Corporate Modernism

From Laura Burd Schiavo’s “Modern Design Goes Public” in Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s:

“[The world’s fairs of the 1930s] were decidedly public. They introduced modern design to the tens of millions who visited the fairs and those exposed to them through extensive coverage in popular periodicals, on the radio, and in newsreels. What might have been an aesthetic experiment or marketing ploy before 1929 soon became an urgent response to crisis. During the Great Depression, the spectacular demonstrations aligned modern design with a vision of a better future that celebrated consumer progress and trumpeted mass production and corporate leadership. The world’s fairs were popular interpretations of what it meant to be modern in the 1930s, lessons that could be taken home and applied to everyday lives.”

Historian David Nye dubbed this collusion of modernist aesthetics with corporate interests, “corporate modernism” (fittingly enough):

“The future that corporate planners imagined no longer had the neoclassical overtones expressed in the architecture at the pre-1915 fairs in Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, and San Francisco. The fairs of the 1930s adopted the geometrical forms and flat surfaces of the international style … Indeed the invention of ‘corporate modernism’ was one of the more remarkable adaptations of business to the 1930s. Part of the impulse came from increasing competition among manufacturers, whose products often performed equally well, and who therefore needed styles that set their products apart … To repackage products they turned to industrial designers to rework the appearance of objects, emphasizing sleekness, streamlined contours, and functional appearance. The demand for ‘the new’ beams incessant: last year’s style began to seem second-hand; and corporations increasingly advertised and packaged products as innovations recently arrived from the future.”

Intersection of Tomorrow, Futurama Exhibit
GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

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