During the 1930s, Americans were fascinated with the movement of machines. Thanks to a previous period of robust technological advances, there were plenty of machines to admire—ocean liners and speedboats, gleaming new single-wing aircraft, curvaceous roadsters, and sleek passenger trains. Howard Hughes was setting new records in the air, while transportation grew faster by the day. The country was enamored of speed, which was dependent upon aerodynamics, which in turn called for streamlining. The concept of aerodynamics was a real-world engineering principle, but designers in various fields quickly noticed that streamlining also had tremendous aesthetic appeal. Architects, interior designers, and manufacturers of household and consumer goods decided to go with the flow. By the 1940s, the entire country was being streamlined.
American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow is a marvelous exhibit at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts that examines and celebrates this design phenomenon. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hosted the exhibited last year, and this is the most comprehensive survey ever mounted on this style. 186 objects have been selected and organized by the Liliane and David M. Stewart program for Modern Design in Montreal. The collection is on display in Montgomery through Sunday, February 24.
It’s tempting to regard streamlined design as a descendant of Art Deco and European styles, but as art historians continue to distinguish between movements and styles of the decorative arts of the early 20th century, it becomes clear that streamlining is largely identified with American design. It’s also tempting to view streamlined design as form following function. An aerodynamic airplane sounds almost tautological, and if the famed 20th Century Limited locomotive of the New York Central rail system was going to make Chicago in record time, it had better be streamlined (or so went the logic). However, function is not a component in the countless other manifestations of the streamline craze. Radios, blenders, typewriters, tape dispensers, desks, chairs, lunch counters, office spaces, and entire buildings don’t really need to slice through water and air.
Therein lies the aesthetic glory of the streamlined design era: the triumph of the inspirational over the practical. The received wisdom is that Americans found in aerodynamic, sleek forms an affirmation of the industrial and commercial advances that would rescue the country from the Great Depression. Technology had been romanticized through line and form, and the “flow” of streamlining would take us at top speed straight into the “World of Tomorrow,” (a theme that predominated the 1939 New York World’s Fair). Besides, if the Chrysler Airflow, the Auburn Roadster, or the Douglas DC-3 looked like it was moving when standing still, then objects that never move might similarly benefit from a sleek form. As designer Walter Dorwin Teague summarized in 1939, “It is characteristic of our age—this line that starts with a parabolic curve and ends in a long backward sweep.”
That line was everywhere then, lending the impression that everything was modern because everything was moving. Fiesta Ware pitchers, Electrolux Vacuum cleaners, Victor adding machines, and Juice-King juicers were absurdly—and beautifully—aerodynamic. Manufacturers of pipes, typewriters, and radios each had a “Streamliner” brand of products. In some cases one could justifiably wonder why home and office furniture were not equipped with small engines. Even spaces were streamlined; the curved lobby of New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank seemed well on its way out the door; winds coursing over the useless wings of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Hollywood created minimum turbulence. In short, the world’s leading industrial power wasn’t actually ready for takeoff, it was just designed that way. &
During a trip to Paris a while ago, I found my way to the hidden streets and alleys where entire city blocks consisted of little shops that specialized in . . . well, that was the thing; you couldn’t quite say what their niche was, but they were clearly going after a very narrow wedge of the market. My first impression was that such sharply focused stores—with such small inventories—could not possibly stay in business for long. Then I found myself returning each day to two or more of those shops, inevitably finding some irresistible item that I didn’t know I needed.
I had those shops in mind when I entered Charm, a new store on Second Avenue North that carries an eclectic assortment of decorative objects, vintage and handmade jewelry, vintage fashion accessories, and a number of cool little things that defy categorization. Like those Parisian merchants, Charm’s owner, Chatham Hellmers, probably can’t tell you in one word exactly what she sells, but what she sells is exactly the kind of thing that lovers of little shops love to shop for.
In this old downtown building, with its incredibly high ceilings and weathered concrete floor, a few tall, vintage display cases line a fern-green panel wall. Circling the room at near ceiling level is a kind of giant charm bracelet (acrylic panels on which Hellmers has cleverly painted huge, shiny black charms, linked by a big chain). At the center of the room hangs a massive black amethyst chandelier, dripping with ornamentation that, on closer inspection, lends a deep crimson glow when it reflects light from a row of halogen lights on the rear wall. There’s a slight hint of the Vampires’ Ball in some of this, reinforced by an impressive selection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco accessories. Onyx jewelry draped over pink coral, enclosed in jumbo apothecary jars, is a nice touch, as are those opaline earrings held aloft by a preying mantis.
The vaguely gothic vibe here, however, is mostly Charles Addams, with only the slightest nod to Edward Gorey (who would have happily killed a small child for one of those giant charms). It’s all easily balanced by plenty of scarves or handbags that bring a 1960s flash or a 1970s funk to the occasion. In turn, a three-tiered dessert dish loaded with Charms Blow-Pops (free to all) brings the inevitable pun to this aptly named shop.
Handmade price tags and witty descriptions on each item offer considerable insight into the proprietor’s personality: “Nauseatingly cute vintage owl plate; $10.” “This book is for display, but if you really want it it’s $6.” “Capacino, oops, how do you spell that?” The inventory also reveals that Hellmers has an eye for the vintage find; I’ll be very surprised if the Playboy Club ashtrays (circa mid-1960s, orange glass with black bunny) are still there when I return.
Obviously, this entire enterprise is a labor of fun, which Hellmers (who previously owned the Southside boutique Jinx) insists is a joint effort with her boyfriend and local artist Walton Creel. The couple is having a fine time following an old merchants’ rule: sell customers an experience, and they will gladly purchase your merchandise as a keepsake. &