Posted by Tasha on February 14th, 2011 in Arts and Theatre
“Streamlining is the jazz of the drawing board.” – Edgar Kaufmann Jr.
Yesterday was the opening of American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow, a new traveling exhibit at Philbrook Museum of Art, so I thought I’d go take a peek.
First, a bit about what the heck is Streamlined design: Long story short, it’s that era centered on the ’30s and ’40s that can be characterized by curved forms and clean silhouettes. Translation? Items ranging from cars to roller skates began to take on that signature teardrop shape, looking a lot like torpedos, Zeppelins or, in the case of women’s undergarments, bullets.
These forms, many of which looked ready to self-propel, suggested speed and glamour. They held the promise of progress, economic recovery and the hope of the future as the Great Depression held the world in its grip. While Streamlined design burst into popular culture via aviation and steam trains, soon its hallmarks could be seen everywhere from the office to the playrooms of suburban America.
Back to the exhibit at Philbrook: Presented are nearly 200 objects, from furniture and appliances to graphic design and photo murals, arranged into six themes: Streamlining the Commercial World (i.e., the office and workroom); Streamlining Manual Labor (housework, both indoor and outdoor); Streamlining the Kitchen and Bath; Streamlining Home Decor; Streamlining Recreation; and finally, Streamlining Now, or how this era of design continues to shape our world. American Streamlined Design offers glimpses into the work of such leaders in consumer and industrial design as Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss, and Walter Dorwin Teague, as well as less well-known talents, including Egmont Arens and Robert Heller.
I’ve always been a big fan of Streamlined design. There’s something very romantic and timeless about the pieces of that area, but maybe a little bit vulnerable, too. Though the world seemed breathless under the weight of the Great Depression, and though tensions continued to mount in Europe, technology continued to evolve at a break-neck pace, and its impact on consumer culture grew. I think Americans at that time were grasping for the reassurance and confidence that those technological advancements promised. Any reminder that the future could hold brighter days was welcome, even if it manifested in the design for an aerodynamic toaster, or a table lamp that looked more like a rocket launcher than like a piece of living room furniture.
What most struck me as I made my way through the exhibit were the conversations happening amongst the other museum patrons. “Mother had one just like this,” one man said, pointing to an electric mixer reminiscent of a missile, and another woman said roughly the same thing as she read the plaque on one of the first electric slow roasters, an invention that was a reaction to the changing schedule of the American family as women rushed the workplace. I couldn’t help but smile as several patrons, who I assumed were of the baby boomer generation, relived with each other their childhood memories sparked by these objects from their pasts.
Most everyone visiting on opening day seemed engaged in conversation. To me, that’s the most exciting aspect of this exhibit – that it’s accessible by way of memory and personal experience. As a result, oral histories issue forth in a way that may not have happened without the triggers represented by the objects on display.
So, go see. And if you can, bring a parent or a grandparent along. Not only will their laughs of recognition help you to establish a more meaningful connection with what’s presented in the exhibit, but you might just make some cherished memories of your own in the process.