A Fair for the Future…?

With only a few days left to see the full Designing Tomorrow exhibition in Washington, Fred A. Bernstein’s proposal on Design Observer for a twenty-first century world’s fair in New York City is wonderfully fitting…and inspiring stuff.

Concept for a floating World's Fair at Governors Island by Chad Oppenheim (Design Observer)

Concept for a floating World's Fair at Governors Island by Chad Oppenheim (Design Observer)

The post comes almost one year to the day after former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put his weight behind an idea for a Silicon Valley World Expo in 2020. The location of the expo still being proposed by the Bay Area Council–Moffett Field in Silicon Valley–may be less dramatic than Governors Island but its proximity to companies like Google and Yahoo could make it more attractive for other reasons.

Bay area leaders want to bring the 2020 World Expo to Silicon Valley's Moffett Field.

Bay area leaders want to bring the 2020 World Expo to Silicon Valley's Moffett Field. (c) Alamy

Whichever way things go – if they go at all – it will certainly be interesting to watch and see if we end up with yet another pair of fairs taking place simultaneously on both coasts.

American Airlines decal advertising the New York and San Francisco World's Fairs, c. 1939

American Airlines decal advertising the New York and San Francisco World's Fairs, c. 1939

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THE WOMEN – “It’s All About Men”…and interior design

Next up in our Hollywood Modern series at the AFI Silver Theater is George Cukor’s 1939 film adaptation of the Clare Booth Luce play The Women (links to clip and trailer).

Poster, THE WOMEN (1939, MGM) - IMDB

Norma Shearer’s husband is having an affair, and her closest friends will do everything they can to make sure she knows it, in this sharp-tongued all-female extravaganza (the husband in question never appears onscreen, nor do any male characters).

The culmination, in many ways, of contemporary interior design of the 1930s, The Women presents a variety of the ‘modernisms’ at play in American design at decade’s end.  With sets designed by Supervising Art Director Cedric Gibbons and Associate Art Director Wade B. Rubottom, and decorated by Edwin B. Willis and Jack D. Moore.  Continue reading

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Design for Living, Take One…and Two

According to sources cited in Phyllis Ross’s excellent book Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living, the Design for Living House (John C. B. Moore, architect; Gilbert Rohde, interiors) built for Chicago’s 1933 A Century of Progress Exposition, was named in honor of Noël Coward’s successful Broadway play by same name by Rohde’s second wife Gladys –who had a “flair for publicity.”  It was a smart choice since the penthouse set seen on-stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theater actually did feature modern furniture by Rohde (purchased at Macy’s, along with Paul Frankl and Howell Co. Chromsteel furnishings, by set designer Gladys Calthrop).

Pamphlet cover, Design for Living House, A Century of Progress, Chicago exposition, 1933. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

While Rohde’s use of the name was fitting for the modern home he helped create for the Chicago fair, Lubitsch’s film adaptation of the play was decidedly less aligned with the style of the original. In regards to the film adaptation (which you can see in our Hollywood Modern series), Coward is commonly cited as having said “I’m told that there are three of my original lines left in the film – such original ones as ‘Pass the mustard’.”  Even so, the film does feature several sophisticated sets, designed by Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté for Paramount.  Continue reading

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Ernst Lubitsch and the Modern Romance

In honor of Valentine’s Day weekend, two offbeat romantic comedies are being shown as part of our “Hollywood Modern” film series at the AFI Silver.  Both films, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933) are classic Ernst Lubitsch fare–witty and sophisticated, but also quite unconventional .  Both films take place abroad, a trick that may have helped make their risqué storylines more palatable to American moviegoers. Both films also benefit from the design mastery of Hans Dreier, Supervising Art Director for Paramount from 1931 to 1950.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932, Paramount)

Continue reading

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Gibbons’ Grand Hotel

Having—finally—finished reading Christina Wilson’s wonderful doctoral dissertation “Cedric Gibbons and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: The Art of Motion Picture Set Design” (University of Virginia, 1998), I’m particularly delighted that the Gibbons’-supervised masterpiece GRAND HOTEL will be first up in our “Hollywood Modern” film series.

As Wilson writes: “As head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Art Department during the 1920s and 1930s, Gibbons received accolades for setting the film industry’s artistic standards through his elegant sets and sophisticated sense of style…His sets gave MGM films the distinctive look that attracted audiences, garnered critical acclaim, and popularized ideas about architecture and interior decoration.”  Continue reading

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Hollywood Modern: Film Design of the 1930s

This Saturday, Designing Tomorrow‘s related film series “Hollywood Modern: Film Design of the 1930s” will begin at the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD. We’re screening ten films (some in association with a great Ginger Rogers’ Centennial series), that highlight some of the best examples of modern architecture and interior design seen on-screen during the Great Depression.

Below is a full list of the films included. For more information (and to buy tickets, if you live in the DC-area!) head over to the AFI/Silver website.

I’ll be posting more detailed film descriptions as well as individual entries for several titles in the days and weeks to come – so please stay tuned!

GRAND HOTEL (1932), Sat. 2/5, 12:45 pm *introduction by Designing Tomorrow co-curator Deborah Sorensen and Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday.

FEMALE (1933), Sun. 2/6, 12:45 pm

THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934), Tue. 2/8, 7:20 pm

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932), Sat. 2/12, 12:45 pm; and Thur. 2/17, 7:30 pm

DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933), Sun. 2/13, 1:00 pm; and Mon. 2/14, 9:20 (happy valentine’s day!)

THE WOMEN (1939), Sat. 2/19, 2:45 pm

A STAR IS BORN (1937), Sat. 2/26, 12:30 pm

SWING TIME (1936), Sat. 2/26, 5:10 pm; Fri. 2/25, 4:45; and Mon. 2/28-Thur. 3/3, 4:45 pm each day

STAR OF MIDNIGHT (1935) double feature with RAFTER ROMANCE (1933), Sun. 2/27, 1:00 pm; andMon. 2/28, 7:00 pm

SHALL WE DANCE (1937), Sat. 3/5, 5:00 pm; and Wed. 3/9, 6:30

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The Legacy of Modern Housing, part two

The Stran-Steel House at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition was unique primarily due to its steel frame.  The Stran-Steel Corporation used sheet steel rolled into studs, joists and plates instead of wood joists and 2x4s in their model home, but other than that, it was constructed much in the same way as a wooden house. 

We can see this type of construction in practice via photographs generously provided by current homeowner Pete D’Acosta during the 1934-35 building of his house in Texas described in our previous post:

Homeowner Margaret Bowen in front of her Stran-Steel House

Homeowner Margaret Bowen in front of her Stran-Steel House under construction. Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

In fact, the makers repeatedly stressed in their brochure handed out at the fair that the Stran-Steel House was “not a radical invention which proposes to revolutionize home life.”  According to the brochure, “Two features distinguish it from other types of metal structural members:
            “First:  It is designed so that carpenters, without any special training, lay it out and erect it on the job just as they build lumber.
            “Second:   Collateral building materials such as shiplap, Celotex, Sheetrock, and Haskelite-Phemaloid lumber are nailed directly to the steel frame just as to wood.”

Stran-Steel House under construction

Stran-Steel House under construction in Wichita Falls, Texas. Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

Stran-Steel House under construction

Stran-Steel House under construction in Wichita Falls, Texas. Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

Stran-Steel Corporation must have suspected that fairgoers would be amazed at modernistic houses like the House of Tomorrow, also on view in Chicago, but that many would not be willing to live in a house that was so unabashedly modern. With a Stran-Steel frame, though, homeowners could design a house in any architectural style.

Of course, they could also make it look exactly the same as the Century of Progress house!  Here are more construction photos:

Construction of Stran-Steel House

Construction of Stran-Steel House in Wichita Falls, Texas. Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

Construction of Stran-Steel House

Construction of Stran-Steel House is almost complete. Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

The finished Stran-Steel House

The finished Stran-Steel House in Wichita Falls, Texas. Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

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The Legacy of Modern Housing

While most of the buildings at all the fairs were designed and constructed to last only one season or two, many fair buildings—especially the model houses—had a lasting impression on fairgoers.  Designing Tomorrow curators have heard of many people who visited the  fairs, toured model houses, and subsequently built replicas to live in—some of which still stand today.  We included two such stories within the exhibition (including “Washington’s 1939 New York World’s Fair Home” and the “House of Steel,” currently being preserved by Connecticut College.)

However, we just heard about another replica in Wichita Falls, Texas—this time, of the Stran-Steel House that was on display at A Century of Progress in Chicago.

Stran-Steel House brochure

Stran-Steel House brochure, page 23. University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.

According to current homeowner Pete D’Acosta:

“A woman named Margaret Bowen (and her husband) saw the Stran-Steel home of the future at the 1933 Fair.  She came home, wrote a letter to Stran-Steel, bought the blue prints for $8.00 $15.00 and set out to build a “colony” of homes in a new neighborhood in Wichita Falls.  Her plan was to build every one of the homes on display at the Fair, but this Stran-Steel home proved so difficult, this was the only home she completed.”

Pete sent us a few photographs of his house as it stands today as an illustration of the legacy of the modern houses that were so memorable at the fairs:

Wichita Falls Stran-Steel House front.

Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

Wichita Falls Stran-Steel House back.

Courtesy Pete D'Acosta.

Thanks for sharing your story, Pete!

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Fair Sites as Cultural Landscapes

Fair Park, Dallas. Photo by Charles Birnbaum, 2000. The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Recently, Designing Tomorrow curators partnered with The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) to provide information on the three still-existing sites where world’s fairs took place in the 1930s.  TCLF has a great program called “What’s Out There,” which is a database of over one thousand entries of “cultural landscapes,” or sites associated with a significant event, activity, person or group of people, and they wanted to add exposition fairgrounds to their collection. 

The three fair sites which still exist in some form include San Diego’s California Pacific International Exposition, or today’s Balboa Park; Dallas’s Texas Centennial Exposition, or today’s Fair Park; and San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition, or today’s Treasure Island.  Each of these fair sites have unique stories of development.

For example, Balboa Park has been constantly evolving since the nineteenth century and has become the largest urban cultural park in the country. Many landscaping features, buildings and murals in Fair Park were restored to reflect how they looked during 1936 exposition season. And Treasure Island was used by the Navy for decades and is practically abandoned right now, although plans are in place to develop a sustainable community on Treasure Island, incorporating the remaining exposition buildings alongside new compact housing, mass transit, and parkland.

Read more about the landscapes of all six fairs in TCLF’s latest article here, and feel free to explore other excellent cultural landscapes in their database to see what’s really out there!

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Hearing from our docents: part 3

Our next final World’s Fairs docent: Kate Meenan-Waugh

If you would like to go on a tour led by one of our excellent docents, here is some information:

  • Schedule: Walk-in tours are available Monday-Friday at 3:15 pm; Saturday 10:45 am and 3:15 pm; and Sunday 11:45 am and 3:15 pm.
  • All tours are subject to docent availability. Please call 202.272.2448 to make sure a docent is available for a scheduled tour.
  • All tours are FREE and reservations are not required for individual or groups fewer than 10. For groups of 10 or more, please see Custom Tours for more information.
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