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Nautical Roots of America’s Iconic Style

Streamlining in design refers to a style applied to manufactured objects in the 1930s and 40s. Designers and manufacturers were eager to increase depression-era sales by harnessing the era’s enthusiasm for speed. Rounded forms, shiny chromed surfaces, low, horizontal shapes enhanced by parallel lines were used to suggest speed and infuse static objects like toasters, cameras, and even butter dishes, with a sense of modernity and movement.

A style that dominated American design from the 1930s to the 1950s, streamlining grew out of the Art Deco style, but it was simplified and infused with a sense of dynamism that gave it huge commercial appeal. In fact, Streamlining has been described as ‘Art Deco on the move.’ Streamlining fueled the consumer revolution of the 1950s and became the visual language of American modernity.

Streamlined objects make obvious references to speeding trains and airplanes, but the origin of all advances in speed, and the creation of the shapes that allowed them, came from boats. The scientific study of wind and water resistance was developed for naval architecture and perfected there before migrating to aeronautics and automobile design. Fast car and airplane engines were developed and tested by marine engineers. Ideas and technologies advanced through boating quickly migrated to all other forms of transportation, allowing them to mature and eventually eclipse boats as our main method of fast transportation.

This Waterwitch engine was designed in 1936, made in 1938 by the Kissel Industry Company in Hartford, WI, sold by Sears Roebuck Co. It is a gasoline outboard engine, Waterwitch model MB, 2 stroke, 2 cylinder. Rope start engine with “twin-pod” fuel tanks. Photo: Joe Michael/Mystic Seaport Museum

Mystic Seaport Museum explores the maritime origins of streamlined design and its journey from naval architecture and engineering into our everyday vocabulary in a new exhibition, Streamlined: From Hull to Home, which will open June 15, 2019.

“There have been scores of museum exhibitions about Streamlining as a design style and they have all made the connection from the visual references to speed in things like radios and desk fans to airplanes, which were the best evidence of 1930s advances in speed,” says exhibition curator Matthew Bird, who teaches design and design history at Rhode Island School of Design. “But all have ignored the true origins of streamlining, which was being investigated and perfected in boat design long before it migrated to other forms of travel. Early passenger airplanes were called ‘flying boats’ for a reason; aeronautic engineers used hull designs, pontoons, and construction methods that were perfected by naval engineers. This exhibition shows the progression from boat to airplane to toaster, and tells the complete story in a way that hasn’t happened before.”

This exhibition features objects, photographs, print advertisements, and video content that illustrate the progression of streamlining from shipyard to modern day office lingo. Eight boats from the Museum’s collection demonstrate how streamlining developed as a marine practice. A highlight is the 1904 Elco auto launch Panhard I, a 31-foot motorboat whose round, pod-like hull form defies its age and provides a clear vison of the modern shapes to come. Multiple photographs from the Museum’s Rosenfeld Collection celebrate the early development of speedboats, and elaborate the advances in hull design that allowed dramatic increases in speed. Boat models and movies help explain how speedboats worked, and why the world became so excited about them. Thirty outboard motors illustrate the arrival of stylistic streamlining and its development into today’s everyday manufacturing, which can be seen through a collection of familiar manufactured objects that show the development of streamlining as a design and manufacturing practice.

As an aesthetic style mark, and a symbol of twentieth-century machine-age speed, precision, and efficiency, it has been borrowed from boats and made to compel the eye anew, with the same flash-and-gleam beauty re-embodied in all travel and transportation machines intended for fast-going.

Mystic Seaport Museum tells this story with a fresh perspective that is made possible by utilizing its vast maritime collections. The result is an engaging and visually exciting exhibition that will appeal to both design enthusiasts and the layperson.

For more information, please visit www.mysticseaport.org

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