THE MACHINE AGE IN AMERICA – Story of a native style



The machine and all its many manifestations was the defining force that shaped America in the years between the two wars. The machine as a process, an object or a symbol of American civilization, is the founding element of Modernism.

Recognition of America’s distinctive character and contribution to design during the 1902’s and 1930’s was a slow process. Europeans have not yet acknowledged the full range of America’s influencing forces on world culture and its relevance in the history of design. In the common language, design and architecture of the era is still defined as Art Déco but it should be differentiated from the very native American style.

“A powerful, dominant image can generate a family of like forms for very different purposes and products. For example, the setback skyscraper gave form to interior furnishings and décor, kitchen appLiances, and two-dimensional advertising design.”


From America’s great achievements in technology and industrialization emerged the modern style and a new way of life.  The machine was the major motivating force behind artistic movements of the first half of the past century which in return continue to inspire contemporary artistic expressions. Cubism, Futurism, Bauhaus, Art Deco.

From the clock that awakened one in the morning, to the flicked switch, the faucet handle, the vehicle for transportation, the radio, the motion picture, machines invaded all aspects of American life. Arts began to recognize it as a source of beauty, of artistic inspiration, a bridge connecting the present to the future. And the Industrial designer was born.

The machine age meant new materials – Bakelite, Formica, chrome, aluminum, stainless steel – and new processes – mass production, great corporations, and new ways of living. Everybody became machine operators that had “in their fingertips and feet more power than their grandparents ever imagined”: from coffee pots to vacuum cleaners, to washing machines, to radios, to the widely spreading use of automobiles. The horse was allowed to retire.


“Both the radio and the telephone – carrying the human voice by electro-mechanical means – substituted an illusion of immediacy for real encounters. In entertainment, choice became individualistic and passive. One simply sat and received, reaction involved turning on and off, nothing else was necessary”.

More or less like contemporary “follow/unfollow” buttons. When this books was issued, in 1986, the authors could never have imagined another epochal transformation in social connectivity that would raise the same doubts people felt in the early 20th century with regards to telephone and radio. How would they have compared Facebook, Instagram or Whatsapp with the newly popular comunication devices of tht 1900’s?


Speed, power, efficiency were the ideals of the modern age and were forms to be developed.  Before delving into the manifestations of American modernism it is necessary to describe the four different machine styled aesthetics responded in different ways to the machine seen as a complex arrangement of parts: Modern, machine purity, streamline and biomorphic.

The moderne was a decorative style that arranged single parts in a pattern. The vision of machine-as-parts influenced the style.  An example is Stuart Davis’ Egge Beater (1927)


The modern decorative style paved the way, in the late 1920s to the Machine Purity style, a more geometrical point of view of the parts arranged in complex patterns. It looked at its European counterparts of the Bauhaus School and the French modernism of Le Corbusier and his concept of the house as machine for living in, who in their own way were inspired by American factories and machines.  The Skyscraper furniture in the 1920’s belongs to this style.


There was a difference though in Le Corbusier idea of planes and lines that went beyond the reference to machines in explaining the geometry in his paintings and his architecture:

“This precision, this cleanness in execution go further back than our re-born mechanical sense. Phidias felt this way: the entablature of the Parthenon is a witness. So did the Egyptians when they polished the Pyramids. This is a time when Euclid and Pythagoras dictated to their contemporaries”. (Towards a New Architecture ( 1927).

The 1930’s saw the Streamline aesthetics (inspired by the modern and “curvy” aerodynamic of airplanes, boats and trains) and the late 1930’s early 1940’s the Biomorphic forms seen in Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen’s plywood armchair (1941).


The Streamline rounded and contoured forms were applied to, and were inspired by, different ranges in design:  Transportation, architecture, home appliances, graphics. Suggestions of speed, power and efficiency were the essential elements of these designs. The sources of imagery were also the torpedo-shaped dirigible, ocean liners, and materials such as shiny stainless steel, polished flat-sheet aluminum, Bakelite and other plastics that could be molded into rounded shapes and outlines that allowed for a spread use of streamline forms to product designs.

The changing lifestyles and design styles reciprocally influenced each other.

“The 1920’s was a decade of transition, dislocation, hope and fear. There was an uneasiness in the air, a restlessness, but also an exuberance expressed in the art of the period with its zig zags, lightning bolts, cubist and geometric designs, verticality, and stepped contours…But with the devastating effects of the Depression, existing insecurities dissolved into a general disillusionment. Yet at the same time, this crisis created a national unity of purpose, a need to find a way to assuage the ensuing panic. A feeling emerged that if everyone pulled together with the help of the machine behind them, a better tomorrow would be achieved. From this unity of response developed values, beliefs, and symbols that became identified as uniquely American. Streamlining, with its sense of speed, became the symbol of the decade. Emphasis shifted from the vertical to the horizontal, accentuate by parallel lines. Cubist, jagged-stepped outlines were replaced by smooth and rounded corners”.

In architecture, curving windows, rounded corners, finely spaced horizontal lines – “speed lines”- introduced by the German Architect Erich Mendelsohn were the identifying elements of Streamline design. Mendelsohn’s three Speed Lines were applied to locomotives, housewares such as Henry Dreyfuss’s Thermos Pitcher (1935), and advertisement.


“Streamlined style expressed not only a phallic technological thrust into a limitless future. Its dominant image, the rounded, womblike teardrop egg, expressed also a desire for a passive, static society, in which social and economic frictions engendered by technological acceleration would be eliminated. Streamlining was paradoxically a style retreat and consolidation as well as one of penetration and forward progress.”

Today some contemporary brands such as Kitchen Aid and Smeg are applying streamline aesthetics in their products.

America looked at Europe’s modern geometric rhythms and simplification in artistic movements but developed its own unique artistic expressions that identify it as a uniquely native American modernism. The geometric style of the period was also influenced by the patterns in American Indian pottery and rugs ( Pueblo, Acoma, Pima, etc).

The Biomorphic machine aesthetic developed when new perceptions of the human anatomy arose. The style tended to more organic forms to accommodate the body,  in an attempt to humanize the machine.

The European reference, if it can be stated that there was any at all can be linked to the biomorphism in Surrealists works by Dalì, Mirò, Jean Arp. But also primitivism’s natural lines are a source of imagery for biomorphic styles.


In the 1920s, department stores organized successful machine art exhibitions and designers such as Norman Bell Geddes worked on store windows displaying metallic mannequins, cut up posters from French modernist graphic designer A.M Cassandre, cubistic pyramids…

“The intermingling of business and the art demonstrates that machine age America was not simply an aesthetic debate among artists and theorists, but an expression of American consumer capitalism…The machine age mentality called for mass production and its corollary, mass consumption, which needed to be stimulated by appealing designs, advertising, packaging, and marketing. Thus the machine age was sold to the American Public.”


A change in consumer behavior and product marketing occurred that highlighted the value of appearance of an object while its actual usefulness somewhat became secondary. The consumption phenomenon that developed in 1920s America was the trigger for new ideas in advertisement, marketing and product design.

Advertising helps to create and popularize the iconography of an age. It changes the habits of life, affecting our behavior, influences public taste, creates new demand, formulates public opinion. Visual shift in American advertisement followed the machine aesthetic trends. Graphics adapted the geometric styles, fonts like Futura –  geometric sans serif – were released in the 1920’s. Magazine and poster advertisement included messages, layouts, and images that appropriated Streamilined and Biomorphic illustrations,  giving a new look and appeal to the products of commercial America and  creating a seductive imaginary word to direct consumer tastes and behavior .


As said, appearance became a central issue in product design from the 1930’s. In this decade the figure of the Industrial Designer emerged. Good design had a relevant impact on product sales and the psychology of color entered the equation. Advertising agencies encouraged their clients to refer to industrial designers to improve product and design departments were beginning to be created within large companies.

The most relevant figures in industrial design of the period where Norman Bel Geddes ( also a theatre and set designer, who popularized streamlining for the general public) , Raymond Loewy (among his works were the designs of the Studebaker automobiles, streamlined ferryboats and Greyhound buses), Teague, Egmond Arens and many others.

“Speed is the cry of our era, and greater speed one of the goals of tomorrow.” Norman Bel Geddes, 1932

In the thirties, industrial design could not be pigeon-holed into definite boundaries.  It involved architecture, furniture, the car industry. It meant both design for industry and design for consumption.  In both cases, it made its way into popular conscience and became acceptable.


“Any important art coming out of the industrial age will draw inspiration from industry, because industry is alive and vital. The beauty of industry lies within its truth and simplicity: every line is essential and therefore beautiful.” Margaret Bourke-White, photographer, 1930

Art aimed to capture on canvas, stone or paper the invisible energy that flowed in all new industrial advancements.

Photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Steichen (who later embraced fashion photography,) Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand – who began working as photographer in Alfred Steiglit’s Camera Work during world War I capturing machine parts emphasizing their power and geometry-,  and Alfred Steiglitz himself captured the movements and volumes of the machine age and documented America’s technological advancement.

The emphasis on size, geometric planes and contrasts of black and white projected the ideals of power, speed, grand scale constructions, of a future molded by the machine. The overwhelming visual presence of new superhighways, dams, bridges, hydroelectric power plants, giant radio towers defined American greatest achievements in engineering designing a new American landscape that became the symbol of the new man, the new America

Alfred Steiglitz began documenting in his photographes american industrial landscapes and the effects of the machine age upon New York City already in the 1890’s. This photograph was taken in 1932 . Georgia O’Keffee Hand and Weel ( from Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1980.70.296) ( schreen shot)


During the 1930’s, the machine age expanded traditional categories of art. Movie theatres were proliferating all over the country – (gloriously depicting the dehumanization resulting from the machine age was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, 1936) -, industrial photography was a new way of portraying America, and art was also radically transformed by the new technologies. Like Futurism in Italy in the 1920’s that exalted machines (and wars), American artists embraced the technological era not only in their subjects but in new materials and techniques.

New York under skyscraper construction continued to be a source of inspiration for painters such as Georgia O’Keeffe in City Night (1926); Gerald Murphy’s fascination with modern machinery’s complexity and efficiency  is expressd in “Watch, 1925. In a letter, Murphy wrote that he was

“always struck by the mystery and depth of the interiors of a watch—its multiplicity, variety, and feeling of movement, and man’s grasp at perpetuity.” ( Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 39)

The large painting is filled with overlapping, interlocking gears, dials, wheels, hands, winders, and screws in metallic and vivid colors.

Thomas Hart Benton openly celebrated the power of railroad, Theodore Roszak sculpted futuristic architectures in Airport Structure, 1932, in copper aluminum, steel and brass, Isamu Noguchi’s Chassis Fountain ( 1939), an 18 foot tall assemblage of enlarged automobile parts with water cascading down a vertical screw, suggested the illusion of motion. Or his One Thousand Horsepower Heart ( 1938) in which he envisioned a mechanized human heart. Alexander Calder’s celebrated biomorphic shapes of his performance sculptures were developed in the 1930’s.  A. Universe, 1934 ( motor driven mobile, painted iron pipe, wire and wood with string, Moma, NY)


In the 1930’s architects faced the challenges of Machine Age. New materials such as steel and glass, and technologies such as electricity presented new possibilities and a new vision of the function of the building. Architecture emerged as a social art. Most of architectural activity centered in New York with Ralph Walker as one of the leading modernist architects. His scheme for the Barclay-Vesey Building, 1922-1926- , a simplified, semi-gothic series of  of setbacks against a tower in a continuous system , became a reference for skyscraper design.

Examples of machine age architecture are the Rockfeller Center in New York – 1932-1939, by Raymond M. Hood, leading designer of the consortium Associated Architects; The Empire State Building by William Lamb of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon – 1930/31; The Chrysler Building in New York ( 1928-31) – a building-as-machine symbol by William Van Alen who spread automotive motifs throughout the building: a frieze with white and gray bricks suggesting motion, Chrysler metal hubcaps places in tire-like forms and abstract eagles resembling Chrysler’s radiator ornaments.

In residential architecture, the rounded walls, pipe railing and horizontal speed lines of the Streamline style can be found in Norman Bell Geddes’s House of Tomorrow project of 1931, in the nautical contours with the rounded dining room and the extended second-floor deck of Edward Durell Stone’s Richard Mandel House in 1934,  and E.E. Butler House in Des Moines by George Kratesch in 1935. These are all examples of projects that include references to the International Style elements present in Le Corbusier’s Ville Savoy.

In factories, the streamlined architecture is applied in 1936 in the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant and Office in Los Angeles. Nautical motifs are transferred to 4 existing buildings that Robert Derrah wrapped in a up adding ladders on the exteriors, speed lines, portholes, a bridge and a promenade deck in the interior.

The vocabulary of the Streamline style was evident in transportation buildings such as bus terminals, a new building type of the machine age. The Greyhound Terminal in Washington DC, in resor  architecture that emerged in locations such as Miami Beach in the 1930’s such as the Century Hotel by Henry Hohauser.


The machine age was the product of business and a middle class which held tight to its traditions and resisted to modernism applied to intimacy of its house. The domestic environment with its intrinsic DNA of protection and stability, resisted the most to the changes of the era but could not hold out for too long.

The motivating force of technology is the improvement in efficiency, in size reduction, it’s the quest for comfort , affordability and user-friendliness. New materials such as Bakelite plastic, Monel, latex foam, rayon or new uses of traditional materials such as wood, glass, cork, and chrome, united with a more concentrated attention on the aesthetic of an everyday object, allowed to tear down the walls of resistance against modern appliances. Old materials were free to express themselves and reveal their own truth, their own aesthetic beyond their structural qualities.


The use of old and new materials to develop functional AND beautiful product designs reflected a deep transformation in the way Americans lived, a relaxed informality with new social codes.

“Like the whole structure of our society, our manners have changed radically. Restraint and formality have been superseded by a greater ease in speech, in gesture, in more natural positions of repose. As Aldous Huxley has pointed out in one of his delightful essays, we have learned the art of ‘lolling’. There is an honesty a frankness, a directness in our social relations that can only be described as ‘modern’ “. Paul T. Frankl in “Why we accept modernistic furniture”


The Machine age manifested the changing life styles and life rhythms of the American population.

Economics following the Great Depression pushed aside unaffordable luxury objects and reduced living spaces making more acceptable new materials and technology in furniture design that responded to a new informality in life style and new social status for women who achieved a broader independence that will be exploited by furniture, jewelry and fashion industry.

In the 19th century, during the American Industrial Revolution, standardized objects tended to revive the forms of handmade objects of the past.  Lack of cultural confidence prevented them respond to European avant-garde.  The catalyst for change was the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

Just like Japanese aesthetics influenced all artistic expressions in France during the Japonisme era, French radical design astonished the American public which became more aware of its creative impasse.  Department stores played an essential role in speeding innovation in product design. After the Paris Expo, 400 items – photographs of interiors, tapestries, furniture, glass mosaics, screens, costume design – toured the United States in exhibitions organized in these commercial spaces reaching a broader consuming public.

European expats in America contributed to the development of progressive design in America: Kem Weber from Germany, Paul Frankl from Vienna, Raymond Loewy from France, John Vassos from Greece and Eliel Saarinen from Finland, founder and director of the Cranbrook academy of Arts in Bloomsfield Hills, Michigan.


Colors, mirrors, metallic lusters, symbolic forms where creatively blended to create devices that reflected the contemporary age.

The symbols of America’s prowess, the Skyscraper, the setback – a steplike recession in the profile of an object or building -, the factories, transportation, bridges,  found their way in product designs such as in Louis W. Rice’s “Skyscraper” tea service in 1928 or in the Brush and Mirror, the frenzied energy of the age was weaved into Ruth Reeves’ textile pattern “Manhattan”.

Fashion incorporated the abstract expressions of excitement and the new trend of strong colors – defined as Jazz decoration, in clothes, accessories and jewelry.

It is wrongly assumed to associate the era with just contrasts of black, white, red and silver color.

“Since 1925 there had been a big change in use of color, particularly for objects that never had color before – cars, beds, bathroom fixtures, toilet paper, appliances… Nearly everyone liked bright colors. And, in this post-war period of broken precedents, of weakened traditions, it is not surprising that old chromatic inhibitions should be shaken off, and that the American people should gratify its instinct for color by bathing itself in a torrent of brilliant hues.” Fortune, 1930 “Color in Industry”.

Cubist planes also were used to design home wares giving them an abstract sculpture-like appearance that reflected the Jazz spirit. Egmond Arens, an industrial designer known for its lighting fixtures, designed a table lamp made of cubic planes and metallic geometry.

It was a period of “ exploration, imitation, inventiveness, playfulness, and gradual American synthesis of many different styles.”

Even Frank Lloyd Wright, the most modern American architect, was seduced by the streamline that he applied in the Johnson Wax building and furniture.


The illusions of the machine age were embraced and spread by the film industry. The new age was represented by the Oscar statue conceived in 1928 by Cedric Gibbons, a modernist architect who imbued his eternal symbol of successful cinema with the fantasies, hopes and dreams of a new world evocated by the machine mentality.

The American machine age gave birth to new ideals: phrases like “American Way of Life” and “The American Dream” emerged in the  1930’s.

“The machine Age in America represented for both woman and men a rite of passage through a technological maze to a cultural coming of age…The machine age was a time of contradictions and ironies, oh hopes and fears. It was also a period of growth and maturity. The unifying and defining factor was the machine…Throughout this difficult journey Americans demonstrated their creativity and ingenuity.”

The illusions of a secure future promised by the machine shattered with World War II. The bombs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima forced to rethink the optimistic future of the machine.




The 1986 exhibiton at the Brooklyn museum was the first comprehensive perspective in any medium of this critical period in American culture.

This catalogue that accompanied the exhibition explores America’s response to the advent of the machine and to European avant-garde movements that greatly influenced the development of a truly American style.

The 400 illustrations, including 55 color platesprovide a kaleidoscopic look at the image of the machine as it permeated all aspects of material culture — from painting, sculpture, photography, architecture and the decorative arts to fashion and industrial design, to forms of transportation and communication.

PAGES AND SIZE376 pg ; 22.23 x 3.18 x 27.94 cm

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