America in the 1920s and early 1930s was an increasingly machine-driven culture. American art and design reflected the proliferation and primacy of the machine. Coupled with an influx of European avant-garde styles, the machine challenged design and the period was one of experimentation and invention. Electricity powered machines in the home, automobiles changed the shapes of cities and homes, radio redefined leisure, and telephones closed the distances between people.
The machine was valued for its service. Its aesthetic was promoted by those who saw a beauty in the machine -- a beauty in appearance and function. The machine aesthetic was assumed by all sorts of objects. Shiny metals, molded plastics, and mirrored glass became important decorative devices. The design of cabinets and tea services resembled skyscrapers. Originally housed in enormous wood cabinets, radios became increasingly smaller and packaged in synthetic materials. The look of the machine was not universally celebrated, yet it was widespread nonetheless.
At the onset of the Depression, patronage of the arts, once the realm of the church and the private collector, shifted to business. Industry drove design and the machine aesthetic was pushed into the average citizen's home through a wide range of consumer items. As economic hardship impacted the country, traditional luxury items were unfeasible. Yet, mass-produced replicas of such items were affordable. As the machine aesthetic became more acceptable, such designs became more common. By 1934, as witnessed at Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition, "the emphasis was on consumerism and labor-saving machines. In effect, the debate over modernism -- its existence, its appropriateness for America, and the merits of its aesthetic qualities -- became secondary to the need for economic recovery."1 The popularity of the Machine Art Exposition at the Museum of Modern Art (1934) also reflected the cultural embrace of modernism. It was a modernism derived from Bauhaus functionalism, as opposed to the decorative French moderne style so popular in the preceding years. Functionalism -- the opinion that an object's form and appearance should be determined by its purposes -- was driving American design by the mid-thirties. Modern style was viewed as simple, practical, convenient, and sanitary.
A study of the machine aesthetic may be best served by dividing its development into four stylistic interpretations, as given by architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson:2 Moderne, machine purity, streamline, and biomorphic.
The Moderne Style used the look of the machine ornamentally. It was decorative design, and its machine aesthetic served to conceal the inner workings of the object while calling attention to itself as machine. In a sense, the Moderne was simply a sort of superficial styling, aesthetically emoting the machine yet not necessarily possessing a functional relationship with the object.
In architecture, the Moderne figured most prominently in non-residential buildings, from skyscrapers to movie theaters, advertising "the promise of a machine-made future."3 As the Depression deepened, fewer and fewer buildings of this style were constructed. The Moderne primarily exhibited itself, then, in consumer products and interiors. Of the few homes built in the Moderne style, the decorative exteriors belied floor plans that remained traditional.
The popularity of the Moderne was joined by an interest in primitive designs borrowed from American Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Although certainly not machine-made, these vernacular styles were serviceable for their symmetrical and geometrical forms given in bold colors.
While Moderne homes were dressed as machines, they hardly fulfilled Le Corbusier's intent that a house be "a machine for living in." Such qualification required a convergence of interior and exterior, function and form. Machine purity, as a stylistic interpretation of machine aesthetics, emerged in the United States in the early thirties. Indicative of this style was simplified geometric form. This, in itself, would not particularly separate it from the Moderne. And certainly, there are no solid boundries between the different interpretive schools of machine aesthetics. But where the Moderne used the look of the machine ornamentally, the machine purists attacked any sense of decoration that exceeded functionality. Where the Moderne was exuberant, machine purity was austere. In an architectural sense, it espoused a factory aesthetic.
The most concerted attempt to articulate this style was given in an exhibition on "Modern Architecture" at the Museume of Modern Art in 1932. The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 accompanied the exhibition. Historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock and critic Philip Johnson outlined the principles of the "International" style:
Advances in construction technics and materials allowed for a shift in structural support. Whereas walls were once weight-bearing, and thus massive, support was now given by skeletal infrastuctures. This change provided greater flexibility in window placement; once nothing more than holes cut in a wall, they could now be located virtually anywhere. Thus, proponents of the International style, the architectural equivalent of machine purity, moved windows away from walls' centers, lest they suggest traditional construction.
Armed with these new possibilities, asymmetrical designs were encouraged, as "function in most types of contemporary building is more directly expressed in asymmetrical forms.5 Ideally, structures were not to be arbitrarily asymmetrical, but it was assumed that the needs of residents and the purposes of different spaces in the buildings would not produce symmetrical designs -- in fact, arbitrary asymmetry would be a decorative device, and thus an anathema to the Internationalists.
Machine purity was a reaction against the ornamentation of previous decades and even the Moderns. Honesty in use and materials was sought -- functions should not be concealed beneath a covering, and items shouldn't be presented as something they were not. Simplicity and sterility championed the antiseptic white of the hospital and lab. Stucco was an ideal material, as it provided for unbroken, continuous surfaces. Walls were skins, stripped down and allowing for a maximum of interior space. These interior spaces were to be designed individually, matching the needs of the resident, to "provide for the amelioration and development of the functions of living."6 Rooms were to be determined by function, and the movement between rooms was to "stress the unity and continuity of the whole volume inside a building."7 Book shelves and living plants were the best decorative devices in the home.
Hitchcock and Johnson had some sense of what they were up against in selling their style to an American audience. The Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., anticipated ample resistance from commercially successful architects, "for even more than the great styles of the past it [the International style] requires restraint and discipline, the will to perfect as well as to invent. And this is contrary to the American cult of individualism."8 Hitchcock and Johnson feared imposters simply appropriating the stripped, horizontal, asymmetrical aesthetic without designing according to the dictates of functionalism. Many criticized the style as "divorced from social purpose" and constrained by overly narrow principles.9 As for its application to American housing beyond the occasional venture by a wealthy patron, Hitchcock and Johnson acknowledged, condescendingly, that "in America, local traditions are further complicated by an excessive sentimentality about the 'homes' of the past."10 Like the Moderne, most instances of International style appeared in skyscrapers, factories, or even gas stations, and not in domestic structures.
The result of streamlining was not only the appearance of speed in every kind of item (ironically, often in thoroughly grounded objects, such as homes), but also a diversion from the attention of that item's actual inner workings. Like the Moderne, and opposed to the principles of machine purity, streamlining concealed. When used in houses, it often sought to create a nautical effect, as though the home were an ocean liner replete with pipe railings, white bows, and strip windows.
The biomorphic aesthetic dislocated the machine from primary image to enabler. Designs became sympathetic to the forms of nature and the human body. If the ovoid was the symbol of streamlining, the ameoba was that of biomorphic design. New machine technologies and materials, such as plastics, paved the way for this new stylistic development. As such, the biomorphism was a machine aesthetic for how it was produced, not necessarily how it appeared.
In terms of domestic architecture, the biomorphic label might be tangentially applied to Frank Lloyd Wright, for his arguments for the use of materials in their nearly natural conditions and his insistence on "organic" design. While Lewis Mumford's visual aesthetic was closer to that of the International style, his sympathies for regional ecology and promotion of greenbelt towns also suggested a biomorphic ethic.
1Dianne H. Pilgrim, Dickram Tashjian, and Richard Guy Wilson, The Machine Age in America 1918-1944 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986) 303.
4Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (1932; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995) 36.
9David P. Handlin, American Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985) 206.
12David Gebhard, "The Moderne in the U.S.," Architectural Association Quarterly July 1970: 16.
#1Janet Kardon ed., Craft in the Machine Age, 1920-1945 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995) 219.
#4Martha Candler Cheney and Sheldon Cheney, Art and the Machine: An Account of Industrial Design in 20th-century America (New York: Acanthus Press, 1992) 143.
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