A History of Scholarship on American Automobile Design

by David Gartman

1950s Scholarship on Design: Snobby Criticism and Populist Praise

The 1950s did bring some scholarly commentary on automobile design, perhaps because it was becoming so central to American culture that it was hard to ignore. But most of this literature was highly critical, even dismissive, of this popular art. The “legitimate” design profession—that is, those practitioners, critics, and scholars who saw design as a high art and were concerned with form in and of itself—considered the aesthetics of mass-produced American automobiles as an abomination. Most of these were advocates of the European modernist or Bauhaus school of design, which believed that the form of an object should follow its function. This was interpreted to mean that the design had to be severe, pristine, and restrained, with an absolute minimum of decoration. As one sociologist has argued, such tastes were surely determined by the class of these people—most were upper-middle-class professionals involved in creating and transmitting culture. Consequently, they looked for the aesthetics of objects to testify to their intelligence and rationality, not their money. Since most did not have enough money to appropriate the expensive, elaborately decorated luxury goods of the really rich, they distinguished themselves by buying goods that were “smart” and “intelligent.”

For these cultural aristocrats, the chrome-laden, tail-finned, mass-produced dream machines of the 1950s revealed the degraded tastes of the masses and the new rich, whose culture had not yet caught up with their cash. In the United States, the organization that pushed this snobby, intellectual criticism of car design was the colonial outpost of European modernist design, the Museum of Modern Art. This New York museum took two swipes at American cars in the early 1950s. The first came in a 1950 symposium on auto design organized by MOMA. There, modern architect Philip Johnson confessed that he owned a 1950 Buick that, from the standpoint of function, was wonderful. But he went on to say that it was also the ugliest object he owned, due mainly to the superfluous chrome decoration, which he had removed at his own expense. He admitted that the car was an aesthetic embarrassment, for most of his friends drove Jeepsters and little imported sports cars like the British MG, which looked good. Another panelist clarified that Buicks and Cadillacs had a “nouveau riche glitter,” while the MG roadster had an “honesty” in design, without the pretentiousness of excess decoration. These cultural prejudices of intellectuals were also reflected a year later, when MOMA mounted the first museum exhibit focused on automobile aesthetics. Entitled "Eight Automobiles," the exhibit ignored American mass-produced automobiles in favor of either expensive luxury cars (Mercedes and Bentley) or small functional cars (MG). Three American cars were included, but two were limited-run luxury cars (Lincoln Continental and Cord) and the other was a military vehicle, the Jeep, which, according to the exhibit catalog, was a “sharply rational vehicle” that “disdained the merely decorative.”

Ironically, however, at the same time that these American intellectuals were bashing American cars using snobby European theory, European intellectuals began to praise American auto design using American populist ideas. This sympathetic intellectual work emerged first in England in the mid-1950s with a group of artists and critics known as the Independent Group, a splinter group of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. These young British intellectuals, who were precursors of the Pop Art Movement, were interested in the effects of technology and mass culture on the arts. Foremost among them was a design critic named Reyner Banham, who was fascinated with American automobile design as an example of a new kind of mass art. Trained in European design theory, Banham defended American cars of the 1950s as a more contemporary expression of the form-follows-function imperative of the pioneering modernists of the 1920s. The pure, rectilinear shapes that the latter advocated froze the technological forms of an early era and ignored the fact that technology changes constantly, requiring ever-changing designs. The curvilinear, streamlined shapes of American mass-produced cars, Banham argued, were better reflections of the current technological imperative to reduce air resistance. Banham even defended the feature of American car design that the European purists considered particularly repugnant, the annual model change or planned obsolescence. Since technology was constantly improving, aesthetics had to change constantly to express it. Thus, he asserted, throwing out perfectly functional cars for newer ones facilitated technological progress for all.

Banham's defense of the over decorated and symbolic American cars of the 1950s on technological grounds was questionable at best. He failed to note that hundreds of pounds of chrome doodads tacked onto those "streamlined" shapes surely created air drag and ruined fuel economy. And he also ignored the dirty little secret behind the annual model change-while the aesthetic surfaces of cars changed each year, the mechanical technology underneath remained constant for years, sometimes decades, to facilitate the economies of scale required by mass production. So annual models merely gave these cars the appearance of progress that diverted consumers' attention and prevented them from demanding real technological improvements. Perhaps sensing the weakness of his technological arguments, Banham felt compelled to add a social and political justification of American cars that was more persuasive. Those snobby modernists focused on abstract form denied the masses what they really wanted-symbolic content that linked the product to something the public recognized as good, desirable, exciting. American auto stylists, Banham argued, provided a popular service by symbolically linking "dreams that money can buy" to the ultimate dreams of popular culture that money cannot buy. Those modernists who condemned such design would deny the masses their simple pleasures by imposing on them their own narrow conception of good design. They were nothing but "pinkos" and "snobs" who violated the basic principle of democracy. Thus, Banham embraced the American idea of consumer sovereignty, contending that the auto market merely delivered what the majority wanted. Consumer goods like cars were just harmless diversions, reachable satisfactions available to all. His arguments sidestepped, however, a question that later critics of auto design asked: If the masses put all of their time and effort into attaining the things that money can buy, did that not prevent them from cultivating the talents and relations necessary to attain those more intangible things that money cannot buy?

Regardless of the flaws in his arguments, Banham and his British Independent Group were precursors of an artistic trend that would spread to other countries and become a major movement in the 1960s, Pop Art. This movement was led by young American artists who rebelled against the domination of the high arts by the sober, severe modernists, whose revolutionary ideas of the 1920s and 1930s had turned into the establishment art of the 1950s and 1960s, serving corporate and government power. In order to demonstrate their difference and bash the elitist art of their establishment elders, these rebellious youth incorporated into their art elements from popular culture, which during the 1960s experienced an explosion of diversity and vitality. And the automobile industry was at the forefront of this 1960s revitalization of mass culture. By the beginning of this decade automakers were responding to the popular complaints reflected by Packard and Keats, especially those against outrageous decoration and the creeping homogeneity of models. Stylists quickly eliminated the decorative excesses — fins were dropped drastically and then eliminated; chrome appliqué was restrained. Then during this decade automakers also replaced their aesthetically differentiated but mechanically homogeneous models with real engineering variety, introducing entirely new classes of cars, such as compacts, intermediates, sports cars, muscle cars, and personal luxury cars. The result was a proliferation of excitingly different but tastefully designed models that brought the General Motors promise of the 1920s to build a car for every purse, purpose, and personality closer to reality than ever before.

It was just this type of diversity and vitality in America's popular culture of the 1960s that inspired the Pop Artists, who borrowed its elements in their assault on the dull homogeneity of establishment modernism. American artist Andy Warhol, for example, painted commercial subjects like soup cans and movie stars, and used the visual techniques of commercial culture to do so. Architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown incorporated into their work forms from the commercial environment, like Las Vegas casinos and main street advertisements. And sculptor Claes Oldenburg produced replicas of cars and car parts in soft, collapsing fabric. But while these Pop Artists borrowed from popular culture, they treated its elements by the rules of the high-art world—that is, they used them as pure forms, stripped of the content or meaning they had for the masses. This hybrid art found a wide and enthusiastic audience in this period, for many of the masses who grew up in the 1950s with popular culture received in the 1960s a college education that exposed them to the high arts. So many of this generation took their newly acquired knowledge of “legitimate” culture and applied it to the popular culture with which they grew up, looking at familiar artifacts in a different, more formal way.

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dream machines


1950 Buick














For more on the annual model change, see Stephen Meyer on “The Rise of Sloanism.

Philip Johnson


British MG

Lincoln Continental

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