Events | Life

Optimism shines through in Henry Ford exhibit of World's Fairs of the 1930s

By Michael Hodges / The Detroit News

Has there ever been a more seductive view of the future? The 1930s might have been a time of global depression, but that didn’t stop the design industry in its optimistic rush toward that more abundant life just around the corner.

This glittering vision, in all its elegance and magnificent kitsch, will debut Saturday at The Henry Ford with “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s.” The show, originally curated by the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., runs through Sept. 2.

“Designing Tomorrow” covers six world’s fairs in the ’30s — the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, San Diego’s 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas and Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition in 1936, and in 1939, the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and the New York World’s Fair.

At least viewed through the lens of the world’s fairs, it was an era of great confidence and can-do spirit. Nothing epitomized that better than the fairs’ dominant architectural theme, Streamline Moderne — a late version of Art Deco that followed industry in stripping away ornament in favor of curved lines and the aerodynamics associated with great passenger liners such as the S.S. Normandie.

But as Donna Braden, The Henry Ford’s curator of public life, notes, there was more behind streamlining in the 1930s than just catchy design.

“Streamlining came to equal progress,” she says on a walk-through of the exhibit. “Nothing could stand in your way. Everything was focused on speeding toward a bright future.”

It’s a field Braden knows well, having organized a show on streamline design for the museum in the 1980s. Indeed, she notes that the fairs promoted science and nifty consumerism — Streamlined toasters! — as a sure route out of the economic doldrums. In some respects, you could say the world’s fairs of this era were all about getting people to spend.

“The bottom line was that life may be lousy now, but the future is rosy,” Braden says. “With streamlining, designers promised people would buy their way out of the Depression.”

The late ’20s and ’30s were undeniably a gold mine of inspired design, whether we’re talking Frank Lloyd Wright, German’s Bauhaus or the skyscraper districts that had taken over New York and Chicago. “Designing Tomorrow” pays appropriate and respectful attention to a handful of these visionaries, including French-born industrial designer Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss. The latter designed New York Central Railroad’s most-celebrated luxury train, the Art Deco 20th Century Limited.

“Designing Tomorrow” is organized by topic, from “Building a Better Tomorrow” to “Electricity at Work.” (Those lucky enough to be in Dallas for its fair were doubtless thrilled by the “GE Talking Kitchen.” Who wouldn’t be?)

The National Building Museum show includes two panels on Ford Motor Co. and its presence at the fairs. Happily, The Henry Ford has expanded on this by reaching deep into its own archives to create six tall glass cabinets, arranged in a graceful streamlined curve, that go into much greater detail on Ford’s role.

Interestingly, corporate patriarch Henry Ford didn’t think the Chicago fair in 1933 was worth spending money on — until he saw how many people were jamming into the General Motors pavilion. That’s when Detroit architect Albert Kahn got a call asking him to throw up a Ford pavilion in a jiffy. The Art Deco result was the fair’s Ford Rotunda, built for the second half of the fair. The Rotunda was later moved to Dearborn, where a massive fire destroyed it in 1962.

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

April 26-Sept. 2, 2013

9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. every day

The Henry Ford

20900 Oakwood, Dearborn

Tickets $17 adults, $15 seniors, $12.50 youth (5-12). Members enter free.

(313) 982-6001

Other art around town

The College for Creative Studies will open its fourth annual “Alumni Art Exhibition” with a Friday evening reception at the Valade Family Gallery (313-664-7400) at the CCS Taubman Center. Also Friday evening, Wayne State’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery (313-993-7813) will premiere “Hypertension,” a four-person multimedia show on the blurring of artistic disciplines. In Ferndale through May 11, Paul Kotula Projects presents “Setting the Table,” featuring yet more odd-and-intriguing soft sculpture by Iris Eichenberg and Stacy Jo Scott.