Friday, October 7, 2011

Scoops & Scallops & Fins Galore - Hi-Tech Streamlined Moderne

American design trends develop, then criss-cross and overlap and fold back upon themselves, mixing memory and desire, nostalgia and ambition, immediate need and preposterous folly.

Contemporary architecture may seem a hodge-podge of competing visions of the future, the past, and a limbo of indecision and blurred vision. Unclear on the concept might be the best characterization of our present-day built environment. It's either an inspiration or a mess, depending upon your viewpoint.

I always wanted to capture images of the cool styles of the earlier decades of the 20th Century with my camera(s). In the late 1980's, after I came back from Japan, I would throw my 4x5 and tripod into my pick-up and drive around looking for interesting subject-matter. This was during the second wave of expansion in the Bay Area: The Dot Com revolution was in full swing, and new office space was going up as fast as they could build it. Corporate taste trended towards post-Modern design, but the basic template was still the International Style, which had dominated American architecture since the late 1940's. In the first phase of the post-Modern, architects began to ransack history for decorative symbologies with which to reinterpret the dull hygienic glass boxes of the 1950's and 1960's. Many of them stole Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne as prototypes with which to disguise the familiar old boxes. The photograph I made below in 1989 is a typical example. Taken with a 4x5 view, with Tri-X (320 iso), I used a red filter to darken the sky and reflective window-glass, to emphasize the sleek polished metal surfaces with their ship-like forms.

Streamlined Moderne was born in the 1930's, and infiltrated all kinds of industrial and household objects. Norman Bel Geddes was its dominant figure. He imagined a whole environment of sinuous structure. Speed and graceful curves, the freedom of movement--it was a romantic vision. Alas, like all ingenious ideas, it eventually looked dated and a little clunky. In the world I grew up in, Streamlined Moderne was everywhere. The cars of the 1950's and 1960's, the jewelry and make-up, furniture design, planes and trains and submarines, the media--everywhere you looked, you saw it.

Its immediate inspiration obviously had been derived from ship and aeroplane shapes, which had come from aero-dynamic, efficient modeling for passage through air and water.

Actually, Streamlined Moderne was an adaptation of Art Deco, the movement which had preceded it. Art Deco had expressed the sweeping, twisting, organic forms of the Arts & Crafts movement in new industrial materials, with an added blockiness, a crystalline bias. Each development in the descent of styles builds upon the shoulders of a predecessor.

Clocks don't behave like jet-planes, but the idea was to incorporate formal elements from power and propulsion and curving movement into otherwise static functional objects.

The edge of a building turning a corner seemed more graceful as a rounded edge than as a hard right-angled conjunction.

A room isn't just a room, but a capsule set into motion by the vectors of its intersections and parallel lines.

Design is always about function, but design may overtake mere utility to become the dominant fact of a space. Our desire to inhabit an imaginary, or visionary world in which certain principles are expressed through shapes or applied surfaces, may seem almost religious at times. In nature, form is inevitably the consequence of efficient or expedient utility--minerals are an expression of forces such as pressure, heat, friction, or slow wearing down. Plants and animals are constructed for specific settings and adaptations. But with our higher brains, humans can conjure imaginary environments and shapes. We can, in effect, become designers in the same way we imagine a higher deity does. There may not have been any ultimate designer of the universe. There may be no ultimate "chair" or "shoe" or "clock." Which is why we think of "creative" endeavor as being open-ended and relative to context.

A secretary entering an office building may not think of the workplace as a spaceship, but the implication of its design my make that concept plausible. In the realm of pure form, a window is a window is a window. The associations of "window" are as various as the ways of expressing it.

No comments: