Streamlined Design: Modernity in America
Streamlining was a style that dominated American design from the 1930s to the 1950s. Streamlining grew out of the Art Deco style, but it was simplified and infused with a sense of dynamism that gave it huge commercial appeal. In fact, Streamlining has been described as ‘Art Deco on the move.’ Streamlining fuelled the consumer revolution of the 1950s and became the visual language of American modernity. The style was as much about economics as aesthetics. The industrial design profession emerged at this time and used streamline design to serve American corporate capitalism.
Streamlining is the shaping of an object to reduce the amount of resistance it encounters when it travels through a medium like air or water. It occurs in nature: aquatic animals like dolphins are naturally adapted to travel quickly through water. This is a diagram illustrating the principle of streamlining. It was drawn by the American industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes and published in his book Horizons (1932). The teardrop shape is the optimum form for reducing air resistance because it allows air to slip over it. This inspired engineers to produce airplanes and cars that were sleek in form and kept air resistance to a minimum.
The Chrysler Corporation was a pioneer in the design of aerodynamic cars. The first commercially-produced streamlined car was the Chrysler 'Airflow' (1934), so named because it was designed with this prototypical streamlined form, allowing air to pass over it. The form was a key selling point. The Chrysler Airflow was designed by Carl Breer, who was an engineer rather than a designer. So streamlining was initially functional – it made a moving object more efficient.
However, some designers recognised that the aerodynamic form was appealing in its own right; it had connotations of speed and power. The commercial value of this new imagery was enormous. Streamlining became a decorative style in its own right. In their book Art and the Machine, Sheldon and Martha Chaney wrote:
Streamlining . . . As an aesthetic style mark, and a symbol of twentieth-century machine-age speed, precision, and efficiency, it has been borrowed from the airplane and made to compel the eye anew, with the same flash-and-gleam beauty re-embodied in all travel and transportation machines intended for fast-going.
Sheldon and Martha Chaney, Art and the Machine (1936)
Streamlining was applied to virtually all forms of design, even static pieces. Electrical products began to display the same progressive imagery found in aeroplanes and cars. This is an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, designed by the Lurelle Guild (1937). This is an inanimate object, but it still adopts the kinetic style with chrome trim and speed-lines. The piece is made from aluminium and chrome-plated steel, which presents it as a piece of precision engineering. This type of streamlining has no functional purpose; it’s being used purely as a decorative style.
One of the key industrial designers of the period was Walter Dorwin Teague, who wrote:
[Streamlining is applied to] things which will never move [and need not be] adapted to the flow of air currents; [it is] simply because of the dynamic quality of this line which occurs in streamline forms, and it is characteristic of our age – this line that starts with a parabolic curve and ends in a long backward sweep.
Walter Dorwin Teague, Architectural Forum (1940).
In the 1930s, streamlining became the epitome of modernity for the American populace, and for the new profession of industrial design. Consumer products looked up-to-date with clean and simplified silhouettes, sculptural casings and gleaming industrial materials. The style was typified by speed lines, repeated horizontal bands suggesting that the object is streaking through space. Streamlining helped to sell new consumer goods, especially electrical products. This is a Zephyr digital clock by Kem Weber (1934). It has a sweeping S curve running around two faces. It’s made from brass and bronze.
In streamlined products, the form rarely follows function. Instead, the form obscures the function. Smooth cowlings and curved moulded housings hid the complex working parts. Streamlining covered up all the cogs and gears, and presented an image of sleekness and cleanliness. So you could say that streamlined styling romanticised technology, it helped to make it glamorous and user-friendly.
Modernist designers criticised streamlining for not fulfilling the principle of truth-to-materials. However, the form was actually well-adapted to the new materials of the period. Plastics such as Bakelite, Plexiglass, vinyl and polystyrene were invented. They could be poured or injected into moulds, and the rounded corners of streamlining were perfectly adapted to this production process.
Streamlined furniture was produced by designers like Kem Weber. Weber was a German designer who had worked for the Modernist designer Bruno Paul. In 1914 Paul sent Weber to America to design the American section of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. When the First World War broke out, Weber was stuck in America and remained there the rest of his career.
This is Weber’s Airline Armchair (1934-5). It has dynamic lines and a bold cantilevered form, which suggests that it’s hovering in space.
This was executed in wood; a more modernistic design was the Lounge chair by Weber in chrome-plated steel (1934). This is reminiscent of the tubular steel furniture of Marcel Breuer, but the legs have the classic teardrop shape.
Streamlining began as a practical attempt to make aerodynamic cars and planes, but the dynamic imagery was quickly used as a decorative style suggesting modernity and progress. It gave a huge boost to the emerging industrial design profession because it could be applied to almost any product to make it more desirable. Streamlining was the catalyst for the rise of mass consumption, and the consumer culture that we’re still immersed in.