The Line of Least Resistance

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By Laura Burd Schiavo

In many ways Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s was an exhibition about exhibiting. The designers and architects whose work is explored in the Museum were engaged in a decade-long project whose legacies are with us today. That project revolved around the question and its often successful resolution of how, in the midst of the Great Depression, to assure the American public of the certainty of a brighter tomorrow. In part, their answer was to present an image of industry and industrial production that was visionary not only in the future it foretold characterized by the proliferation of affordable, available, commercial products and services, but also in the design strategies deployed to turn ideas and concepts into visitor experiences.

Fig 1. “Drama of Transportation” exhibit in the Ford Building Rotunda, Chicago, 1934. Photo provided courtesy of Albert Kahn Family of Companie.

Anticipating world’s fairs being planned for New York and San Francisco in 1939, industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague—a member of the New York World’s Fair Board of Design and one of the most prolific designers of exhibits for the US world’s fairs of the 1930s—described the benefit of a fervent decade of world’s fair activity, including six fairs taking place across the country between 1933 and 1940: “Heretofore world’s fairs have been spaced so far apart that each has been planned out of a vacuum…But we have had a series of fairs in the past five years; we have been able to observe the reactions of the public, the effect of exhibits on the spectators and the degree of interest they aroused. Teague’s quote suggests the fruitfulness of the moment. Although there was no coordination from fair to fair on the organizational level, from Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-34 through the fairs in San Francisco and New York at decade’s end, designers experimented with design strategies and borrowed liberally from past successes. In some cases they reused or replicated exhibits from one exposition to another. The result was an extravaganza of exhibition design.

Beginning with the first world’s fair, London’s Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, expositions had been intended to incite consumer desire. In pavilions dedicated to the display of goods, exhibits showcased row upon row of clocks, glassware, and, as industrial production heated up, pyramids of ketchup bottles and other mass-produced goods, as well as the machines themselves that made them possible. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, displays had become more sophisticated, advancing from showcasing products to demonstrating production. At the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, Henry Ford brought the impulse to a head when he installed an assembly line that churned out as many as 25 Model-T’s a day. The world’s fairs of the 1930s continued the engagement with exhibiting the processes of manufacture. Across the fairgrounds, visitors could witness the production of cars, the bottling of mayonnaise, and the manufacture of tires. But the fairs of the 1930s transformed the modes, methods, and even the mission of exhibits yet again as part of an increasingly sophisticated public relations strategy adapted by U.S. corporations. These businesses hired industrial designers including Teague, Raymond Loewy, Gilbert Rohde, Henry Dreyfuss, and Norman Bel Geddes to help them put their best—and most modern—foot forward. In the face of a broad distrust of mass production and the Depression’s challenge to capitalism, industry stakeholders sought to convince the public about the trustworthiness of the corporation and the benevolent future that industrial capitalism promised. World’s fairs became a prime venue for designers to experiment with how design innovation could visually and viscerally dramatize that promise. These designers advised against creating magnified sales booths at the expositions. Rather, they sought to provide innovative and engaging exhibits that shared a vision of the future, a sense of the power and promise of industry and an image of the place of consumers in that world. Selling the big idea was more valuable than selling goods. And as the technologies of production became more complicated, they forswore the goal of technical “consumer education.” Fairgoers were meant to be wowed as much as educated. Designers worked under the assumption that the elimination of “technical details not familiar to the public,” in the words of Teague, would lead to accessible—and effective—exhibits. Lenox Lohr, general manager of the Chicago fair, sought exhibits “with the accent on showmanship.” In many cases, “educational” exhibits outshone the amusement zone attractions.

Fig 2. “Basic Elements” display, Chicago, 1934. Photo provided courtesy of Albert Kahn Family of Companies.

Dioramas of cities with functioning electricity, working models of industrial plants, cows milked by machine—all these greeted visitors to the world’s fairs. Larger-than-life photo murals and three-dimensional materials contributed to the modern styling of fair displays. Teague’s design for Ford in Chicago included the largest photo murals yet created—a series of images of Ford’s widely publicized River Rouge plant which delivered a romanticized tableau of efficient factory production with simplified forms and abstracted details (figure 1). Dioramas, which had appeared at earlier expositions, were now often animated and used to promote commercial products on a grand scale. Century of Progress General Manager Lenox Lohr noted that “people like to see wheels go ‘round….’ There is motion or the suggestion of movement—progress—in all exhibits.” A domed structure also featured in the Ford Building at the Chicago fair, and reused in Cleveland, dramatically imparted Henry Ford’s message about the relationship between the natural world and industry. Graphic arrows linked the components of the Ford V-8 with their respective “basic elements,” each represented by a diorama. The horizontal lines on the base of the structure and the railings and the rounded form imply an allegedly frictionless relationship between natural resources and industrial production. Displays like this disseminated easy-to-understand visual messages about the relationship of natural resources to manufactured goods, placed those goods in context, and helped visitors perceive themselves as active participants in the world of consumption (figure 2).

Fig 3. DuPont science demonstration, San Francisco, 1939. Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library.

Demonstrations of science and machine production—inspired by the in-house research laboratories established by many corporations after the First World War—made everything from the chemistry of plastics to the canning of foods and manufacture of tires comprehensible, familiar, and exciting. Representatives from DuPont demonstrated chemical processes and put science on exhibit to reveal how chemistry could be put in the service of the American consumer. Signage on the stage makes the case for the application of chemistry to the production of everyday materials from pest control chemicals to refrigerants (figure 3).

Fig 4. Floor plan, Texaco Building, Dallas, 1936. From American Architect and Architecture, September 1937.

In many cases designs were influenced by the aesthetics of streamlining, a style particularly suited to presenting production and consumption as a seamless process, devoid of interruption or friction. An attention to “flow lines” was meant to facilitate fairgoers’ progress through exhibitions. In Teague’s estimation, “People must flow in an exhibit. Audiences follow the line of least resistance just as water does, and it is much easier to take them around a slow curve than to make them turn an abrupt corner.” The environmental design, which included circular forms and pathways, sweeping railways, revolving installation elements, ramps, and moving sidewalks, not only kept visitors moving and interested but also contributed to a sense of smoothness and ease. Teague called the plan for the Texaco building in Dallas “an excellent example of planning for dramatic display and controlled traffic flow.” (figures 4 and 5)

Fig 5. Interior, Texaco Building exhibit, Dallas, 1936. Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

The ultimate in the design of continuous, controlled, immersive visitor experiences were encounters with the speed and efficiency of the new automobiles. Ford sponsored driving experiences in San Diego, Dallas and New York. At the “Road of Tomorrow” at the New York World’s Fair, visitors test drove cars along a spiral ramp built into the pavilion. In New York, fairgoers queued in long lines winding around the streamlined General Motors building to experience the Futurama exhibit designed by Norman Bel Geddes. Once inside, they circled down a ramp along which were displayed maps projecting the expanded need for highways in the coming decades. After arriving at a 35,000-square-foot diorama of the landscape of the future, visitors sat in 552 “soundchairs” on a moving conveyor and listened to a recorded narration explaining that growth and productivity would require an expanded and improved highway system. Their vision focused by side blinders, they peered down on the model in which speedy cars smoothly merged from access road to speedway. After viewing a downtown intersection in the model, visitors stepped out of the pavilion into a life-size version of that very same space. They had, quite literally, entered the “world of tomorrow.”

This essay is based in part on “Modern Design Goes Public” in Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s, published by Yale University Press in association with the National Building Museum, and is published here with permission.