Today on Museum Bites we’re kicking off my road trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a tour through the Milwaukee Art Museum’s dazzling collection of art deco. Sleek and shiny art deco influenced fashion, entertainment, architecture, and even manufacturing during the 1920s and 1930s.
At the dawn of the machine age, art deco transformed our everyday gizmos and gadgets into functional art. Join me for a brief look at some of these delightful designs.
Beau Brownie: This display of Beau Brownie cameras is a colorful example of art deco’s emphasis on geometric patterns. Designed by Walter Dorwin Teague for the Eastman Kodak Company, these funky cubes were manufactured from 1930 to 1933. For just a few dollars, the Beau Brownie camera put picture taking into the hands of amateurs. Not only stylish, the Beau Brownie was tricked out with a wide variety of features including two viewfinders, three f-stops, sky and color filters, flash sheets, and a handy flash sheet holder. Original film cartridges took a whopping eight black and white exposures. The user’s manual is chock full of tips and tricks our selfie-obsessed society takes for granted today such as repeated pleas to hold the camera steady and avoid direct shots into the sunlight. Amateur photographers were encouraged to polish their skills by signing up for a free subscription to the Kodakery magazine. Take a peek at the inner workings of this amazing little camera by clicking on this Beau Brownie video clip.
Zephyr Clock: This brass and Bakelite Zephyr clock is an excellent example of art deco’s pairing of natural and synthetic materials. Manufactured by Lawson Time Inc. in 1934, the Zephyr clock’s sleek, aerodynamic design was crafted after the Burlington Zephyr train. Nicknamed the Silver Streak, this ultramodern, stainless steel diesel locomotive made a 1,015 mile nonstop record-breaking run from Denver to Chicago on May 26, 1934. Billed as the Dawn to Dusk Dash, the Zephyr roared into Chicago in a little over 13 hours. Averaging 78 mph and reaching a top speed of 112.5 mph, the fleet Zephyr broke the world record for longest and fastest nonstop trip. Less mobile than its diesel cousin, the Zephyr clock is a stylish addition to any nightstand.
Victor Special: The brilliant curves and swerves of the Victor Special Phonograph are quintessential art deco. Designed by John Vassos and Alfred Weiland in 1935 for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the Victor came with a stylish array of features including: a domed speaker, dual speeds (33 and 45 rpm), separate bins for new and used needles (why?), and convenient slots for album storage. But wait there’s more! The Victor is battery operated and lightweight for handy portability. Music lovers no doubt gathered around the stylish Victor to swing and sing to the static-y tunes of Glenn Miller and Count Basie.
Fun fact: Despite being nearly deaf, the phonograph was Thomas Edison’s favorite invention.
Bluebird Radio: The Bluebird Radio’s concentric circles and parallel lines are another example of how art deco incorporates functional features into product design. Created by Walter Teague of Beau Brownie fame for the Sparton Corporation, this swanky cobalt gizmo is style moderne at its finest. In 1935, the Bluebird had the crowds all a twitter when it made a splashy debut at the National Electrical & Radio Exposition in New York. Today, it continues to dazzle.
Fun fact: Walter Teague was an art deco icon and a pioneer of industrial design. A multi-talented author and innovator, Teague designed a wide variety of household gadgets as well as planes, trains, and automobiles.
Art deco’s popularity was brief and brilliant. It fell out of favor during World War II when austerity became a necessary standard of living. But don’t despair, there are many examples of art deco on display around town, across the world and my personal favorite in museums. You can even catch a glimpse of art deco’s flashy style on the big screen. Click here for an entertaining look-see.
That wraps up our look at art deco. Next week, we’ll discover more gems hidden inside the Milwaukee Art Museum.