Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s

October 2, 2010–September 5, 2011

Great Lakes Exposition Guidebook, Cleveland, 1936. Collection of the National Building Museum.
Great Lakes Exposition Guidebook, Cleveland, 1936. Collection of the National Building Museum.

Between 1933 and 1940 tens of millions of Americans visited world’s fairs in cities across the nation. Designing Tomorrow explores the modernist spectacles of architecture and design they witnessed—visions of a brighter future during the worst economic crisis the U.S. had known. The fairs popularized modern design for the American public and promoted the idea of science and consumerism as salvation from the Great Depression.

Participating architects, eager for new projects at a time when few new buildings were being financed, populated the fairgrounds with an eclectic modern architecture. Pavilions housed innovative and dynamic exhibitions that paid tribute to factory production, technology, and speed. Exhibits forecasted the houses and cities of tomorrow and presented streamlined trains, modern furnishings, television, and talking robots.

A first-of-its-kind exhibition, Designing Tomorrow features nearly 200 never-before-assembled artifacts including building models, architectural remnants, drawings, paintings, prints, furniture, an original RCA TRK-12 television, Elektro the Moto-Man robot, and period film footage. The artifacts are drawn from the featured expositions:

  • Chicago, Illinois: A Century of Progress International Exposition (1933–34)
  • San Diego, California: California Pacific International Exposition (1935–36)
  • Dallas, Texas: Texas Centennial Exposition (1936)
  • Cleveland, Ohio: Great Lakes Exposition (1936–37)
  • San Francisco, California: Golden Gate International Exposition (1939–40)
  • New York, New York: New York World’s Fair (1939–40)


Designing Tomorrow traveled to two other institutions for display:

  • Museum of the City of New York: December 5, 2012–March 31, 2013
  • The Henry Ford Foundation (Dearborn, Michigan): April 27, 2013–September 2, 2013



National Endowment for the Humanities logoThis exhibition was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom.


Additional funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts





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