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Posts Tagged ‘Norman Bel Geddes’

Futurama

February 20, 2014 | by

worlds fair

A still from Dave Fleischer’s All’s Fair at the Fair, 1928.

I am writing this from mid-air, having checked in via a code on my phone, and am generally feeling very much like an Art Deco cartoon. The Future is here. It is more like the past and the present than we expected.

There was a day on which two things happened. First, I went to see an exhibition about the 1939 World’s Fair. It featured a life-size replica of Elektro the Smoking Robot, and the famous Futurama Pavilion, and in general the Art Deco marvel that was visionary designer Norman Bel Geddes’s masterpiece was beautifully evoked. (Incidentally, for a thorough account of Geddes’s creative process, check out the terrific Barbara Alexandra Szerlip on his game design and the Chrysler Airflow.)

The exhibit was also attended by a group of young people, maybe undergrads, all of them aggressively and meticulously dressed in vintage finery. There were boys in tweed caps and sport shoes and pressed, high-waisted trousers, and girls with perfect pin curls and matte red lips. The commitment was impressive. Their interest in this particular exhibition seemed natural. I tried to stick close to them, as they added a certain air to the proceedings. But then I heard one boy say, “Wait, who was Herbert Hoover?” Still, they took careful notes on the clothes and the aesthetic, and I was glad they were there.

After the museum I went to get a cup of coffee at a nearby diner. There was a young couple at the next table, this one completely modern in dress. I heard the girl say to the boy, “The thing is, computers are the new slaves. We insult them and yell at them. We treat them like inanimate objects.”

And the boy said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s really interesting.” Which, in its way, was true.

I don’t want you to think I didn’t love all these young people, because I did. The name of the exhibition was “I Have Seen the Future,” and that day, it felt apt.

 

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Too Good to Succeed

July 23, 2013 | by

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Very often you have to be a lone nut to come up with a really original idea.… People are very insular … even [in] a great city like New York … people are like fish swimming around in aquariums and all they know is the water in the aquarium.
—Francis Ford Coppola

In the summer of 1938, when the first issue of Action Comics introduced the world to Superman, its cover featured the Man of Steel lifting a steel-framed Chrysler Airflow, “the first sincere and authentic streamlined car,”1 above his head. It was the 1937 model, down to its rounded, beetle-brow hood and tapered rear, its grooved speed lines and triangular back “opera” window, its whitewall tires and condensed, newly horizontal grille. The following year, when Universal Pictures decided to make a film version of the popular radio serial The Green Hornet, the screenplay called for the hero to drive a car with “ultramodern lines,” something that looked fast. (“That thing travels faster than the bullets I send after it,” notes a patrol officer during a chase scene.) But by then, the Airflow—a vehicle vastly superior in speed, safety, and comfort to anything on America’s roads—had been so maligned in the public’s imagination, thanks in part to a competitor’s expensive smear campaign, that, decades later, it would still be spoken of as the greatest failure in automotive history. Instead, Universal chose a 1937 Ford Lincoln Zephyr. The name was meant to evoke the Burlington Zephyr, a 1934 streamlined train (featured in the 1935 film The Silver Streak). When The Green Hornet returned as a TV series in 1966, the Black Beauty returned as a Chrysler Imperial, modified to fire rockets as the 200-mph Black Beauty, the Green Hornet’s signature transport, its speedster “look” augmented with stylized lightning bolts painted on the fender skirts and a “Flight of the Bumblebee” soundtrack.

Chrysler’s 1929 coupe had been inspired, claimed company ad men, by “the canons of ancient classic art … authentic forms of beauty which have come down the centuries unsurpassed and unchallenged,” its radiator with cowl molding suggested the repetition motif in a Parthenon frieze, its front elevation replicated the Egyptian lotus leaf pattern. “This patient pursuit of beauty will doubtless prove a revelation to those who have probably accepted Chrysler symmetry and charm as fortunate but more or less accidental.” The following year, the new models were said to be “as distinctive and charming” as the Parisian couture of Paquin and Worth. But the focus soon shifted from ancient history and European aesthetics to what was taking shape in the New World’s own backyard. Walter P. Chrysler was a self-made man who understood the importance of tenacity and vision. In 1905, he had borrowed a considerable amount of money to buy a car that caught his eye for the sole purpose of dismantling it to see how it worked. A few years later, he was General Motors’s first vice president, and not long after that, he quit to start a rival company that was now riding high. In 1933, despite a debilitating economy—wages nationwide had dropped sixty percent, more than twelve million Americans were unemployed, and business as a whole was running at a net loss exceeding five billion dollars—Chrysler turned a considerable profit, the only company to produce more cars that year than it had in its Parthenon-Egyptian Lotus phase, just prior to the crash. Read More »

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