Streamline Moderne: Houses, Furniture & Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What could an airplane, a bullet and a building possibly have in common? Some of them reflect similar design elements. In this lesson, explore a 20th-century style called Streamline Moderne.

What Is Streamline Moderne?

Have you ever seen a building that resembled a ship or a bullet? In the 1930s, a style of architecture and design got its inspiration from just such objects. It was called Streamline Moderne.

Streamline Moderne as a style grew out of a slightly earlier style called Art Deco, which had gained prominence after a major 1925 art and design show in Paris. Art Deco was full of geometric patterns like zigzags, modern materials like plate glass and chrome, and bold colors.

In the early 1930s, a more pared-down version of Art Deco began to appear. It removed excess ornamentation and reflected the clean lines of machine-age engineering. This late phase of Art Deco style became known as Streamline Moderne. It developed in the United States but then spread to other parts of the world.

Streamline Moderne in Architecture and Design

Elements of Streamline Moderne were strongly influenced by studies in aerodynamics, or the way air moves around objects, and ballistics, the study of how projectiles move in flight. And yes, that meant things like bullets. It was the modern age of machines, and that modern world filtered into many aspects of design.

These 20th-century scientific ideas influenced the shape of transportation vehicles like planes, locomotives, ocean liners and automobiles, many of them new and revolutionary machines. Their rounded forms, slick surfaces and horizontal lines emphasized speed and motion. Those same design elements also filtered into architecture, furniture design and industrial design.

The modern design of transportation vehicles like locomotives reflected Streamline Moderne style
streamlined locomotive

Architects began to take these ideas and use them on buildings, especially commercial structures like gas stations, movie theaters and new structures called motor hotels or motels. Industrial designers, people who designed the look and feel of products meant to be mass-produced for sale in many places, incorporated similar design elements into many kinds of objects, including furniture and appliances like refrigerators, radios and toasters.

Even mass-produced objects like toasters reflected Streamline Moderne style
Streamline Moderne toaster

Across the United States, especially in places like Los Angeles and Miami Beach, Streamline Moderne structures emphasized the modern age. The style remained popular through the 1930s and into the early 1940s before fading from prominence around World War II.

Characteristics of Streamline Moderne

Architecture, furniture and other objects made in the style of Streamline Moderne had several important elements in commons. All tended to have smooth, polished surfaces full of curves and a strong emphasis on horizontal line. They didn't have excess ornamentation. Whether the object is question was a home or a sofa, you might see shapes similar to teardrops or torpedoes. Furniture had a strong geometric emphasis without ornament. Materials might be modern metals, leather or wood.

Gas station done in Streamline Moderne
Streamline Moderne gas station

Buildings tended to be asymmetrical with flat roofs. Often, but not always, they were one-story structures longer than they were tall. Colors could be white or pastels with modern metals like aluminum, stainless steel and chrome used around doors and windows. Other modern materials included glass block and plate glass. Some structures even had round or oval windows that suggested nautical transportation like ships.

Another example of a Streamline Moderne building. Notice how these windows resemble those of an ocean liner
Streamline Moderne structure

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