbed under pressure from salesmen, yet he later admitted that the new form increased the strength of a product’s shell and made it easier to manufacture.

Henry Dreyfuss came closest to recognizing the real contribution of streamlining to products. Although he was concerned about those designers who accepted half-truths about streamlining and applied it indiscriminately to pencil sharpeners, fountain pens, and the like, he believed that it had benefited American products. “The designer,” he wrote, “learned a great deal about clean, graceful design. He learned to junk useless protuberances and ugly corners.” Dreyfuss suggested that the style should be called “cleanlining instead of streamlining.” ([27], 75) And Harold Van Doren, like most American designers of the time, saw no harm in making manufactured products conform to the full-flowing forms of modern aircraft, in place of the harsh angularity of the modernists or the cold intelligence of the functionalists. At the very least, streamlining was the first new and uniquely American approach to form that the public could associate with progress and a better life.

In retrospect, streamlining seems to have offered more advantages than disadvantages. Manufacturers accepted it as a practical means of simplifying production. The shell could be disassociated from its structural skeleton, its mechanical organs, and its energy and control systems, thus allowing more economical production and increased efficiency and dependability. At the same time the exterior of the shell could be better adapted to the physical and psychological needs and desires of its owners as well as to the demands of its distribution and marketing environment.

Manufacturers now recognized that industrial designers seemed to be able to anticipate the special intersection of onrushing technology and volatile public preference. Therefore, they sought them out for their magic touch, and the designers—in a sense, outsiders to industry—were accepted as monitors of public taste. By adding technological understanding to their aesthetic sensitivity they proved that they were able to close the gap between humans and the products that were being manufactured to serve them. Half a century later the concept of employing designers to help industry increase sales would be held suspect by the humanists, but during the Depression if a designer could help a manufacturer escape bankruptcy and preserve the jobs of his employees he was welcomed as a savior. As a result, companies hastened to establish their own internal design groups or to retain independent designers as consultants.

Harold Van Doren and his associates designed this “Tot Bike” for the American National company in the streamline style. Architectural Forum, October 1940.


It is entirely natural that the “airstream” concept should have been applied to the electric fan. This fan is by Robert Heller for the A. C. Gilbert company (1938). Architectural Forum, October 1940.


Raymond Loewy’s whimsical 1934 application of the streamlined form to a pencil sharpener was much criticized. Raymond Loewy.


Comments
0
comment

No comments here