Saturday, December 22, 2012

Design in the Time of Austerity

Or why the world of tomorrow may never be like the future of the past.

English: Detail from the Futurama exhibit at t...
Futurama, 1939 World's Fair. Via: Wikipedia
As we navigate through fiscal cliffs, the storms of climate change, tragic events of the news cycle, and world-ending prophecies, there are signs that this long journey through recession may finally be coming to an end. Yet there is no clear indication that a new age of prosperity is about to begin, at least not by standard definition. Instead, we seem lodged in a holding period of history, an awkward, sober place, where the future just doesn't seem as bright as it used to be.

A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, titled "Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s," amplifies that sense dramatically. It features the design work of Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) who was a brilliant communicator of advanced design ideas. Although few were realized, his treasure of streamlined designs for cars, buses, coaches, ocean liners and flying boats in his book Horizons and Magic Motorways was inspirational. Geddes, along with industrial design pioneers Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague and Henry Dreyfus, were the main designers for the New York World's Fair of 1939, which attempted to predict America of the 1960's. The Fair included pavilions sponsored by the likes of Ford and General Motors, where visitors could see wonderful new systems for the motorist, and pedestrians with their own walkways. Sparky the Robot in the Westinghouse exhibit showed the world what an amazing future lay ahead, despite the fact that a second World War was about to begin.

English: Model of
Teardrop car. Image: Wikipedia
Spawned in part by the availability of electricity to consumers, industrialization, and other advances in technologies and materials such as radio and plastics, the 1930s to 1950s was an exciting time for design. The imaginative spirit of that period has inspired more than just design enthusiasts and museum curators, revivals of the era have surfaced in popular culture numerous times since. Currently we are witnessing a resurgence of 1950's style brought about by the TV show Madmen. Likewise, last year the Post Office commemorated modern design in a forever stamp collection, which Designer In Exile wrote about in our previous article Innovation Nation.

The period also has triggered a budding subculture called Dieselpunk, which wholeheartedly embraces the early modern age through illustration, literature, and film. The website describes their genre as a style that blends art and culture of the 1920's to the 1950's with today. They claim inspiration from an era informed by revolution, jazz, modern art, world wars, detective story imagery, and streamlined technology. Their goal is to "shape a better merging the zeitgeist of the past with today's technology and attitudes." The Internet gives Dieselpunks a virtual time portal to visit their fantasy world, which includes, among other things, a campaign race for mayor of their retro-futurist make believe metropolis, Diesel City.

Building design.
Sant'Elia design. Image: Wikipedia
Beyond style, the dawn of modernity allures us with enduring substance. The 20th Century innovators included those with forward-thinking ideas and visions, such as Antonio Sant'Elia, whose Citta Nuova explored bold dreams of an urban utopia, foreshadowing the rebirth of the city as an engine of economic growth and innovation. And it included revolutionary thinkers such as french architect Le Corbusier, with his commitment to building a new architecture for humanity, which he described as "machines for living."

Yet of all these pioneering masters, architect Buckminster Fuller is probably most relevant to our current circumstance. While most of our past notions of prosperity was defined by production, speed and growth, Fuller realized the need for "synergy" and "ephemeralization", which taught us the virtues of thinking globally and learning to do more with less.

Viewed from that perspective, it seems that the struggle of the present era might also be the solution. If we feel stymied by a world slowed down, perhaps that is OK - a species on a finite sphere can only grow so big and go so fast. We must accept those limitations and learn to love our world, share it, and get along in it.

Seeds of this new thinking were carried from those visionaries of our past and are popping up in architecture, in design, and in business. Emergent think tanks such as the New Economics Institute, an organization rooted in the work of philosopher E.F. Shumacher and partner of the Berkshares local economy effort, espouses the need for human-scale decentralization of economic powers and a restoration of the commons. The magazine Fast Company talks about a birth of "ethonomics," a critical mass of thinkers, from B-Corps to intrapreneurs, who are infiltrating all aspects of the business world with revolutionary ideas of responsibility.

This convergence is not coincidental, it is a natural response to a world out of sync: the need to reset our direction to a place where creativity and good will coexist. That said, if fortune is a measure of spiritual growth and a fresh outlook for humanity, then perhaps prosperity is indeed just around the corner.--D.A. DeMers.

Below is a short clip with description via the archives of Northeast Historic Film at

"Crowds turned out in their best to wander among the futuristic buildings and showrooms of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. This beautifully-shot home movie shows the architecture of Theme Center, General Motors and other buildings, in Corona Park, Queens. The filmmaker worked as a Rockefeller Center tour guide in New York in the 30s."

The 1939 New York World’s Fair from Northeast Historic Film on Vimeo.


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