A Century of Progress International Exposition

The Streamlined World’s Fair Chicago 1933-34

With Mussolini occupied far away in Italy and the name of “Adolf Hitler” just a mention in a newspaper article, one was able to come to the Chicago world’s fair in 1933 and dream of a future without Depression or War. These were the last few years of innocence and hope, marred by the international trauma of the Depression that had was wiping out so thoroughly an old way of life. The theme of the “A Century of Progress” fair was the, like all world’s fairs, an indicator of the state of society at that particular moment and a predictor of things to come. Taking place in Chicago, there was a provincial unsophisticated fair-like atmosphere, a famous striptease dancer, Sally Rand, with her fans, and truly ugly racism, so common to the 1930s, but there were glimpses into the new products that would design the world of tomorrow. Of course, one could ask the question, why, in the midst of the shock of the Depression, anyone would have either the time or the money, much less the inclination to go to a fair? First, the Century of Progress was a hopeful title, referring to Chicago itself, but also suggesting that the “progress” would continue. Second, world’s fairs, where ever they were located–London, Paris, New York or Chicago–often produced roadmaps that suggested a direction for the audience. In a year when unemployment was up to 25%, industrial production down by 50%,  and since “Black Friday,” October 24, 1929, investment had plummeted 98%, a serious divertissement was in order.

The scar, the trauma left by the Depression on the national psyche was profound. Part of the collapse of the economy was due to the lack of means of consumers to purchase and to keep up with the high rate of production. In order to protect the American workers, the government had installed international tariffs which only raised prices and shrunk the money supply. The trigger was the stock market, which had become a gambling den full of frenzied customers buying stocks on “the margin,” on credit. A “margin call,” or a demand for full payment caused a crash as the house of cards tumbled, crushing the Americans and spreading out to Europeans. Perhaps because Ground Zero for the Depression was Wall Street, American suffered most of the consequences and lasted the longest. But there were other coincidental factors: a human-made ecological disaster resulting in a Dust Bowl in the Midwest. Farmers abandoned their lands and headed West for California, where there were rumors of good agricultural land and good jobs lying ahead in the Promised Land. Today with the social safety nets gradually put in place under the New Deal it is hard to imagine that Americans were without homes, food, or clothing, and left to their own devices to save themselves. The memory of being hungry and without food etched itself upon the soul of American and it would take a sustained campaign on the part of government and businesses to convince the people to spend money after the Second World War. But, that said, the 1930s was an unexpected oasis in consumer spending on the new products that began to be debuted at the world’s fair in Chicago.

The appearance of these new products can be traced back to the Parisian phenomenon of Art Deco, an explosion of creativity in design that actually humbled the Americans who declined to participate in the events of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. But the impact of this new geometric style had an impact across the Atlantic that would be manifested first in architecture in buildings such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, completed in the early 1930s. While the designers in Paris considered Art Deco to be an extension of Cubist geometry, observers in America saw a different opportunity–consumer goods. As Carroll M. Gantz pointed out in his discussion of the history of industrial design, “The organization of professional designers can be traced to the beginning of the profession itself, which first came to the attention of the general US public in 1927. That year, Macy’s in New York held a well-attended Exposition of Art in Trade. This featured “modern products,” many of them from the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, which was belatedly recognized by the US government as an important ‘modern movement.’ Immediate public and manufacturer demand for these new ‘Art Deco’ styles was so obvious, and the need so great, that a number of design professionals (often architects, package designers or stage designers) focused their creative efforts for the first time on mass-produced products. They claimed the new title of “industrial designer” which had originated in the US Patent Office in 1913 as a synonym for the then-current term ‘art in industry.’ Immediately, some of these professionals founded the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (AUDAC) to protect their industrial, decorative and applied arts concepts from piracy, and to exhibit their new work. AUDAC attracted a broad range of artists, designers, architects, commercial organizations, industrial firms, and manufacturers. Within a few years, it had more than a hundred members, and held major exhibitions in 1930 and 1931.” He reported that furniture designers followed suit and the idea of “industrial design” carved out a niche for designers who crafted objects from the large–locomotives, to the small–automatic mixers. However, the new industrial designers did not follow the precepts of Art Deco–the luxurious objects destined for an exclusive clientele. In order to indicate a new and broader audience, middle-class America, the name Art Deco was changed to Art Moderne.

Clay model for the 1932 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe

GM pavilion at the “Century of Progress” Chicago Worlds Fair (1933)

The extra “e” tacked onto an English word was a signifier that this “moderne” was a derivative of the original concept and unattached with the French post-war tradition of continuing the modernism of Cubism and its descendants. William Kowalik’s article, “Streamline Moderne Design in Consumer Culture and Transportation Infrastructure: Design for the Twentieth Century,” explained the difference from Art Deco and its American counterpart, Streamline Design: “Streamline Moderne, also referred to as Art Moderne evolved from Art Deco as a more accessible style that was influenced by that present moment, the fast-paced, contemporary life, taking cues from motion, speed, and transportation infrastructure—adopting an aerodynamic image. Key to Streamline Moderne over Art Deco was the widespread availability of items and products meant for everyday use by a far-reaching group of Americans. Defining elements of the Streamline Moderne style as marketed to consumers are efficiency to fit into the fast-paced lives of the users, not so different from marketing today. The clean, rounded lines exude elegant simplicity and ease of use for the modern household.” In other words, the sophistication of Art Deco in Paris and other European nations was simplified and applied, not to objects of desire, but to objects of usefulness. The importance of the appropriation of Art Deco by American industrial designers, as the new artists called themselves, was that suddenly a very high style was extended to new areas of everyday life, suddenly succeeding in bringing good design into the home at affordable prices.

Wiener Werkstätte Tea Set

This dream of good design in every home and been sought after and articulated from the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements in England, the Wiener Werkstätte collective in Vienna, the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen) in Germany, and finally, after the Great War, at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Before the Great War, these attempts to educate the public on the importance of quality of production and artistry and craft combined in superb design resulted in luxury objects, affordable only by the elite. Even the Bauhaus was too marginalized and too beset by hostile forces to succeed in making its more industrial products available to a large audience. Art Deco with its intimations of luxury merely contained the avant-garde tradition of design as art. But industrial design in America was in a different time and a different place. By dint of having large industrial resources, underutilized as they were during the Depression, America was better positioned to mass manufacture good design than its European counterparts. Germany was crippled by the Depression and the Bauhaus was snuffed out by the rising stars of the Nazi party. In addition to shifting good design to the arena of mass consumption, industrial design applied Streamline Moderne to objects that anyone could afford and that everyone used. Although it is seldom mentioned, the Streamline style succeeded after eighty years of efforts following the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 to reform design. Affordable, available and stunning to behold, Streamline Design was an American phenomenon that attempted to cajole the public to buy new and stylish products during the Great Depression. As Kowalik noted, “The accessibility, and perhaps mundane nature of Streamline Moderne is what makes it interesting because the extraordinarily significant nature of what this style accomplished as far as advancing design forward, while remaining so ubiquitous and ordinary. Architecture, furniture, decorative objects, automobiles and vehicles, and household appliances and fixtures all designed in the Streamline Moderne style held a prominent place in 1930s and 1940s American households. For the first time, a larger body of the American population was exposed to and maybe able to afford “good” design that was not only aesthetically considered, but also new tools for a new century through time-saving products and transformative inventions, but also novelties of and for consumer fascination.”

Margaret Bourke -White. Coiled Rods 

For those who visited the Fair in Chicago, this event was an opportunity to witness the introduction of the Machine Aesthetic, an appreciation of the machine and its clean and purpose-filled lines and functions. This Machine Aesthetic, closely allied with its stylish cousin, Streamlined design, announced that the old world where good design was a privilege of the upper classes was over and that good design belonged or could belong to everyone. The Machine Aesthetic is best manifested in the fascination of modern photographers of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and America in photographic studies of modern machinery and of the industrial landscape. Albert Renger-Patszch, wandering through the recovering terrain of Weimar Germany which was rebuilding after the Great War, found unexpected “beauty” in factory operations and industrial buildings. Margaret Bourke-White turned her camera on bridges and investigated the inner workings of factories, seeing, as did Renger-Patszch new abstract shapes and patterns that took on a new and independent life as an image. This artistic appreciation for the Machine Aesthetic was linked to the love of speed and dynamism, a page out of Futurism. The late Futurists delighted in the new developments in any object that went fast, from cars and especially to airplanes, and they invented an entirely new genre of painting “aeropitturaor paintings sited in the cockpit of an airplane. “Aeordynamics” was the word that ruled the 1930s, creating the look of speed for automobiles and trains and ships–all modes transportation. The resulting “tear-drop” shape of an oval stretched out by flight became the leitmotif of anything that moved, from vacuum cleaners to irons that speed over damp clothes. Any object that moved through the air needed to be a shape that resisted drag and the smooth arc or a long attenuated circle seemed to best suited to allow the flow of air to “stream” over with little friction.

Buckminster Fuller. Dymaxion Car (1933)

One of the most important industrial designers, Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), introduced his Dymaxion Car,  was designed on July 12, 1933, to the public at the Century of Progress at Chicago. One of the underlying themes of the fair was the connection between science fiction and inventions of the present. The Dymaxion Car was indeed futuristic, shaped like a long sausage or a grounded zeppelin, and measured twenty feet long. All those elongated feet and the entirety of the aerodynamic design was propelled forward at a speed of ninety miles an hour, while the car balanced on three wheels. A few months after the fair, a test driver was killed and the investors for the car of the future fled the inventor. Then the same car that had rolled over in the fatal crash burned to its bones and tires, collapsing in a mass of hot metal. Only three Dymaxion Cars were ever built: one ended its days in a junkyard, and the last survivor can be seen in Reno, Nevada at the National Automobile Museum. The wonderful and deadly car, which so puzzled the fairgoers was part of a completely realized new world, Dymaxion World, which included the Dymaxion House, invented in 1927. As seen in previous posts, if there is anything people feel strongly about is the traditional family home. The round aluminum house was suspended from a mast and housed a family of five. As authors, Will Fu, Justyna Maleszyk, and Isabel Ochoa, writing for the website for the House recounted, “Buckminster Fuller’s first versions of the Dymaxion House were five-person family homes, with hexagonal floor plans and a central supporting mast. The mast was anchored to the ground by its base and offered the option of having an elevator installed within its frame.  Although the living quarters of these homes only occupied one floor, they were raised off the ground by one story.” The radical design was as alien as the matching car but much safer. The article continued, “Altogether, the home weighed around 6000 pounds or 3 tons, and provided 1600 square feet of liveable floor space. All the versions produced between this time were constructed of durable materials – mainly aluminum. Fuller favoured aluminum for its natural qualities, recyclability, and lack of maintenance or painting. And even though the material had a high energy cost, it lasted indefinitely, outweighing this minimal drawback.  The houses were designed so that each of their components was light enough to be carried by one man, ensuring comfortable and easy assembly, as well as transportation.”  Some of these innovation homes would be built after the Second World War when there was a housing shortage, but other developers in vast tracts were able to quickly erect traditional Cape Cod styled homes using traditional materials such as cozy wood. If the public was cool towards the housing of the future, there was a more favorable reception towards one of the largest aerodynamic modes of transportation, the locomotive, also debuted at the Century of Progress. This new design will be discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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