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The Airplane and Streamlined Design

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To American industrial designers of the 1930s airplanes were not simply machines of transport, but emblems of technological innovation and progress. The National Air and Space Museum’s newly redone Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery includes a unit devoted to “The Airplane and Streamlined Design,” which demonstrates how industrial designers appropriated the imagery of the modern airliner for their products.

streamline

The dynamic look of streamlined aircraft captured the imagination of industrial designers in the 1920s and the 1930s, who translated that look into a new design expression. They borrowed motifs from the airplane’s curvilinear appearance and incorporated them into railroad locomotives, automobiles, architecture, appliances, and household objects.

From the time of George Cayley, a nineteenth-century British aeronautical experimenter who coined the phrase “solid of least resistance,” aircraft designers had searched for a shape that would create the least drag—the resistance to a body’s movement through air. The ultimate result was the Douglas DC-3 (an example of which is on view in the Museum’s America by Air exhibit at the National Mall building), the most advanced in a line of streamlined designs that went back to the Deperdussin Racer of 1913. The DC-3 boasted several important technological advances, but its shiny metallic look, with a pronounced parabolic curve, suggested speed and motion.

In his 1932 book Horizons, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes wrote that “when the design of an object is in keeping with the purpose it serves, it appeals to us as having a distinctive kind of beauty. That is why we are impressed by the stirring beauty of airplanes. The underlying principle of the emotional response that the airplane stirs in us would seem to be the same as that which accounts for the emotional effect of the finest architecture—the form, proportion, and color best suited to that object’s purpose.”

And in 1940 Walter Dorwin Teague spoke directly of the DC-3 as an example of the pleasurable connotations of modern aircraft and cited “the constant ratios of proportion” and “the quality of line which we find most highly developed  … in a Douglas transport plane, where you see the same type of form repeated in the engine and in the fuselage, in the wings and the tail—the same line recurring again and again; that long line with a sharp parabolic curve at the end, which we have come into the habit of calling ‘streamline.’”

Bel Geddes and contemporary designers like Teague, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, and others began to apply the functionality and imagery of aerodynamics to the design of cars, trains, and mass-produced merchandise. These artist/businessmen wanted to take advantage of the DC-3’s streamlined look to create a new design expression as a way to sell products and services during the Great Depression. The unstated message of streamlining was an optimistic one: advanced technology as exemplified by modern streamlined aircraft would help to move the country out of its economic despair.

Streamlined Automobiles

In 1933, the Chrysler Corporation undertook the design of the first truly mass‑produced streamlined automobile, the Chrysler Airflow, under the leadership of Carl Breer. The Airflow had a welded, trussed-box frame construction (designed by Alexander Klemin, head of the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aeronautics at New York University) in which girders and body panels were integrated into a shallow frame, yielding a highly rigid but sturdy structure. The Airflow’s style grew out of hundreds of wind tunnel tests that were completed on models of the automobile by the design team to reduce drag and noise and to improve stability; these features were promoted in advertising as growing out of its functional design.

Streamlined Trains

In 1936, Raymond Loewy and the engineering staff of the Pennsylvania Railroad designed the K4S streamlined shroud for the steam locomotive that pulled the famous Broadway Limited train. In 1938, Loewy collaborated on the design of the S‑1 locomotive, a sleek horizontally lined machine reputed to be the “largest and fastest high‑speed steam engine ever to be placed in service in this country.” Henry Dreyfuss worked for the New York Central Railroad to design the J3A locomotives that hauled the Twentieth Century Limited. These, however, were after-the-fact imitations of the Union Pacific Railroad’s truly innovative M10000 City of Salina (1934) and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad’s Zephyr (1934). Both were powered by diesel-electric locomotives, wind tunnel tested, and, like modern aircraft, designed with monocoque construction (i.e., a hollow structure without internal bracing in which all of most of the stresses are carried by the skin).

Streamlined Consumer Products

By the middle to late 1930s, streamlining was also becoming common in a number of consumer goods. Designers employed the metaphor of streamlining to design refrigerators, radios, electric clocks, and other goods, using such elements as speed lines—three parallel lines in metal to connote motion; rounded corners; teardrop shapes; new materials—polished metal alloys, bakelite, vitriolite, and glass block; and metal stamping and casting processes. (Examples of these, such as the Petipoint Flat Iron, Firestone Air Chief Radio, Kodak Bullet Camera, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, Westinghouse Table Fan, and Sunbeam T9 Toaster, are shown in “The Airplane and Streamlined Design” pictured above.)

The New York World’s Fair

Aquabelles

Modern aircraft played an important part in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, the showplace of the streamline style in American culture. Here, the Aquabelles, a group of swimming performers, and U.S. Army Air Corps officers pose on the wing and streamlined engine nacelle of the Boeing XB-15 long-range bomber.

The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows was the showplace and culmination of the streamline style in American culture. Among the fair’s many streamlined buildings was the General Motors Pavilion, designed by Albert Kahn Associates and Bel Geddes. In the pavilion’s Futurama exhibit, a visitor could board a rubber-tired train and embark on a 15-minute simulated airplane flight westward over a vast futuristic diorama of  the U.S. in 1960. This was a streamlined country of 14-lane superhighways divided into 50-, 75-, and 100-mph traffic lanes with a metropolis dominated by streamlined skyscrapers.

The fair’s utopian prospect of a better future through technological progress did not materialize. The threat of an impending world war hung palpably over the Flushing Meadows fairground, and concerns of world survival had by 1940 begun to take precedence over the promise of a streamlined future.

Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum

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3 thoughts on “The Airplane and Streamlined Design

  1. I attended the World’s Fair as a 4 1/2 year old and don’t remember the girls (or the officers). But I do remember being thrilled with it all. My first aesthetic FUN. Good start for a designer. Airplanes are singular objects. Most other objects need support, they sit on things, they have distracting context. That’s why “streamlining” was always a reach, just a “style,” never convincing. The flying toaster was forever grounded. Airplanes are streamlined for a reason and therefore intuitively real and meaningful. They are entirely themselves, no strings, no extras, isolated beauty free in an invisible medium.

  2. Considering that the first locomotive to be used in the united states was too heavy and awkwardly massive to be practical, the advent of the the streamlined train, and subsequent aerodynamic “obsession” that has propelled our modern rail transport system toward greater efficiency has been a welcomed and very important development.

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