When Style and Design Agreed
Updated: Feb 4
Working from home during the Pandemic allows more time to reflect. And my mind has drifted back to early childhood experiences that inadvertently led to a life-long interest in design. This includes a fascination with automobiles which began as a small boy walking through the New Hampshire woods with my father, where we came across the rusting hulk of a Model A Ford—a relic of a more romantic time. Indoors, my mother and I watched old black and white movies; I was influenced by those images of film sets, clothing and cars and would draw them. Now, working as an advertising designer and creative director, I often look beyond my field—to cinema, the built environment, and fine art—for inspiration when sketching ideas for campaigns.
Zeitgeist sums up the spirit of an era, including the applied arts. I think that more than once there was a time when architecture, industrial design, fashion, and related fields intersected to express an identifiable ethos—a year when the synchronicity evident in cinema occurred across discrete design disciplines. While acknowledging that there were other countervailing directions in design, to this idiosyncratic observer it all came together in 1961 with a style we can call Classical Modernism. A clean, unadorned look inspired by antiquity; the following American designs highlight that aesthetic consensus:
1. The Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, designed by Edward Durrell Stone (1961).
2. Ford Motor Company’s 1961 Lincoln Continental luxury car, designed by Elwood Engel.
3. The gown worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1961 Presidential Inaugural Gala, designed by her personal couturier Oleg Cassini.
CLASSIC AND MODERN
Edward Durrell Stone designed several distinguished peripteral buildings (surrounded on four sides by colonnades), seemingly pared-down versions of Greek temples. Flat roofs reference modernist International Style structures, but also the Parthenon in its ruined, roofless state. And the marble aggregate cladding of Stone’s buildings recalls their ancient forbearers. This connection to classical design is evident in the architect’s colonnaded Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, dedicated in 1961. Yet the triangular undulations of its walls and hexagonal skylights also distinguish it as a modern temple for the arts.
As lead-times from concept to completion are longer in architecture than other design fields, some of Stone’s earlier and later buildings may be considered episodes in a 1961-ish series. In June 1959, he was selected as the architect of what was eventually named the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, though the building officially opened eleven years later. Between 1958 and 1971, Stone realized classical allusions expressing a slender lightness, a style he called New Formalism: the rectilinear Stuart Building in Pasadena (c. 1958), the related American Embassy in New Delhi (c. 1959), and the Kennedy Center all feature golden pencil-like columns sharpened at both ends. New Formalism is a variation on a theme, an architectural impulse representative of a broader cultural movement—Classical Modernism. There is a sense of optimism in this architecture compared with the fortress-like American Embassy in Baghdad (completed in 2009). The airy mid-Century embassy in New Delhi was commissioned by a confident country still flush from its victory over fascism. It is a metaphor for transparent democracy and social justice—an ideal the nation has never fully realized at home. The reckoning over civil rights denied to BIPOC would come later.
The headline in a print ad proclaimed the “classic beauty” of the new 1961 Lincoln Continental; the body copy described the vehicle as “a new concept in sculptured steel.” Designed by Elwood Engel, the slab sides of this long, low luxury car recall the rectilinear horizontality of Stone’s museum in Puerto Rico. From a frontal view the car’s planar surfaces become delicate blades, akin to Stone’s slender columns. The mesh-pattern of its wide grille is reminiscent of the screen block expanses set back behind colonnades at Stone’s New Delhi and Pasadena projects.
Indeed, its white convertible iteration owned by Jacqueline Kennedy is a stunning departure from the curvaceous, ostentatious tail-finned Cadillacs of the preceding decade. Its midnight blue fraternal twin provides an even starker contrast—the infamous open-topped limousine that carried President Kennedy to a tragic end in Dallas.
FASHION FORWARD FROCK
On a happier occasion thirty-four months earlier, the First Lady personified a look both classical and modern. Her personal couturier, Oleg Cassini, created the satin silk gown she wore to the 1961 Inaugural Gala. It was named by London’s Design Museum among “50 Dresses That Changed The World.” So different from the curve-enhancing frocks of the 1950s, the wardrobe Cassini designed for Mrs. Kennedy has been described as “architecturally clean.” The champagne colored silk of the inaugural gown is akin to Stone’s beige travertine expanses. The straight lines of the gown, gently flared at the hip, is analogous to the Lincoln Continental’s rectilinearity. The car is similarly interrupted by a slight rise in its beltline just ahead of the rear wheel cutout. Cassini’s clothing manifests a formal elegance filtered through mid-Century modern allure, a through-line connecting fashion, cars, and buildings.
CONSENSUS AND CROSS-POLLINATION
Whether conscious or unconscious, it appears that Stone, Cassini, and Elwood were responding to the spirit of their time. Did they influence each other? Research didn’t yield evidence to support that notion, other than a kind of six degrees of separation. But all three designers were within the Kennedy nexus. Stone had been recommended to President Kennedy by his staunch political ally, Senator J. William Fulbright (a childhood chum of the architect). Cassini, known as the Secretary of Style, and Mrs. Kennedy, the First Lady of Fashion, were close collaborators. And Engel had presented his Lincoln Continental ideas to Robert McNamara, President of Ford Motor Company, who left his post in Detroit to become Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy Administration.
As a young immigrant family, we were inspired by the new president and his young family. Perhaps the Kennedys brought diverse design disciplines together through the sheer power of their taste and personalities. It helped that Mrs. Kennedy had an avid interest in design. She spearheaded the interior refurbishment of the White House and had also asked famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to redesign the livery of Air Force One. Loewy’s response was a modern, linear blue and gold color scheme with classical Caslon typography spelling out UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. President Trump intends to replace the iconic design and its “Jackie Kennedy color”.
Apparently optimistic leadership inspired a cultural consensus, which was also expressed through popular entertainment in 1961. On the television series The Dick Van Dyke Show, chic protagonists Rob and Laura Petrie (Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) served as comedic doppelgängers for the President and Mrs. Kennedy—Moore wearing trim Capri pants and Van Dyke attired in a sleek Botany 500 suit and taking pratfalls over an ottoman. And much has been written about the classically modern wardrobe Hubert de Givenchy designed for Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, in the dramatic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
STYLE ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD
But that kind of interdisciplinary agreement is rare, even within specific fields. Exceptions have been schools with a unified aesthetic such as the Bauhaus, or art and design movements like De Stijl. As theorist Witold Rybczynski explains in The Look of Architecture, inconsistency is more common than alignment. Other than the short-lived Kennedy era, stylistic agreement also coalesced across design disciplines during other years—when the applied arts really became, well, the allied arts. In 1939, for example, Streamline Moderne—a style that evolved from Art Deco—permeated design culture. Streamlined aircraft—like the Lockheed P-38 fighter designed by Kelly Johnson—was already a functional given, as were the sleek trains designed by Raymond Loewy.
On roads, the fencing-mask prow of the 1937-1941 Lincoln-Zephyr automobiles (designed by Eugene Gregorie and John Tjaarda) rolled with this streamlined look. In fact, all the new American cars for 1939 presented a wind-cheating face, if only stylistically. Wind tunnels were not part of automotive development then; streamlining just expressed a stylistic idea—one that still makes an appearance here and there. Recently, I saw it in the aerodynamic profile of a determined motorist who passed me on the 405—the oblique angle of his nose and forehead, trimmed mustache and slicked-back hair was as streamlined as the powerful ’41 Cadillac fastback he drove. After all, some people resemble their pets—why not vintage cars?
Architecture was also streamlined; styled with curved corners and minimal surface decoration that imbued stationary buildings with an aerodynamic aspect. You can still see it on screen in the sparkling towers of Emerald City beyond the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz (designed by Bill Horning). Even the silly hat worn by Greta Garbo (designed by Adrian) in the 1939 film Ninotchka was streamlined. In real life, the Thirties live on in the curved, golden-tiled corner entrance of the former May Company building, still standing on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, (designed by Albert C. Martin, 1939)—soon to open as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
This futuristic style consensus was ratified by the exhibits and attractions of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and distilled in the event’s signature structures, Trylon and Perisphere (designed by Wallace Harrison and J. André Fouilhoux). But why Streamline Moderne? Perhaps after almost a decade of the Great Depression, people were more than ready for what the Fair billed as “The World of Tomorrow.”
The Thirties notwithstanding, Rybczynski points out that architects are usually wary of any linkage to fashion because, “suspicion of style is a heritage of the modern movement, which preached against the arbitrary dictates of style and fashion, while maintaining an unspoken but rigid stylistic consistency.” They prefer the rigor of systems. But Rybczynski warns that a building must be sympathetic to how people dress, or it looks irrelevant, and concludes, “Like it or not, architecture cannot escape fashion.” And one might also add, other design fields aren’t immune to the influence of architecture either. To paraphrase the motto of the design-centric proponents of De Stijl, “the object of humankind is style”—at least in reference to the applied arts.
So why did designers across discrete fields come to an apparent de facto stylistic agreement in 1939 and 1961? Was there something in the air, or were the similarities coincidental? In those pre-Pinterest times, it’s unlikely that an automotive designer in Detroit would have been influenced by Paris, or even New York, fashion. I think it’s because creative people tire of what’s happening sooner than everybody else, and sometimes they come independently to similar conclusions. Their resulting designs embody a kind of harmonic convergence. Maybe that’s why the thick curves of the Thirties were eventually replaced by the slender rectilinearity of the Sixties.
A lack of diversity in American applied arts probably contributed to the singular looks of the pre and post-war eras. California-based Paul Williams, for example, was the most prominent Black architect whose prolific career spanned both time periods. But his work transcends any specific style and does not easily fit within the parameters covered herein. Noted women designers, such as Dorothy Draper and Sister Parish, were consigned primarily to interior design. Even fashion at the highest level was largely led by white men. As for LBGTQIA+ contributions, it’s hard to know. Other than former movie star turned interior designer William Haines, people were understandably more circumspect about sexual orientation and gender identity in 1939 and 1961.
LOOKING BACK, OUT, AND FORWARD
Technology can also engender consensus. Computer modeling is one reason Frank Gehry’s undulating steel-skinned buildings, such as the Guggenheim Bilbao, have a commonality with the angular concave shapes of Chris Bangle’s flame-surfaced BMWs. And sometimes aesthetic agreement is intentional, such as when music and fashion icon Pharrell Williams and architect Zaha Hadid collaborated on the design of prefab houses and Adidas trainers.
To mix metaphors, staying in your lane may be necessary—for a while—to achieve proficiency in a design discipline; conversely, staying isolated in a professional silo limits your vision—silos lack windows. As Pharrell Williams says, “I have never believed in boundaries.”
This stroll through the past has touched on the superficial appearance of things, which may seem, well, superficial. Yet the look of buildings, vehicles, and apparel can serve as symbolic markers of an era. Streamline Moderne presented a vision of an imagined future in 1939. The Classical Modernism of 1961 reinterpreted the past in a fresh way. Both movements transcended parochial design boundaries to define the style of their respective eras.
I believe in looking out and looking back, as well as forward. Although perspective makes it easier to recognize patterns and through-lines when looking at the past, the style of the future may defy prediction. It's rare when the various design disciplines express universal affinities. It's more likely that urgent social, environmental, and economic concerns will be a catalyst for diversity in design with a multiplicity of expression. As in previous eras, style will help these new ideas and forms resonate.
©2020 Alex Swart • All rights reserved