Walter Dorwin Teague on Exhibit Design

“…[T]oday many exhibitors come to fairs, not actually to sell wares…they see here an opportunity to meet the public face to face, explain the social value of their operations and justify their existence.”

-Walter Dorwin Teague, “Exhibition Technique,” American Architect and Architecture(September 1937)

Throughout the 1930s, Walter Dorwin Teague‘s client list looked like a who’s who of American industry – Ford, DuPont, U.S. Steel, Texaco, and Kodak. Innovative, yet pragmatic, Teague not only sought to create quality products but to also draw meaningful connections between industry and the consuming public.  World’s fairs provided him with the perfect venue for testing out his ideas.

In 1937, Teague was working toward an ambitious array of exhibits for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. That September, his article “Exhibition Technique” appeared in the magazine American Architect and Architecture, in which he outlines lessons learned from exhibits designed for the Chicago, San Diego and Dallas fairs.  Below is excerpted text from the article that illustrates how Teague approached problems of visitor circulation and narrative flow in fair exhibits, and how he refined his approach over time. 

Ford Building, Chicago, 1934

Ford Building, Chicago, 1934. Courtesy The Charles Rand Penney Collection.

“At a Century of Progress the Ford Building was architecturally magnificent. The main exhibit hall was between 500 and 600 feet long and 250 feet wide. Four aisles ran the full length of the hall, which was completely filled with operating exhibits, and the effect on the visitor was tremendous.

Floor plan, Ford Building, Chicago, 1934.

Floor plan, Ford Building, Chicago. From American Architect and Architecture, September 1937.

But it was possible for people to come in at either end of the building and follow any course their fancy dictated in going through the show. Our show was a great success because of its scale and impressiveness, but we felt afterwards that if fell far short of what it should…When people wander at will they see the show incompletely and carry away a more or less fragmentary impression.”

Postcard, Ford Building, San Diego, 1935.

Postcard, Ford Building, San Diego, 1935. National Building Museum purchase.

“When we planned the Ford building for San Diego we profited by our experience and made it our first consideration to control the movement of people. People first came into a spacious rotunda where they received a dramatic impression of the importance of the Ford car in and to the nations of the Pacific.

Ford Building from above, San Diego, 1935.

Ford Building from above, San Diego, 1935. Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library.

From there they were routed to the right around a circular building filled with manufacturing and scientific exhibits, arranged in logical order. They could pause halfway round and come out on the terrace at the back to rest and enjoy the view, or they could stop and refresh themselves in a central patio filled with flowers and fountains. When they continued around the doughnut plan they arrived at their starting point–the front entrance.


Floor plan, Ford Building, San Diego, 1935.

Floor plan, Ford Building, San Diego. From American Architect and Architecture, September 1937.

We have found that curving walls of this kind are of great value in holding the visitor’s interest and leading him on. Usually if he can see half an object around a curve, his curiosity will be piqued to see it all…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. We bore that in mind in laying out our plan.”




Floor plans (planned and actual), Ford Building, Dallas, 1936.

Floor plans (planned and actual), Ford Building, Dallas. From American Architect and Architecture, September 1937.

In Dallas, Teague was forced to adapt his original curvilinear design into a more rectangular form as a result of budget constraints. He was able to maintain the central gardens and patio, similar to what had been done in San Diego (though the patio entrance had to be moved to the end of the hall), but the long straight exhibit hall recalled Chicago’s floor plan more than was originally hoped for.

Despite less than ideal revisions to the Ford Building’s layout, Teague was nonetheless able to implement a more streamlined floor plan in the exhibits he designed for Texaco at the same fair.

Interior, Texaco Building exhibit, Dallas, 1936.

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

Continuous graphics and railings led visitors smoothly from one exhibit area to the next, while a support post and curved ceiling element mimicked the streamlined form of a modern gas station.  According to Teague:

“The Texaco Building at the Texas Centennial in Dallas is an excellent example of planning for dramatic display and controlled traffic flow.”

In terms of why visitor circulation was so important when designing fair exhibits, Teague was very clear:

“A continuous and unified story cannot be told unless you are able to present your story to your public in a logical order…In a World’s Fair exhibit acts of a play are spread out in space rather than in time.”

Model of Ford Building, New York, c. 1939.

Model of Ford Building, New York, c. 1939. From Architectural Record, June 1939.

With the Ford Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Walter Dorwin Teague and architect Albert Kahn incorporated many of the lessons learned at previous fairs to tell a particularly fascinating story — one that included dramatic interior displays and a working roadway attached directly to the building. Here, fairgoers not only flowed within the exhibit, but also out of the building and into a central garden where Ford vehicles stood waiting to carry them into their own story on the “Road of Tomorrow.”

For more discussion about the role of exhibit design at the world’s fairs of the 1930s please check out Laura Burd Schiavo’s essay in this month’s NBM Online here!

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