Art Deco? Streamlined? Call them what you will, these Chicago design gems still dazzle, a new show and book reveal

Radios, toasters, toy wagons, trains, buses, telephones, microphones, bicycles, tea sets, kitchen tables, even baby buggies and Wrigley Field’s iconic scoreboard clock all had something in common from the 1930s to the ’50s.

They were streamlined, with aerodynamic shapes, rounded corners and smoothly flowing, often parallel, lines that conveyed an image of up-to-the-minute modernity.

Opening Saturday, an engaging new exhibition at the Chicago History Museum, “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America,” sheds new light on this untold, underappreciated and, in essential respects, unresolved story of Chicago’s design past.

The broad outlines go like this: Through Chicago’s manufacturing might, its genius for distribution and its bold strokes in product, interior and graphic design, the city played a central role in bringing the streamlined style to every nook and cranny of the nation.

Tractor

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

A Farmall tractor is featured in the exhibit “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” at the Chicago History Museum.

A Farmall tractor is featured in the exhibit “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” at the Chicago History Museum. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

Bright red McCormick-Deering Farmall tractors were streamlined, as were gleaming silver Sunbeam toasters. Chicago’s mail-order giants, Sears and Montgomery Ward, sent the products everywhere, enabled by the fact that the city was a railroad hub.

A design trend that began with the ephemeral buildings of the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair became an enduring part of the American scene — a broadly popular style that won acceptance among the masses in a way that the abstract, avant-garde forms of Germany’s Bauhaus never did.

Except it’s more complicated than that.

Today, 84 years after the fair, it’s still hard to pin down the precise characteristics of the streamlined style. Does tubular steel furniture, with its cool curving lines and absence of applied decoration, belong? The exhibition says yes. But as the exhibition’s wall text reveals, a noted furniture designer, Austrian emigre Wolfgang Hoffmann, rejected the streamlining label, saying it had “nothing to do with the clean cut architecture of either a tubular steel chair or table.”

Even more profound disagreement surrounds the term “art deco,” which is the subject of the beautifully illustrated book that accompanies the show, “Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern America.”

The nearly 400-page volume has a broader scope than the show, starting in the 1910s rather than the ’30s and taking in a wider range of subjects, among them Chicago’s extraordinary gamut of art deco architecture and the supposedly streamlined Hostess Twinkies that once were turned out in northwest suburban Schiller Park.

Yet reflecting scholarly disagreements, the book attempts no definition of art deco. Instead, it offers the broad but useless observation that art deco was modern without being avant-garde. It then makes the questionable argument that art deco won wide acceptance in a way that steel-and-glass modernism never did.

The enduring acclaim for such modernist buildings as the former John Hancock Center suggests, however, that the architecture of the post-World War II era was not the elitist enterprise the book makes it out to be.

The public is well-advised to leave such arguments to the academics and to take in the visual pleasures of the show and the book, which are considerable.

The show, organized by Olivia Mahoney, senior curator at the museum, has about 280 objects arranged in five sections. The wall text is admirably clear, if a little too schoolbookish. The exhibition design, by the museum’s Dan Oliver, is not going to knock anybody’s socks off, but it effectively uses colors and curves to evoke streamlining’s optimistic sensibility.

The first section ably conveys the ideas and impact of the 1933-’34 Chicago World’s Fair, whose title, “A Century of Progress International Exposition,” referred to the 100th anniversary of Chicago’s incorporation. Staged during the depths of the Depression, the fair attracted 40 million people with its celebration of the wonders of technology and its colorful, clean-lined buildings, which represented a sharp departure from the neoclassical grandeur of the 1893 “White City” Chicago World’s Fair.

Zephyr

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

A mock-up of the Burlington Zephyr train is displayed in the exhibit “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” at the Chicago History Museum.

A mock-up of the Burlington Zephyr train is displayed in the exhibit “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” at the Chicago History Museum. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

The famous Burlington Zephyr train, represented in the show by a large-scale model (the real thing is at the Museum of Science and Industry), sets the tone.

The train’s streamlined, stainless steel body and chic interior was a sensation. It helped spur American manufacturers to make streamlined versions of just about everything. Among them: the red “Streak-O-Lite” toy wagon, which featured a white picture of the Zephyr on its sides, hubcaps on its wheels and headlights. (It was made by the same company that turned out the plainer but more popular Radio Flyer wagon.)

Even the ads that sold such products were streamlined.

Commercial artist Otis Shepard’s Wrigley chewing gum ads, one of which showed a streamlined train alongside a pack of Spearmint gum, made the ordinary product look glamorously modern. Shepard also designed Wrigley Field’s elegant scoreboard clock, a clean-lined field of green with circular white dots (no numerals). He’s one of many little-known designers who get their due here. Others include Michael McArdle, president of the Chicago Flexible Shaft Co., later known as Sunbeam.

Tea sets

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Tea sets are on display in the exhibit “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” at the Chicago History Museum. A floral example is at left and a streamlined version is at right.

Tea sets are on display in the exhibit “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” at the Chicago History Museum. A floral example is at left and a streamlined version is at right. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

One of the exhibition’s effective side-by-side comparisons displays a cira-1900 Limoges tea set, all floral and frilly, alongside McArdle’s streamlined chrome-plated metal coffee service of 1934. One says “past,” the other says “future” and “buy me.” This sophisticated approach reached its apex in Sunbeam’s Automatic T-9 Toaster of 1939, a burst of curving chrome designed by George Scharfenberg, with sunburst motif by Alfonso Iannelli.

Streamlining, it turns out, was more effective at infiltrating the kitchen than the living room, where Americans still preferred traditional Colonial Revival furniture. It also worked its way into entertainment, where it helped to sell jukeboxes, radios and microphones, like the Shure Brothers Co.’s Unidyne microphone used by Billie Holiday. The style even lived on after World War II, most notably in the curvy cross bar of the Schwinn Phantom bicycle and in the stalking Black Panther ceramics of the 1950s.

But nothing lasts forever in the worlds of fashion and product design. By the late 1950s, the angular lines of Space Age Modern had shoved streamlining aside.

Yet as the art deco book vividly demonstrates, streamlining is still with us. So is art deco, which some experts distinguish from streamlining, citing the style’s zig-zag, geometric forms and greater reliance on applied ornament. Both, the book argues, belong under the same banner.

The book’s greatest strengths are its breadth, depth and sheer visual elegance.

After an introduction by the book’s editor, Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and five scholarly essays, the reader is treated to an extraordinary array of 101 art deco designs, each illustrated and accompanied by a smart descriptive text.

Even if you, like me, disagree with some of selections — Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens, a South Side pleasure ground built in 1914, anticipated art deco but had too much Prairie style influence to be a genuine example of the style — the overall sweep is powerful, showing how art deco and streamlining continue to shape our world, both in the city and suburbs.

Their impact is present in such beloved Chicago skyscrapers as the Palmolive and Chicago Board of Trade buildings; in stylish overpasses of Lake Shore Drive; and in such suburban landmarks as the Lake Theatre in Oak Park, the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, the old Marshall Field’s store in Evanston and Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights.

And that impact extends beyond Chicago. As the book persuasively argues, the city’s art deco skyscrapers—particularly the trim, vertical look of Eliel Saarinen’s second-place design in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922 — influenced skylines around the nation.

In Chicago and elsewhere, the transformation of art deco from the fringe, campy status to which it was once assigned to today’s exalted level of popularity did not occur by accident. Activists like Chicago-born Barbara Capitman, who championed the revival of art deco buildings in Miami Beach’s now-fashionable South Beach, and the Chicago Art Deco Society, which published this book, have kept the flame alive.

Those activists, and the public, now have reason to celebrate — even if scholars still can’t agree on exactly what art deco is.

“Modern By Design: Chicago Streamlines America” appears at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., through Dec. 1, 2019. Admission to the exhibition is included with regular museum admission. “Art Deco Chicacgo: Designing Modern America” is distributed by Yale University Press.

Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.

bkamin@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @BlairKamin

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