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Foreword by Arrol Gellner, syndicated columnist of Architext
Streamlining: Function, Form, Fashion
Nowadays we take it for granted that an object's appearance should reflect its function. Yet this is a relatively modern conceit. For the first hundred years following the Industrial Revolution, function and appearance were treated as coexistent yet separate entities. A cookstove's functionality was one thing; its decoration was quite another. Mass-produced products were reflexively embellished with a wide variety of historical motifs having no connection with their purpose. Even a modern object free of historical precedent, such as stationary steam engine, might be decorated with antique motifs, whether Gothic, Renaissance, or Egyptian.
A Last Look Back
In the late nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement arose largely to decry the application of such arbitrary ornament to mass-produced products. Instead, it espoused a more honest decorative vocabulary growing out of the object's construction-an ideal harking back to the medieval craftsmanship of preindustrial times. A piece of wooden furniture, for example, might express its pegged or dovetailed connections rather than having its structure concealed and overlaid with historical motifs. Architecture was likewise expected to make forthright use of natural materials that did not attempt to imitate other finishes. While the Arts and Crafts movement revolutionized domestic design, it had less impact on industrial design. Ultimately, economic forces, not philosophical ones, would shape the aesthetic of manufactured products.
Aesthetics Meets Economics
Steam locomotives were among the earliest industrial objects to dispense with applied decoration. Since the 1840s, locomotive builders had lavished their products with pinstriping, brass appliqués, multicolor paint schemes, and other nonessential embellishments. However, a focus on efficiency and profit soon led the nation's railroads to do away with such frivolity. By the 1880s, locomotives had taken on the dark, drab, yet purposeful appearance they would retain until the early 1930s. Early mass-produced automobiles, too, began moving away from applied decoration by the early teens. While the interiors of custom-built touring cars still owed more to an Edwardian parlor than to any mechanical aesthetic-some examples boasted inlaid wood paneling, brocade upholstery, and flower vases-affordable, mass-produced automobiles necessarily became much more spartan. The trend was epitomized by the stark lines of Ford's Model T, which could famously be had in any color as long as it was black. In lieu of superficial decoration, motorcars gradually became more expressive of their engineering. Functional requirements such as engine placement and passenger space dictated their basic form, from which a new and unprecedented aesthetic began to develop. The larger and more powerful engines offered on costlier makes, for example, were reflected in extended hoods and longer wheelbases-attributes that would come to symbolize automotive power and prestige for the next fifty years. Alas, automotive engineers sometimes proved inadequate to the task of designing beautiful shapes based on technical needs alone, as the many stodgy vehicle designs of the early twenties will testify. Consequently, by the middle of the decade, both Ford and General Motors had organized specialized groups to deal specifically with automotive aesthetics. The 1927 LaSalle was among the first mass-produced efforts of these so-called "stylists."
Inspiration Descends on Wings
Around the same time stylists arrived, the technologically salient aircraft industry began to influence industrial designers. Aircraft forms, their designs aided by wind tunnel tests, had steadily become sleeker and more aerodynamic, and these exciting new shapes would soon influence mass-produced products of all kinds. In 1901, the Wright brothers had constructed the first wind tunnel to evaluate the lift of various wing profiles. It was a modest affair, sixteen inches square by about six feet long, but it laid the groundwork for all subsequent aerodynamic testing. In 1917, aircraft pioneer Glenn Curtiss built a much larger, seven-foot-diameter tunnel in Hempstead, New York. That same year, the first mass-produced all-metal airframe design appeared in the guise of the Junkers J.4; portentously, the German fighter was sheathed in Duralumin, an alloy one-third the weight of steel. While wood-and-canvas aircraft designs would linger for decades, the course of modern aviation had already been set. In 1921, the U.S. government completed the first in a succession of wind tunnels at its airfield in Langley, Virginia. The 1920s and early '30s brought continual refinement in aerodynamics, along with the gradual adoption of modern fundamentals such as the cantilevered monoplane wing and stressed-skin construction. In 1933, the Italian Macchi-72 seaplane broke the aircraft speed record with a 423-mile-per-hour run over Lake Garda, aided by its remarkably sleek fuselage. In the United States, the combination of lightweight, all-metal monoplane designs and increasingly sophisticated aerodynamic testing resulted in breathtaking streamlined aircraft such as the twin-engined Douglas Air Liner and the Lockheed Electra.
A New Industrial Ideal
The fact that such beautiful forms were generated by technical efficiency rather than by some arbitrary aesthetic convinced many industrial designers that streamlining held the key to truly modern forms. By the early 1930s, streamlined aircraft design was already influencing the auto industry. Chrysler Corporation was first to take the streamlining plunge with its Airflow models of 1934, whose unconventional silhouette arose from the discovery that most cars offered less wind resistance when moving backwards. The Airflow's design eschewed the bolt-upright radiator and timidly raked windshield typical of the period, instead emulating the sloping trunk lid and softly-rounded contours found at the rear of most cars. Although the Airflow was probably too radical for the mainstream market-its sales were disappointing-there was no turning back. Within a few years, all American automakers had adopted some form of streamlined styling. In the travel trailer industry, a few hardy pioneers followed suit. The most notable was William Hawley Bowlus, who introduced his ultralight, aircraft-based Road Chief, the forefather of the Airstream and all other "silver palaces," in 1934. That story will follow in chapter one. Meanwhile, American railroads once again strove to outdo each other as they had a century earlier, this time with flashy streamlined locomotives styled by high-profile industrial designers. Among these were Raymond Loewy's sleek GG-1 electric locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad, introduced in 1934, and Henry Dreyfus's bullet-nosed J3 steam locomotives for the New York Central, circa 1937. The arrival of diesel-electric passenger locomotives, whose running gear could be easily concealed beneath shrouding, spurred the streamlining trend. First among these was the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's speed-record-setting Pioneer Zephyr and the Union Pacific's M-10001, both dating from 1934. Since there was little technical gain in locomotive streamlining, such designs enhanced public relations more than they did efficiency. Streamlining had become an emblem of modernity, and by the late 1930s, curvacious housings embossed with a few horizontal "speedlines" to suggest motion were being even less plausibly applied to such products as typewriters, toasters, and mimeograph machines. Even modern architecture briefly flirted with fashionable curves and speedlines in the Art Deco-based variant we now call Streamline Moderne. Ironically, since the effectiveness of a wringer washer or a roasting pan hardly depended on its moving smoothly through the air, this trend was the furthest thing from form expressing function. The erstwhile science of streamlining had been hijacked by fashion to become little more than a novel form of decoration. In 1939, the New York World's Fair presented the streamlining craze at its exuberant apogee. Most every new product displayed, from motorcars to mixers, seemed poised to momentarily become airborne. With the Great War and the depression both blessedly fading memories, this was an age of unbridled optimism in things American. Streamlining epitomized that bold new assurance: it bespoke a nation's running leap into the future.