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The House of Tomorrow

Published onApr 22, 2021
The House of Tomorrow

There is nothing in the nature of machinery which requires that these things be aesthetically inferior. Nor is the American love of the machine demonstrably a barbaric trait.

Frederick P. Keppel, 1933 ([53], 28)

Early in 1929, President Herbert Hoover, perhaps with some premonition that the euphoria of the Americans was soon to be shattered, had appointed a Research Committee on Social Trends “to throw light on the emerging problems which now confront or which may be expected later to confront the people of the United States.” [53] When one of the monographs of the committee was published in 1933, after the first deep shock of the Depression and the replacement of Hoover by Franklin D. Roosevelt, it made particular reference to the importance of art and design in American life and found cultural as well as economic significance in the observation that streamlined products seemed to most people to be better-looking and more appropriate to modern times. The cultural lag that had been given as an excuse for America’s inferiority in the area of aesthetics seemed to have been dissipated, at least in the area of utilitarian products, by a shift in the public temper. People now looked forward hopefully to the new forms of airplanes, automobiles, and other miracles of modern technology.

The failure of the stock market had brought down most of the grand dreams and fortunes of the 1920s, but not those of the designers and stylists of manufactured products. Industrial design came into its own in the decade between the Depression and World War II. While other countries were abrogating their pledges to the Armistice of 1918, the United States was recovering its economic momentum and discovering a cultural force it had not recognized before. For a few years at least, before the United States was drawn into the war, Americans were free to develop their talents in the unique arts of the man-made environment. Skyscrapers reached for the sky, airplanes raced the sun, automobiles put everyone on wheels, and homes promised to become a mechanical and electrified paradise as both old and new products were refined and preened in competition for the consumer’s attention. In the process, industrial designers became the glamor boys of the moment, accountable not only for mass-produced aesthetics but also, before the decade was out, for the machine’s conscience. Ugly and clumsy products were to be no longer tolerated just because they worked. It was expected that they would be considerate of the public’s psychological as well as physical well-being.

The American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (AUDAC) had been formed in 1927 by a group of decorative and industrial artists attempting to protect themselves from the piracy of their concepts by manufacturers who had long been accustomed to borrowing traditional designs with little fear of reprisal. Now that their livelihood was threatened by such practices, they proposed that such borrowing “degrades the producers [and] corrupts the taste of the public.” The stated purpose of the AUDAC was “to cooperate with manufacturers and the public in the placing of American arts and crafts on a basis of honesty, dignity and merit.” ([35], 187) Moreover, its members proposed that without such concentrated and patriotic effort, no style truly American could be expected to mature into fruition.

After the Metropolitan Museum’s architect-dominated 1929 exhibition, the AUDAC hastily organized and staged its own exhibition of five modern ensemble interiors by members in early 1930 at the Grand Central Galleries in New York. The objective was to demonstrate the American potential for original design in the decorative and useful arts and to prove that the general public could be served just as well by the well-designed products that were already on the open market as was the upper class by the custom-designed and specially produced products in the Metropolitan’s exhibition. Frank Lloyd Wright, Lewis Mumford, Norman Bel Geddes, and other prominent design personalities of the era contributed statements to the Annual of American Design, which was published in 1931 by AUDAC to promote the aesthetic and creative competence of its members and to demonstrate that human comfort and utility were proper goals for American business. They were convinced that the vernacular products of industry were destined to acquire cultural as well as social significance. Bel Geddes, in his article, praised the successful cooperation between art and industry. On a different tack, Mumford warned that manufactured products should be based on the principle of conspicuous economy rather than either Veblen’s conspicuous consumption or the concept of conspicuous waste that lay just over the horizon of plenty. Their action was recognized by others as a demonstration of the potential for a vital renaissance of the useful arts and as evidence of their conviction that modern life deserved a more appropriate and useful setting.

Although the department stores and other merchandising outlets had been second only to the advertising agencies in introducing design and Art Moderne to the public and in guiding and molding public taste, when the Depression moved to its deepest point their interest in modern design waned. American consumers were no longer fascinated with its stylistic appeal and refused to buy it. In fact, in some circles the French Art Moderne style, with its appeal to high fashion and machine-age mannerisms, was blamed for the economic catastrophe. The department stores reverted in large measure to their original strategy of catering to public taste rather than trying to guide it. The stores that had become cultural showcases, offering exhibits, lectures, and concerts to the public and blazing a trail as missionaries of modern aesthetics, now abandoned that responsibility to their buyers, whose preoccupation with certain profit blinded their cultural sensitivity. Many of the department stores that were once the patrons of good design have since deteriorated to the raucous merchantry of discount houses.

However, the modern style, at least in the industrial and decorative arts, had become dependent upon new materials and new manufacturing techniques. Modern wooden furniture depended upon veneers of exotic woods, such as rosewood, zebra wood, or ebony, applied to rectilinear solids in a way that concealed the substructure of mixed and more humble materials. Some claimed that this was the age of metals. “No metal, it seems to me,” testified Emily Post in an advertisement in House and Garden, “is quite so complete an answer to the housewife’s prayer as chromium—appealing not only to the eye, but to practical requirements.” ([144], 2) Aluminum, which had been used for machinery and as a skin laid over the wooden frameworks of custom-made automobiles, now found a more dramatic application as the stressed skin of modern aircraft and was, at last, being used effectively for kitchen and gift wares and other modern furnishings. And Monel metal, a copper-nickel alloy that was a precursor to stainless steel, was popularized for domestic and commercial sinks and cabinets. Black “Vitrolite” glass became the standard material for storefronts. And mirrors, more often than not round, became the icons of the modern interior. New composition materials, like Masonite, cork, linoleum, and rubber flooring, prepared the public for the plastic age.

The Depression pushed the infant plastic industry into a cycle of growth that continues still. Celluloid (1870) and Bakelite (1907) had been around for decades, but the flammability and instability of the first and the drab colors and manufacturing difficulties of the second had limited their application. However, in 1932, when the General Mills Company conceived the idea of stimulating interest in its new breakfast cereal by offering a plastic “Skippy Bowl” as a premium with each purchase of two boxes of Wheaties, the plastic boom was launched. Skippy was the movie name of an endearing child actor, Jackie Cooper, who had just appeared in a film with Wallace Beery called The Champ and had been taken to heart by the public as a victim of the Depression. The premium bowl, made out of a urea formaldehyde thermosetting plastic produced primarily by the American Cyanamid Company, was useful, hygienic, colorful, and virtually unbreakable. Over 5 million were distributed. Other plastic giveaways followed, including 10 million biscuit and cookie cutters that were distributed to publicize the prepackaged dry dough mix Bisquick. In time, the services of many designers would be required to transform products that had been made of traditional materials for plastic production. “I have always felt,” wrote Gage Davis, president of the Spartan Corporation, “that this mass ‘sampling’ of a relatively unknown material helped to introduce the entire emerging plastics field to the American consumer market.…” [207]

Chrome-plated coffee and tea service designed by llonka Karasz in the Art Moderne style, with geometric forms and no decoration. Reference 35.

Lurelle Guild’s work with the Wear-Ever Aluminum Company resulted in a long line of modern cooking utensils. In particular, his cast aluminum kettle has become a typeform.

Some of Russel Wright’s 1932 line of lathe-spun aluminum ware. The products were designed to be taken, as he said, from stove to table. Russel Wright.

Gustav Jensen’s handsome Monel-metal sink, designed in 1931 for the International Nickel Company, reflects his classical sense of proportion and form. Pencil Points, March 1937.

Gustav Jensen was one of ten industrial designers who were each paid $1,000 by the Bell Telephone Company to come up with the ideal dial telephone. The model he submitted was in sharp geometric style of the era. However, the account went to Henry Dreyfuss, whose solution paid less attention to style than to function. Pencil Points, March 1937.

One of Jensen’s most dramatic designs was this spun aluminum radio case. Its innovative geometry broke with the conventional cabinet form. Though it was never manufactured, its modernism influenced other designers and manufacturers. Pencil Points, March 1937.

This apartment by Joseph Urban shows the rather pristine classicism of the Art Moderne style at its best. Decorative Arts, 1933.

A 1933 illustration by Gilbert Rhode for an advertisement promoting Sealex linoleum. House and Garden, September 1933.

George Sakier’s faucet set for American Standard has been called the best of the functional modern, despite Sakier’s personal conviction that function follows form. Arts and Decoration, November 1933.

The popular acceptance of new materials as a promise of things to come helped to offset the negative reaction to Art Moderne and the decline of faith in its obsession with geometry. The adaptation of new materials from their basic sheet, bar, rod, and tube forms tended to restrict, especially in custom-made products, the application of decorative detailing. The simplicity of form that this encouraged was perceived as not only more beautiful but also more useful. Some designers, however, protested the implication that plainer and more geometric forms were more functional. George Sakier, director of the Bureau of Design of the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation, was convinced that designers were being held back by the cult of functionalism. And Kem Weber found a basic conflict between formalism and functionalism: “Design … is the effort to express the basic form, as such, aesthetically truthful to material and purpose.” ([35], 13) Paul Frankl, also a formalist, accepted the idea that modernism was “the style of reason.” “Its appeal is an appeal to the intelligence,” said Frankl.” “Its emphasis upon simple forms, its return to mathematical axiom and the fundamentals of form, confer upon it a classical rather than a romantic beauty.” Nevertheless, Frankl was convinced that it was wrong to assume that everything that is useful is beautiful: “Usefulness and beauty in themselves are mutually unrelated terms. Beauty is concerned with form only; usefulness only with serving a purpose. The fact that the form of an object is derived from its function has been adopted as one of the fundamental principles upon which the contemporary work is based. The idea is not new, nor has it anything to do with the art creating of this or any other period.… Creative work is an impulse which begins where the reasoning of the mind leaves off.… The trend of the day is toward mass production. Comfort, livability, soundness of construction, moderate prices—these are the desiderata of the newest Americana.” ([35], 13–83) To Walter Dorwin Teague simplicity in products also implied more than formalism; it was an attempt to make manufactured products more comprehensible to the consumer. Russel Wright felt much more strongly that the functionalists had, by their interest in mechanical form, been led into ignoring the human form.

In 1930 the Metropolitan Museum staged its third International Exhibition of Contemporary Industrial Art, this time with an emphasis on metalwork and textiles. It was to be the last in a series organized by the American Federation of Arts (F. A. Whiting, president) under a grant from the General Education Board, for the purpose of “demonstrating design in current production.” This was, again, a Europe-dominated show, with only a small array of works by Americans like Paul Lobel, Russel Wright, Donald Deskey, and Walter von Nessen and émigrés like Eliel Saarinen and Peter Muller-Munk. There were entries from England, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia. The Germans sent, for the first time apparently, metalwork by such former teachers and students of the now-closed Bauhaus as Walter Gropius, Marianne Brandt, Wilhelm Wagenfeldt, and Hin Bredendieck. In the exhibition catalog Charles Richards, former director of industrial arts of the General Education Board and now executive vice-president of the New York Museum of Science and Industry, acknowledged the modern movement and called for a machine aesthetic independent of that represented by the modern movement in art. He concluded that the new spirit of design was entirely suited to the machine, having emerged as the result of social and economic change. It was an aesthetic that was particularly fitting to those products that had “come into being in the industrial age with no traditions of craftsmanship behind them,” such as the automobile. “We design,” said Richards, “wholly with reference to the machine, and the appearance of these things represents what the machine can most readily, naturally, and effectively produce.” ([194], 60) Catherine Louise Avery, curator at the Metropolitan, commented in the Museum’s bulletin that modern European craftsmen were stressing “functionalist design,” defined as design determined by the process of manufacture and end function. “The results,” Avery wrote, “are often severe and uncompromising, but in their very insistence they gain their point. People numbed by seeing nothing but conventional patterns, used to superfluous and stupid ornamentation, can perhaps be roused from this apathy only by the strong medicine of German and Scandinavian expression.” ([153], 263) Richards wrote: “It is the Germans who carried this idea farthest. With characteristic zeal, they are concentrating upon the effort to produce ‘type forms’ in which both the limitations and capabilities of the machine are recognized and which can be produced with the greatest speed and economy.” ([195], 609)

A year later, the Metropolitan staged the twelfth American industrial art exhibition in the series that had begun in 1917. The show had now broadened its scope to include what some now called the art industries (ceramics, tablewares, textiles, lighting fixtures, and furniture) as well as the “artless” industries (major and minor manufactured appliances). Its primary purpose was stated as intending to trace the effect of the 11th exhibition of 1929, whose interiors and furnishings had been custom-designed by architects. Of course, the practice of designing for manufacture was already well established outside the sphere of influence of museums. Nevertheless, acting in their self-anointed role of preachers of taste, museums had demonstrated their power to canonize an aesthetic movement or a style. Over the years since the exhibitions began, the sacred relics of tradition had been converted to Art Moderne, lost to the purgatory of modernistic, and then elevated to modern, and now R. F. Bach proposed that the new religion of design should be baptized as contemporary. Hence the exhibition was given the new title of Contemporary American Industrial Art. Henry Dreyfuss concurred: “… good modern design does not have to be ‘modernistic’. (‘Modernistic’ is rightly used to describe the odd-looking objects thrown together to look extreme and outlandish, while the word modern or ‘contemporary’ denotes the spirit of today interpreted in good taste.)” ([126], 192)

Still, museums were as reluctant then as they are today to recognize mass-manufactured products on their own terms against their own environments. It was believed that to be evaluated properly such products had to be viewed “without the insistence and limitation of salesroom and counter, without the interference of captious customers, without reliance upon advertising and selling talk.” ([154], 226)

The secular world, however, saw the exhibition in a different light. Business Week magazine found it a sharp contrast to what it called the “gaudy” 1929 exhibit, and welcomed the attention to products “designed by Americans, made by repetitive processes or machines” away from the “exhuberance and easy money” of the past. ([119], 22) And a New York Times editorial recognized that the exhibition held “encouraging promise to those who, while cherishing the past, watch for new combinations of usefulness and beauty.” [190]

Whereas the industrial arts had been promoted in the 1920s as a means of achieving status by way of manufactured luxuries, industrial design was more concerned in the 1930s with making common necessities attractive to the general public. The Great Depression of 1929–1935 may have provided the catalyst Americans needed in order to recognize that there was beauty and à natural elegance to be found in vernacular products. It became evident that domestic appliances and business and industrial machines could be sold if they were endowed with good proportions, fresh colors, and modern detailing. Then in 1932, during the brief period when prices were stabilized under the National Recovery Act, manufacturers recognized that, quality and price being equal, a product’s appearance became paramount in attracting the buying consumer. New models of old products as well as completely new products provided the stimulus that helped the economy turn upward again. In this respect, Norman Bel Geddes may have been uniquely instrumental in stimulating public aspirations for a better future. His book Horizons proposed a future of hope and progress with design as the great liberator, and his bold prophecies in a 1932 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal reflected the optimism and vision of the twentieth-century entrepreneurs. He foresaw a time when, among other things, a new fuel of vastly improved power but infinitesimal bulk would replace gasoline, synthetic materials and curtain walls would dominate buildings, photoelectric cells would open doors, and the garage would move in to face the street and become part of the house. He was convinced that artists would be “thinking in terms of the industrial problems of their age,” and that utilitarian objects would be “as beautiful as what we call today ‘works of art.’” ([140], 3)

The symbol displayed by companies cooperating with the short-lived National Recovery Administration. Author’s collection.

In 1933, with the country still in economic trouble, the Century of Progress Exposition opened in Chicago. It was a neon, krypton, and xenon celebration, with lineal decorative lighting provided when tubes containing these rare gases were energized. For the first time industrial designers were provided with the unique opportunity to meet the challenges of design for the larger man-made environment. Norman Bel Geddes, who had served since 1928 as a consultant on lighting to the Architectural Commission for the Fair, had developed, with his associates, a series of innovative theater and restaurant concepts—including the first proposal for a revolving restaurant perched on a high tower, a feature that has become almost mandatory for high-rise hotels and television towers. Although Bel Geddes’s imaginative suggestions ended up as casualties of the Depression (perhaps because of the architects’ reluctance to accept suggestions from a nonarchitect), they broke dramatic new ground by suggesting that theatrical settings and the real world could be joined in an exciting human experience. For many visitors the Century of Progress Exposition offered a dream world where one could escape the austerity of a troubled time by living for a few hours in the future.

Other designers whose recommendations contributed to the fair included Joseph Urban, who provided a palette of harmonious colors for the buildings; John Vassos, who designed the unique and now classic Perey turnstiles; and Wolfgang Hoffman, Jean Reinecke, Gilbert Rohde, Eugene Schoen, and Walter Dorwin Teague, who served as consultants to several of the exhibitors. Teague’s Rotunda for the Ford Motor Company emerged as one of the hits of the fair and was subsequently rebuilt at the company’s headquarters in Detroit—this time with a Fuller geodesic dome.

The symbol of the Century of Progress Exhibition combined a spinning Earth with the heavy graphics that were considered modern at the time. Official Guide Book to the Fair, 1933.

The Travel and Transport Building at the Century of Progress Exhibition, called “a sensational piece of modernistic fair architecture,” made no effort to hide the circle of cables and steel towers that held up its roof. Its structure echoed Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House patent of 1925. Applied Photography, October 1934.

A number of buildings at the Chicago fair, including this General Motors structure, were in the skyscraper style. However, they were conceived as solid sculpture rather than as functional shells. Applied Photography, October 1934.

Norman Bel Geddes’s dynamic proposal for an “Aerial Restaurant” for the Chicago fair. The entire superstructure, with its three counterbalanced dining areas, was to revolve above the kitchens set in the base. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

This “Island Dance Restaurant” proposed for the Chicago fair was to accommodate 1,500 people on four islands in the center of a lagoon. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

Another Bel Geddes proposal for the Chicago fair: an “Aquarium Restaurant” to be located in the wall of a dam. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

John Vassos’s turnstile for the Perey company, first used at the Chicago fair, became a standard in the industry and is still in use at some airports and other public places. John Vassos.

The faith of the Americans in the future was well served in this difficult time by the Chicago fair’s “House of Tomorrow,” a circular structure (not unlike Fuller’s Dymaxion house) designed by George Fred Keck of Chicago with a steel frame and glass walls around a central column for utilities. The House of Tomorrow had a sun deck, a garage for an automobile, and a hangar for an airplane. Its innovative rooms were displayed “en ensemble” with such a high degree or believability that the public accepted them as the logical and, therefore, inevitable fruit of technology.

Thus American designers began to demonstrate their ability to reach beyond the short-term commitments of manufactures to a position of design leadership that would serve to quicken the pace by which science and technology could be transformed for human service. The American public found hope in the Design Decade (as the 1930s had been aptly named by Architectural Forum) and began to look upon its modern manufactured forms and newly styled appliances for bathrooms, kitchens, and laundries as indispensible to living in the modern world. One observer of the time warned that the imagination of men like Norman Bel Geddes would “cost industry a billion dollars” because such daring ideas threatened to obsolete existing products and factories by stimulating public aspiration for better things. There was excitement in the air as the American Dream gathered momentum again.

The Chicago fair’s “House of Tomorrow.” Chicago Historical Society.

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