From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Streamlining was broadcast on the 30th July 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Mention streamlining and you might think of the Art Deco period with architecture like the exuberant Chrysler Building piercing the sky above Manhattan. Streamlining seems to sum up the modern age, being all about movement, speed and light. The earlier incarnation of the industrial age was all about massiveness – fearsome factories and sombre civic halls planted squarely on the ground. Of course, the 20th century’s machines had to be shaped to slip through the air with ease, from the first chunky biplanes and awkward motorcars to the smooth lines of a Comet airliner and Japan’s startling shinkansen bullet trains just decades later. But that demand was joined by a desire to evoke the feeling of speed in all manner of things, even kettles. There seems to be something about streamlining that appeals to our notion of beauty.
Maybe it’s all about the curve. That’s what artist William Hogarth thought in 1753, writing in his book, The Analysis of Beauty, that the addition of the serpentine stroke, which he called the line of beauty or the line of grace, added a frisson of interest and excitement to everything from portrait painting to the shape of a building. It was also about balance, the curve relieving the repetition of too many straight lines.
You can perceive elements of streamlining in the pleasant curves of Georgian architecture, like the Royal Crescent in Bath of the 1760s, and even in the satisfying rotundas of Ancient Rome, like the Pantheon, but these remain resolutely wedded to the ground. Streamlining goes beyond simple roundedness but when there’s no reason for it, no wind to cheat, we still revel in the shapes it conjures. That was certainly the case in the early 20th century, with the whirling movement seen in the Futurist paintings of the 1910s and the chrome corrugations of the classic American diner. Although entrenched in the Art Deco period, it’s actually a subsect of that, being much more concerned with line than material, and known more accurately as Streamline Moderne. It was epitomised in the jukebox shape of the buildings of Miami Beach and the Odeon cinemas of the 1930s. Here streamlining was the jazz music of architecture, representing the fluid freedoms of the modern age. But streamlining used solely as a styling element persisted well into the 1950s and beyond. The focus on space travel in the 1960s only exaggerated our desire for smooth objects that looked as though they’d been shaped in a wind tunnel. No fridge or toaster worked any better thanks to its slippery shape but having it meant it was elevated from simple kitchen appliance to something as desirable as a sportscar.
We can see streamlining as a opular aesthetic in everything from Marilyn Monroe’s curves and Brad Pitt’s rippling torso to the current trend for computer-generated buildings, most celebrated in the work of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, and sometimes denigrated as blobism. So what precisely is it that we find so satisfying in not just a curve but a curve that suggests motion? Perhaps Hogarth has the answer again. The human skeleton has no straight lines, he wrote, just as nothing in nature truly has. So maybe we’re tapping into a primal understanding of beauty that starts with our own bodies, or those of other creatures. It’s a kind of biomimicry. When we streamline the outside world, whether in the design of a lamp or a staircase or the latest office building, we are heartened by objects that seem all the more satisfying when they appear to twist and turn just as we do. It’s possible our love for streamlining might just be embedded in our very being.