American Streamlined Design:
The World of Tomorrow

by David A Hanks and Anne Hoy  (Flammarion)

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When people are suffering from depression, psychologists say, it is advisable to keep them away from sharp objects. And so, in the 1930s, when the American nation was collectively suffering from a Great Depression, things with sharp edges were swiftly removed from the home. Everything from desk lamps to electric mixers was suddenly full of arcs and parabolas, and they all looked as if they had been tested in a wind tunnel. The new teardrop shape – the teardrops of the depressed nation’s psyche, if you like – made boxy styles, which had once exuded modernity, look old-fashioned.

This “streamlining” style was first developed for that ultra-modern form of transport, powered flight. Observing that a droplet of water will tend to have a rounded “prow” and a tapering behind, engineers concluded that this shape was the optimum way of lowering wind resistance and thus began moulding their aeroplanes along similar lines. Before long, the same principles were being applied to ocean liners, trains and cars – all of which, it has to be conceded, had a need for speed. But then streamlining began to appear on static objects, too, and what had previously served as functional design features became mere stylistic tics, divested of all practical purpose. This was not necessarily a bad thing. Aesthetically, things were much improved: vacuum cleaners came to resemble the Mallard locomotive, desktop calendars grew tailfins, even toasters and tape dispensers became sleek and bulbous, where previously they had been square – in every sense of the word. And whereas the streamlining had lost its aeronautical purpose (when has a tape dispenser ever needed to lower wind resistance?), that is not to say it was used without reason. Its function was to make these products desirable to consumers – to use an appropriate aviation metaphor, designers were tilting the propeller of the economy in an effort to start it up.

As this book’s subtitle indicates, streamlining was all about optimism for the future. It was made for an America whose vision of tomorrow was shaped by utopian World’s Fairs, a time when buying a sleek hairdryer could make housewives feel like they were Buck Rogers in the 25th century. And the thing about space aces such as Rogers is that their future worlds looked distinctly contemporary: their spaceships had cockpits like Hurricane bombers; their hover cars had radiator grilles like Buicks. Nothing dates like futurity, after all. But in those pre-Hiroshima days of wide-eyed technological idealism, people didn’t just think they knew what the future would look like – they were convinced it had already arrived.

First published in World of Interiors issue 281. Reproduced with permission.