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STREAMLINED: The Shape of Things to Come

Jeffrey Syken

In 1925, an exhibition was held in Paris: L’Exposition Internationale des Artes Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts). What thereafter came to be known as “Art Deco” emerged from the period between the world wars when rapid industrialization was transforming the western world, embracing traditional craft motifs with “Machine-Age” imagery and materials. It flourished internationally in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s before its popularity waned after WWII. Streamline Moderne (a/k/a “Art Moderne”) evolved from Art Deco as a more accessible style that was influenced by the fast-paced, contemporary life. Adopting an aerodynamic image, it took its cues from motion, speed and transportation infrastructure. The key to Streamline Moderne’s appeal, unlike Art Deco, was the widespread affordability and availability of consumer products that were influenced by the style. It was upbeat and stylish at a time when, due to the economic downturn, positive reinforcement of a brighter future ahead was welcomed by all.

Industrial designers such as Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy recognized the appeal of Streamline Moderne and their designs for everything from refrigerators to washing machines to vacuum cleaners and even pencil sharpeners would reflect the ideal of speed and movement, even if it was just a stationary object. However, there was a more utilitarian use for streamlining that, by the 1920s, was being recognized as a fledgling science: Aerodynamic Streamlining. The first industry to recognize the benefits of aerodynamic streamlining were the railroads. Having to compete first with the car and bus and then with the airplane for customers, the railroads needed a way to make their passenger trains more competitive (despite the fact that the majority of their profit was derived from moving freight, where speed was not an issue). Below about 60 mph, streamlining was irrelevant, but above that speed it was highly relevant, with more horsepower required to overcome the significant air resistance generated. By streamlining, more speed could be obtained with the same and/or less amount of horsepower. Thus, trains like the Burlington Zephyr and the 20th Century Limited celebrated aerodynamic streamline design.

Other industries caught on and made use of wind tunnels to test their designs. Foremost in their use was the aviation industry. It was clear that less drag meant greater speed thus, the teardrop shape of the Zeppelin airship, engine cowlings and fillets at wing/fuselage interfaces all were the result of wind tunnel testing for aerodynamic efficiency. Even ocean liners and passenger ferries got in on the act, with rounded streamline shapes to reduce wind resistance which resulted in greater speed. Perhaps the best example of industrial streamlining was the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow. The quest to streamline automobiles was not a new idea when the first Airflows made their appearance in 1934, but it was the first time a major automobile manufacturer had dedicated significant resources into bringing a scientifically designed streamlined car to market. Not only was the Airflow aerodynamically efficient, its design had better weight distribution, resulting in more interior space and a smoother ride. Alas, the Airflow was ahead of its time and its radical design was too much of a good thing for a public still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. A “successful failure,” it would gain Chrysler Corp. wide praise for the effort and cement the company’s reputation for engineering innovation, then and now.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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