The Designers that Streamlined a Country


For my birthday, Laura took me to the “Modern By Design” exhibit at the Chicago History Museum and I was totally captivated. The exhibit showcases the work of Chicago-based industrial and graphic designers of the 30’s and 40’s, spanning a vast array of categories that included advertising, transportation, architecture, interiors, and industrial and consumer goods. While I was wandering from one iconic piece to the next, a few common themes occurred to me…

The first can be seen before you even enter the exhibit. There is a gallery wall at the threshold that has reproductions of design patent drawings. Looking past the swoopy gadgets and gizmos at the names of the inventors, I was surprised to see more than a few duplicates: Scharfenberg, Iannelli, Loewy, Rockola, Holabird, Root each were responsible for numerous patents. After entering the first exhibit, you can see it was the same story in the graphic designers behind CCA, Wrigley, Chrysler, Sears, and the promotions for the World’s Fair of 1933. The same names kept coming up, even as the work spanned from gum to cardboard boxes; from couches to Cubs tickets.

These pioneers bounced from industry to industry, bringing their brand of “progress” to the kitchens, living rooms and offices of America. Root went from designing commercial buildings to sketch out the world’s fastest electric passenger train, the Zephyr. Loewy went from trains to refrigerators, then again to tractors. Iannelli seemed to be everywhere, working on statues for the World’s Fair, corporate headquarters, decorative adornments for kitchen appliances, and the architecture of churches. Armed only with their talent and shared vision of a progressing future, these designers pushed manufacturing, retail and commercial art into territory that represented an entirely new frontier. What allowed these artists to be so successful in ‘cross-training’? I think it had little to do with technique or skill in the traditional sense (though they had this in abundance) and everything to do with their ability to capture the imaginations and spirit of a people.

The second theme struck me as I was a bit deeper in the exhibit. Observing the Schwinn bicycles and Sunbeam Mixers, the tubular modernist furniture and the Radio Flyer wagons, you can see a portfolio of goods emerge that must have looked dramatically different to anything produced before its time. This new aesthetic of windswept forms, rhythmic banding, and mirrored, sparkling surfaces required (and in many ways brought about) entirely new methods of manufacturing. The process of chroming base metals, extruding and bending tubular forms, and producing durable and colorful enamel coatings added new tools to the kits of designers and allowed them to introduce new aesthetics on a mass-market scale. Additionally, the consumer demand for these ‘modernist’ designs must have come from a rejection for the utilitarian or traditional/ornamental designs of the past. Owning one of these futuristic devices must have said something about the sophistication of its owner, not unlike the tech gadgets of today.

This embrace of new production methods and rejection of the visual past means that streamlining holds a definite place in art history and cannot be separated from its timeline. That theme likely can be upheld for any populist artistic trend - a movement’s content is influenced by its place in history. The country had weathered the Great Depression and was yearning for something to lift them back to the prosperity seen in the 20’s. A recovering economy and the US’ growing prominence on the global stage restored an optimism for a future that held opportunity for the working class. To get us there, visual traits such as speed, lightness and efficiency were celebrated. Utilizing new manufacturing methods, this undercurrent of optimism yielded a family of products that are distinctly unique to a late 1930’s America.

Finally, the last trend can be seen in the degree of respect and autonomy that these celebrated designers commanded. While composing most of their bodies of work in Chicago, these “celebrities” moved around the country, recruited by corporations to build teams, launch brands and reinvigorate stagnant ones. They possessed the rare ability to excite consumers the world over. This I found most uplifting and timeless; that even then, nearly 90 years ago, the design industry had the potential to inspire people and create beautiful works of art.