The Shape of Things to Come


TIME: Architecture & Design – December 23, 1985

The Shape of Things to Come

Time and again, frisky American designers go back to the future

Much of 20th century American design seems to have been animated by two competing impulses. One is a kind of mannered childishness, a sometimes arch toymaker’s instinct that produced the streamlined gadgetry of late art deco, the Day-Glo plastics of Pop, the high-tech doodads and joke furniture of today. The other is a reformist urge. When not fashioning playthings, designers turn grave, producing furniture and other objects that are neo- Puritan, high-minded. The severe geometries of Frank Lloyd Wright’s turn- of- the-century interiors and Steven Holl’s beautiful side chair (1984), for example, can have an almost oppressive sobriety. As playfulness alternates with the more austere, missionary vision, the American cultural personality seems like a preacher’s child, frisky and slaphappy on Saturday night, dour and repentant Sunday morning. In the battle for America’s aesthetic soul, it is the Shakers vs. the Rockettes.

Austerity has tended to lose the fight to pizzazz. Shaker furniture makers eventually abandoned pure folk simplicity; Arts and Crafts yeomanry gave way to florid reproductions. Yet by the 1920s, both modes had been supplanted by a new phenomenon: the cult of the machine. Technology cast its spell over the national imagination, and the idea of the future became palpable.

 The American view of the future, of course, had always been exceptionally hopeful. But once that whiz-bang optimism was hitched to a 20th century faith in technology, popular notions of the future became specific and potent, all the more so as fantasy antidotes to the Depression. A gyroplane for every family! Aluminum sidewalks! Houses made entirely of Bakelite! During the late 1920s and early ’30s, a remarkable new aesthetic took hold: for an object to look modern, it had to look as if it had been retrieved from the future. Among a good many designers, sentimental nostalgia for the picture-book past –Gothic, Tudor, American colonial–was supplanted by an equally romantic infatuation with the future, nostalgia in reverse.

 Some of the shapes, materials and images that resulted are currently on display in an exhibition at New York City’s Whitney Museum, “High Styles: Twentieth-Century American Design.” The show, which includes 300 pieces of furniture, craftworks, tableware and household appliances, was assembled by six different curators and seems more the rough outline of a museum exhibit than a finished show. Indeed, in a gallery that is like the vast attic of some anonymous and impossibly trendy old American family–interesting, to be sure, but incoherent–the recurrent evocation of the future is one of the few themes reaffirmed by the eclectic jumble.

 As the new futurist sensibility took hold, mainstream designers showed some transitional ambivalence: a goofy “electric candle” (1929) on view at the Whitney is unsure if it is supposed to look like a rocket or an actual candle or a tiny fluted Doric column. But the black-paneled Atwater Kent radio from the same period has a machine-age spareness that is, like Fred Astaire, both suave and ingenuous. It is an American synthesis that product design has only lately been recapturing, as in Apple’s nubile Macintosh computer.

 For three decades, a kind of time-traveling giddiness suffused design; the leading and trailing edges were marked by the 1939 and 1964 New York world’s fairs. The ’39 fair was the work of the country’s first and last great generation of designer-promoters. The son et lumiere theatrics were unabashed. Raymond Loewy designed an exhibit called “Rocketport of the Future,” and Norman Bel Geddes’ “Futurama,” the most popular exhibit, was a scale model of a perfect, antiseptic cityscape. “Strange? Fantastic? Unbelievable?” asked the Futurama narrator. “Remember–this is the world of 1960!”

 In the 1930s wind-tunnel shapes appeared everywhere. A gorgeous blue- lacquered maple desk (1933) designed by Paul Frankl avoided the cartoony extremes and actually evoked the future accurately; the piece might have been designed last week. Loewy’s pencil sharpener (1934) is delightfully and uselessly aerodynamic, its barrel jutting forward at the angle of a poster- perfect Soviet worker marching into the future. Then there was Buck Rogers as penthouse playboy: Walter Dorwin Teague’s lingerie-sexy blue glass radio (1936) and Ely Jacques Kahn’s spherical aluminum ice bucket (1940), shiny and synthetically red.

 With the grim war-machine realities of World War II, however, American designers’ speculation about the shape of things to come turned away from a boyish faith in gadgets and toward a kind of timeless, spacy mysticism. In the late 1940s streamlining and art-deco angularity were abandoned in favor of more approximate, biomorphic forms from nature–lamps shaped like bubbles, coffee tables shaped like amoebas. Too bad. The slick Radio City elegance had been a bit hokey, but at least each object made obvious sense: hard angles, parallel lines and parabolas are precise, mathematically simple. Except for the work of a very few artists, such as Isamu Noguchi, most biomorphic furniture is like free verse, the lines undisciplined and arbitrary.

 In the 1960s it was back to the future. Indeed, the future was now, and adults were encouraged to behave like children. The two strains of American design thus converged again, spectacularly, and this time the self-conscious sci-fi playfulness had a hysterical go-go edge. Just as children’s toys had become plastic, throwaway items after World War II, grownups’ furniture became overtly disposable. Frank Gehry’s democratic cardboard-and-pressed- fiber chairs (1972) are delightful, but did anyone outside of an Antonioni film ever enjoy sitting on an inflatable plastic couch or wearing a paper dress? American designers today are again devoting themselves to grownup toys intended to make their owners feel science fictional. After a night playing with the food processor, the CD player and the PC, who wouldn’t feel he had seen the future? The playfulness of high-art designers, however, is of a more rarefied kind. Instead of making gadgets, they construct jokes. Sometimes the jokes are academic, such as Michael Graves’ neo-Biedermeier chair (1981) and Robert Venturi’s line of Chippendale, Queen Anne and Empire parodies (1984). Sometimes the jokes are perverse, and the subject is the material itself. Scott Burton has carved chairs from solid granite (1984) and Gehry’s fish-shaped lamp (1983) is made of Formica chips.

 Among the younger designers, jokes tend to be about the future, but a future as it was conceived in a more hopeful past. It is a neat trick. This strain of the new-wave sensibility is an ironic mixture of nostalgia and contempt, simultaneously mock futurist and mock historicist. The allusions are to old television and B movies. At the Whitney, Dakota Jackson’s UFO-shaped Saturn stool (1976) and R.M. Fischer’s enormous, intimidating Max lamp (1983) are like fakey props from 1950s science-fiction films. Burton’s saw-toothed aluminum chair (1980-81) seems to be a throne awaiting a space-age dictator, Dune-style. Bruce Tomb’s wood-and-granite propane cookstove (1983-84) seems at once oddly futuristic and jerry-built–in other words, postnuclear.

 As the 20th century rumbles to an end, American designers’ enduring fascination with Tomorrow has revived. But Tom Swift is dead. This time around, the fashionably conceived future involves a certain cultivated disillusion, a kind of callow, teasing Weimar dread. The thrill is gone.