Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Now, then

I can see the fuschia. Gorgeous.

In the early 1960s, United States Steel produced illustrations of what the future — presumably sometime about now — would look like. (Tip of the hat: The Ministry of Type.) "Naturally, the implication is that we will be using lots and lots of steel, and will continue to use it to make sleek, shiny cars," the droll caption in The MOT says.

It would be too obvious to go into a riff on the present state of the U.S. automobile and steel industries. But the past-future design aesthetics are worth checking out. They remind me of some exhibits at the 1964-65 World's Fair (I worked there for a season as a tour guide), such as the General Electric pavilion where we were shown a house of the future that did everything automatically and gave you a back rub. It was a pretty optimistic time, even for a few years after JFK's assassination, with the gathering disaster in Vietnam not yet registering for most people.

The artist, identified by The MOT as Syd Mead, did his considerable best to make things to come look attractive. The use of pastel colors is enticing. The traffic signs are far more attractive — as well as easier to understand at 70 mph, with their color coding — than the actual ones on the New Jersey Turnpike or any of today's interstates.

Interestingly, none of the abbreviations (BSTN, NYRK, NEW JRSY) he imagined has come into use in an age when abbreviations and acronyms are all around us. Maybe that's because there are accepted short forms of New York (NY) and New Jersey (NJ), and what's the point of saving two letter spaces in Boston?

Admiring the new Autosaurus.

If things had gone according to Syd, we'd now have genetically engineered horseoids or perhaps mutant creatures caused by radiation. And pre-crushed cars. Until the 1970s it was assumed that cars would just keep getting more aerodynamic — longer and flatter. And they did until they couldn't get any flatter without causing an epidemic of curvature of the spine. This buggy seems to be jet powered, if those big outlets aft are for exhaust.

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades!

This is one dazzling image, but as in some of the others, the details are hard to interpret. What are these spherical items all over the picture? What to make of the "high society" couple next to the car? And the magenta Arabian Nights babe at the far right?

Urban renewal — who left those people there?

Things go better with steel. Well, the building is no sillier than most of our contemporary hi-fashion architecture. I'd say Syd Mead got that one right.

"Uh, Joe … are we coming or going?"

Okay, so the Soviet Union has left an atom bomb as a calling card. Who cares? When they see our sleek emergency response gear, they'll die from envy.

"You say there's a leak in which tire?"

Once the cargo — steel, would be my guess — is unloaded, the driver-pilot will activate the rotor (inside the large orange cylinder), retract the wheels, and it's up and away.

In the deep purple night …

Notice how in this vision of the future it's machines that are the turn-on? And people are incidental? Anyway, insofar as you can make them out, this group seems to be having a cocktail party just before flying off in their private saucer. Strange: the women are attired in evening dress, the men wearing uniforms out of The Merry Widow. You can't deny the artist credit for his odd vision, nor for his brilliance as a colorist. I love the pervasive neon glow and the Whistler-like nocturne of the landscape in the background.

Aside from the warmth of the hues, these pictures don't represent a world I'd particularly like to live in. But the palette is enough to make me a little nostalgic for a future that has passed, probably never to return.


1 comment:

MaryJ said...

He he. I am old enough to remember this style of illustration. You are right, the emphasis is all on the machines and buildings, not much on the people. Still it looks better than our Third World-ized cities. And the few people in the illustrations look happy, probably because they are not worried about being mugged by an illegal immigrant gangbanger on their way back to the Autosaurus.