A Review of “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930’s”

The National Building Museum is currently hosting an exhibit on America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s entitled “Designing Tomorrow.”  The exhibit provides a fascinating look at the role world’s fairs played in American culture.  The exhibit will be up until July 10th.  The National Building Museum is open every day from 10:00 to 5:00, with free admission.  The museum is located at 401 F Street NW Washington, DC 20001, near the Judiciary Square metro stop.

Between 1933 and 1940 tens of millions of visitors attended the six world’s fairs that were held in cities across the United States.  Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, San Francisco, and New York were all locations for fairs. These fairs provided a hopeful vision of a plentiful and prosperous future.  Such a message was especially meaningful in the thirties, as the United States was facing both the Great Depression and rise of Fascism.  Civic leaders and businessmen provided support for the fairs, hoping that this would stimulate local economies.  The fairs provided a platform for corporations to feature their products and associate them with themes of a better future and a truly American way of life.  Federal officials, including President Roosevelt, hoped that the fairs would restore faith in the nation’s economic and political systems.  The fairs also provided architects, engineers, and designers with a means of exploring new styles and building techniques.  The fairs popularized modern design, which then carried over into mainstream culture.

The exhibit itself is beautifully designed, with colorful graphics and text panels.  The curators were able to assemble a fascinating collection of souvenirs, guide books, posters, toys, and other ephemera from the fairs. The exhibit is divided into seven sections, “Welcome to the Fairs”, “A Fair-Going Nation”, “Building A Better Tomorrow”, “Better Ways to Move”, “Better Ways to Live”, “Better Times”, and “Legacies of the Fairs”.

The exhibit includes text panels called “see both sides” which provide two points of view on a topic related to the fair.  For example, a panel entitled “Progress?” explains that not everyone bought into the American dream.  Some believed that the United States system was rooted in economic and racial inequality, and looked to alternative ideologies.  This panel includes a reproduction of a cover of an issue of New Masses, from May 1933, as well as a photograph of a sit down strike at the Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint Michigan.  The “see both sides” panels raise interesting issues and make the important point that the thirties was a time of complicated social change.

Another highlight from the exhibit is a section on the world fair’s murals.  The world’s fairs pavilions provided flat windowless facades that served as ideal surfaces for large murals.  The exhibit gives photographs of many examples of these works, including Diego River’s mural Pan American Unity which he painted for the San Francisco World’s Fair of 1940.  This display also gives the example of a mural created by the Burton Sisters, called The Peacemakers, for the Court of the Pacific at the San Francisco World’s Fair.  The display explains that the sisters painted on panels of lightweight masonite, creating a relief effect.  Their mural was huge in size, consisting of two hundred and seventy panels.

The exhibit provides an overview of 1930s world’s fair architecture, with examples ranging from the modern to the whimsical.  The architecture of the fairs emphasized innovation in design as a sign of things to come.  Classical forms and elaborate ornamentation was rejected, in favor of streamlined, clean designs.  World’s Fairs also featured mimetic buildings, buildings designed to look like objects.  For example, the Radio Flyer Pavilion at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair resembled a giant wagon, while the National Cash Register Building looked like a giant cash register.  These buildings were meant to serve as attention grabbing advertisements for the products they housed.

The world’s fairs were ephemeral, as they were meant to be taken down after a season or two.  Most of the buildings were torn down with little reminder of where they once stood.  However the expositions had a profound impact on American culture.  The fairs served to familiarize visitors with a coming revolution in design, science, and technology.  As Americans struggled with issues of poverty, unemployment, and impending war, the word’s fairs helped Americans hope for a better future.


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