Designing Tomorrow at the National Building Museum

Designing Tomorrow exhibit at National Building MuseumThe National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. (401 F Street, NW) launched a new exhibition on October 2, 2010, called Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. On display until July 10, 2011, Designing Tomorrow is the first exhibit to consider the impact of the six American expositions of the 1930s (Chicago, San Diego, Cleveland, Dallas, San Francisco, and New York) on the popularization of modern design and the creation of a modern consumer culture. At these fairs, architects and industrial designers collaborated with businesses to present a golden future complete with highways, televisions, all-electric kitchens, and even robots. Ten years in the making, the exhibit features nearly 600 graphics, 200 artifacts, and 14 media pieces. But it’s not an exhibit about exhibitions, or display of World’s Fair tsotchkes, said curator Laura Schiavo (also professor of museum studies at George Washington Univ.), but an exhibit about how modernist ideas of transportation, architecture, furniture, chemistry, and electricity were presented to the public in the midst of the Great Depression. The 1930s Worlds Fairs were the first to have considerable corporate sponsorship and public relations, and to consider its visitors as consumers. Designing Tomorrow takes a thematic approach, exploring how modernism was presented to and interpreted by the public.

The exhibitis organized into seven thematic galleries. The first gallery Welcome to the Fairs answers the question: What is a world’s fair? Visitors then move onto A Fair-going Nation where an oversized map of the U.S. shows the location of each of the 1930s fairs and wall displays showcase artifacts such as guidebooks, posters, and postcards from each of the fairs. The next gallery, Building a Better Tomorrow, focuses on the architecture and modern design of the fairs which included streamlined buildings, innovative display techniques, modernist murals, colored neon, and more. Travel and transportation pavilions and exhibits were some of the largest and most impressive at the fairs and are the focus of the next gallery Better Ways to Move. The Better Ways to Live gallery looks at living arrangements of “tomorrow” with space dedicated to innovative domestic architecture and furnishings from four model homes. Through original artifacts and interactive stations the Better Times gallery explores how fair exhibits translated the story of scientific advances in electronics and chemistry into a promise of better, more modern living to the public. The spread of home electrification in the 1930s meant that innovations displayed at the fairs—from television to all-electric kitchens—were within reach, or soon would be. The final gallery, Legacies, explores how the fairs impacted modern post-war America—including the national highway system, glass-box skyscrapers, and the spread of suburbia.

A companion book of essays edited by Laura Schiavo and Robert W. Rydell (Montana State Univ.) is forthcoming from Yale University Press. See also the Designing Tomorrow Flickr group.

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