Streamlining America in the 1930s
Winner of the 2006 Edelstein Prize from the Society for the History of Technology
"This is history that is relevant."—Design Issues
"Engaging, thoughtfully researched, and well written."—Journal of Social History
"Cogdell does much to advance our understanding of an anomalous 1930s aesthetic that has befuddled several generations of the best design historians. Her thesis is provocative, her writing is well paced, and her argument is convincing."—Journal of American History
"An ambitious attempt to link the professionalization of industrial design with the popular eugenics movement of the 1930s. . . . A bold and truly original thesis."—Technology and Culture
"This highly original, well written, carefully crafted, and vigorously argued volume is a notable addition to American intellectual and cultural history."—Enterprise and Society
"A significant contribution to the field of cultural history broadly defined. Cogdell's argument is compelling, and the evidence makes a strong case for linking an important modernist artistic movement with an important—and nefarious—scientific doctrine. This book will be widely read and discussed."—Robert W. Rydell, author of World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions
"Christina Cogdell provocatively locates the ideology of streamlining in the popular eugenics movement of the 1930s. Tracing complex connections between personal philosophies of industrial designers and the visual rhetoric of their public design work, her cultural reading of design situates it dramatically at the intersection of science, technology, and popular culture. This book could well revolutionize the field of design history."—Jeffrey Meikle, author of Twentieth-Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939
In 1939, Vogue magazine invited commercial designer Raymond Loewy and eight of his contemporaries—including Walter Dorwin Teague, Egmont Arens, and Henry Dreyfuss—to design a dress for the "Woman of the Future" as part of its special issue promoting the New York World's Fair and its theme, "The World of Tomorrow." While focusing primarily on her clothing and accessories, many commented as well on the future woman's physique, predicting that her body and mind would be perfected through the implementation of eugenics. Industrial designers' fascination with eugenics—especially that of Norman Bel Geddes—began during the previous decade, and its principles permeated their theories of the modern design style known as "streamlining."
In Eugenic Design, Christina Cogdell charts new territory in the history of industrial design, popular science, and American culture in the 1930s by uncovering the links between streamline design and eugenics, the pseudoscientific belief that the best human traits could—and should—be cultivated through selective breeding. Streamline designers approached products the same way eugenicists approached bodies. Both considered themselves to be reformers advancing evolutionary progress through increased efficiency, hygiene and the creation of a utopian "ideal type." Cogdell reconsiders the popular streamline style in U.S. industrial design and proposes that in theory, rhetoric, and context the style served as a material embodiment of eugenic ideology.
With careful analysis and abundant illustrations, Eugenic Design is an ambitious reinterpretation of one of America's most significant and popular design forms, ultimately grappling with the question of how ideology influences design.
Christina Cogdell is Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis, where she teaches art, design, and cultural history.