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The Wall Street Crash in October, 1929 served as the great divide between the 1920s and the 1930s, and between American modernist designs. The distinct moods of the two decades dramatically affected the arts of each.
The '20s were characterized by a blend of two stylistic influences: the exotic materials and voluptuous interiors found in those "tall buildings that scraped the sky," an influence emanating from France's L'Art Déco elite, and the functional geometry of Zigzag Moderne quickly absorbed from such art movements as French Cubism, Dutch de stijl, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism (1) and German Bauhaus. Both strains gave way to the austerity binge of the '30s where sleek finishes, aerodynamic forms, synthetic materials and an infatuation with speed and futuristic elements came to the fore -- the advent of the Streamlined Moderne.
In a period of only twenty years, from 1920 to 1940, this country produced a body of design work remarkable for its collective daring and ingenuity. Ranking among the finest designs produced in the 20th century, they remain relatively unknown, underappreciated, and virtually unacknowledged by art museums (2). Comprised of works from the Norwest collection, this exhibition provides an opportunity to examine a selection of applied and industrial designs created by many of America's (3) most gifted talents (4) during this twenty-year period.
It wasn't until 1925, the year the great Paris L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (from which Art Deco derives its name) opened (5) that the now familiar Art Deco style was formally introduced to the world. The French high style was epitomized in the luxurious furnishings of the artistes-decorateurs who were to have a tremendous influence on American interiors, finding ultimate expression in the extravagant spaces of Radio City Music Hall designed by Donald Deskey. The rich decors of the skyscraper and highrise apartments provided the necessary commissions for America's new breed of designers(6). Paul Frankl developed a complete line of Skyscraper furniture and others such as Norman Bel Geddes produced Skyscraper cocktail sets. Justly so. There was a pervasive air of escape from pre-World War I constraints in what is variously described as the Cocktail Age, the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. At the least, it was the dawn of a new morality. The stock market crash soon put a decisive end to the indulgence.
Realizing their products were more marketable when they differed from similar consumer goods, American manufacturers turned to design as an important solution. The designer's attempt to modernize these products as a means of boosting sales led to the pursuit of a new style, one which evolved from the preceding fashionable Art Deco style of the 1920s and could be applied to industrial products especially. Whereas the skyscraper had inspired an angular, setback style (generally described as Zigzag Moderne) that expressed the 1920's unbridled entrepreneurship, it was unsuited to the sober economic mood that followed the Crash in 1929. An authentic new image was needed to unify industry and to propel it out of economic stagnation. The image that answered this need was the streamlined form. Based on sound aerodynamic principles, it came to symbolize industrial progress. The optimum streamline form became that of the teardrop, or parabolic curve, providing an image of fluid, energy-efficient motion (7).
Little attempt was made to distinguish between functional and non-functional streamlining. Whether moving or stationary, products were cased in sleek, aerodynamic bodies, emblematic of the 1930s obsession with speed and efficiency. At most speeds streamlined styling did not, in fact, save much energy and, in stationary objects, it saved none at all. These were secondary considerations as the style came to represent an embracement of the machine and the hope that it held for the future.
The roots of the Streamlined Moderne lie also in an infautation with science-fiction. Utopian visions were provided by scores of illustrators for magazines, comic books and Hollywood film sets. The serial Buck Rogers began in 1930 and Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon appeared four years later. In H.G. Wells' 1936 film version of Things to Come, montage and photoraphy were combined with state-of-the-art moderne model sets. The futuristic cities painted for Amazing Stories and other "pulps" variously anticipate or reflect the advanced designs of Buckminister Fuller, Walter Dorwin Teague and other piorneering designers of the thirties. Four American expositions, all in the 1930s, also had a significant impact on design awareness. Of the four, Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in l933-34 had the greatest mass appeal and likely did more to advance the cause of design in America. It drew 38 million visitors to the 424-acre parcel of reclaimed land on the edge of Lake Michigan and turned a handsome profit at the depth of the Depression. It is difficult to appreciate the excitement, even euphoria, surrounding such an event, but it provided a welcome relief from unrelenting financial woes with a glimpse into a utopian future.
In retrospect, the designs of the l920s are
best remembered for lavish interiors, angular designs, an emerging machine
aesthetic, an avoidance of both ornament and organic forms, and a cerebral
approach rationalized through mathmatics. In contrast, the new breed
of industrial designers in the l930s were more open to the suggestions
of science and practical technologies, but were less restricted by aethetic
traditions. They must be credited with tempering rational engineering
with the artis's quest for perfected form. In the following decade the
steady evolution of design was interrupted by the second World War which
created an enormous demand for products in which performance was the
crucial requirement. After the war, products reappeared that vaguely
resembled designs of the l930s, but only as a superficial application,
for styling had replaced design. American dominance in design would
gradually yield to the Italians, Swedes and Japanese.
5) The Exposition was to have taken place several years prior to l925, but was delayed by the World War. It's stated purpose was the creation of "an alliance between art and industry." Although the United States did not participate, it became the one country that would take this dictum beyond anyone's dream. (Back)
6) The one personality
who most perfectly summed up Moderne architecture of the '20s and forecast
the streamlining of the next decade was the delineator Hugh Ferriss.
His book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow (1929) portrayed the multideck
city ( a harbinger of the Minneapolis skyway system) similiar both to
earlier Sant' Elia schematics and to the futuristic cities of science
fiction and the comic strip. Ferriss mentions with pride (p.50), that
there were 377 skyscrapers in the United States by early 1929 and 188
of these were in New York.
7) The "teardrop,"
rounded at the front and tapered at the rear, approximates the low resistance
forms of Zeppelins, submarines and other streamlined vehicles. Rolling
down a cheek, a tear does assume that form; a falling drop does not.
The two were confused throughout the l930s.