The eclectic modernism of the fairs

Designing Tomorrow co-curator Laura Schiavo has said that the exhibition contains a lot of information, but at its heart it really answers a few big questions: What did the “modern” world’s fair of the 1930s look like?   How was modernism associated with a brighter tomorrow in the midst of the Great Depression?  What was the role of the American corporation in depicting that brighter tomorrow and the place of industrial capitalism in it?  And what was the design legacy of the fairs?

To me, that first question is almost the most important, because so little of the fairs still exist.  The only way to imagine what the fairs looked like is to view the historic photographs and film footage that the fairs left behind.  And the picture one gets from viewing this record is that there is not one single modern style shared at all the fairs, or even within one.

The curatorial team likes to explain that the modernism of the fairs was not made up of just one “-ism,” but many “-isms”.  The “look” was extremely eclectic—some fair structures closely resembled the International Style becoming popular in Europe, others looked very traditional but were made with modern materials and construction practices, and still more looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

To capture this eclecticism, we have created a slideshow of images currently on view in the exhibition.  If you come to the exhibition, you will see that it is a very visual show—filled with panel after panel of photography.  We chose to include so many for the very reason I mentioned above: to answer the question, “What did the ‘modern’ world’s fairs of the 1930s look like?”  Our visitors would be unable to comprehend the extent of the eclecticism of the modern architecture and design at the fairs if we did not show them every facet of that “look”.  And here in this slideshow, you can look more closely at some of the amazing views that are our only lasting record of the extravaganzas that were the 1930s fairs.

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