'Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020' at the DIA A love letter to the American automobile
by Anmol AhujaJan 25, 2021
by John JervisPublished on : Jan 07, 2020
The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Cars: Accelerating the Modern World opened in November 2019, having been in gestation for almost half a decade. During this time, there’s been an undercurrent of scepticism about the enterprise. Wouldn’t it be better suited to the Science Museum? Why do we need a show devoted to boys’ toys at all? Since critics and public have gained access, such objections have – by and large – been swept aside, with the exhibition, co-curated by Brendan Cromier and Lizzie Bisley, receiving almost universal praise.
And no wonder. Cars: Accelerating the Modern World offers a series of compelling perspectives on the extraordinary and wide-ranging impact that the automobile has had on our lives, and our planet, over the last century or more. Its focus ranges across the unsettling incursion of assembly lines, and of automation, into our working lives; the explosion of demand for oil, with resulting geopolitical and environmental shockwaves; the increased exploitation of obsolescence as a marketing tool; motorway-building as a tool to constructing national – and pan-national – identities; and the circularity and elusiveness of our visions of transport futures.
These concerns, and more, are conveyed through an often unexpected array of exhibits: a meat slicer with streamlined stylings; an “Energy Crisis” board game; Martha Reeves and the Vandellas weaving through Ford’s assembly line to Nowhere to Run; the world’s first industrial robot, the Unimate of 1961; and a strong line in futuristic car-inspired fashion. And, of course, there’s also a judicious offering of 15 cars – Cromier describes them as ‘Trojan Horses’, each one of which allows a bigger story to be told – including such icons as the world’s first production automobile, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen No. 3 of 1888; the first streamlined car, the Tatra T77 of 1934; and Harley Earl’s Firebird I concept car for General Motors, inspired by 1950s fighter planes. To round out the picture, a few more familiar models are thrown in – a 1960s muscle car; an early Beetle; a Model T Ford. Also deserving of mention is a series of eloquent films generated by the V&A in conjunction with Zuketa – one devoted to car subcultures and their role in building communities, from lowriders in California to dekotora in Saitama, stands out.
It’s an impressive display, entertaining, packed, cogent, convincing. More, it is carefully (and successfully) constructed to confront a key challenge when mounting an exhibition about cars: appealing to those who view the entire topic in a negative light, while keeping ardent enthusiasts expecting a celebratory display onside.
For Cromier, who admits to nerves in preparing the show, the favourable reaction from the latter has given particular pleasure. “One lesson is not to underestimate the intelligence of people who are fanatics about a certain topic, and their ability to think about it in a holistic way…they can take the good and the bad in equal stride. We were able to create a space that celebrated the design ingenuity that goes into the development of the automobile, but also explores the problematic outcomes of its popularity. It’s really positive that everyone realises the huge challenges ahead…because that suggests there’s a receptivity to the new kinds of thinking about the future that are so necessary.”
Getting to this gratifying point has been far from easy. The show was the brainchild of the late Martin Roth who, during his tenure as director at the V&A, pointed out that the self-proclaimed “leading museum of art and design” had never mounted exhibition on possibly the most important product of the twentieth century. The project’s development was originally placed in the hands of architect Norman Foster, an automobile enthusiast whose priorities mirrored his various passions. Over time, it became clear that a wider lens was needed for this undeniably difficult show – as Cromier has put it, “it would be most useful to focus our exhibition on the impact of the car as a designed object, rather than doing a show purely on the design of the car; the car as a case study for how designed objects can have impact on the world around us.”
It’s an interesting statement, indicating how the role of the design museum has evolved as major institutions look beyond traditional exhibition formats based on individuals, movements and periods. These neat categorisations tend to mirror and reinforce the original status of the design museum as a repository of decorative arts and industrial design, but they still possess significant popular appeal, making it hard for institutions to forego their financial benefits, even if the intellectual returns are dwindling.
Despite this, there is an increasing preference to utilise exhibitions as launch pads to explore the purposes and place of design within larger systems. Cromier proposes the automobile as a particularly potent example of such a launch pad: “There are two camps of thinking about cars today – one tends to pure celebration and one to vilification – but any kind of nuanced story can be useful to thinking about design’s future, allowing us to unpack the role of design in creating this object and making it so popular. One of the false assumptions that we make is that the technology that we have around us exists because it is the best technology at hand, which is never really the case – it’s the by-product of several different decisions. Throughout the twentieth century, the role of design was about making a better product, but also about selling the dream to a mass public – in this case, getting them to accept the idea that what was needed in the world was a car for every individual. And, to make the automobile a sellable prospect, you needed an enormous amount of infrastructure and investment to support that, which is interesting in the context of the future of mobility today. Most critiques of alternatives hinge on the idea that they will be too costly, but we invested a lot of money to make the car happen – we can spend a lot to make other things happen too. Design can use its ingenuity and core skills to sell a new vision – I think that could be the most interesting takeaway from the entire show.”
Such expansive objectives have attendant risks. Given finite exhibition space, broadening the focus to encompass geopolitics and geology necessitates omissions in core areas. Cars, for instance, has a distinctly ‘Western’ vibe – one would certainly have expected more engagement with Japan, given its enormously disruptive impact on both American and European automobile industries from the 1960s, and also on American essentialist fantasies around industrial might, free trade and the open road. More prosaically, the extraordinary impact of the car on our urban environments, whether sprawling city grids or out-of-town malls, is barely explored.
Cromier is candid about the latter. “There was a section that we were going to do on cities, but it just came up against the fact that we had run out of space. We were thinking, ‘Can we pack in the whole thing into our final room?’, but it runs up against the enormity of the subjects – the uncut version would have had a room full of architectural technologies invented to serve the car, which was really fun. We had a whole bunch of research on the first drive in cinema, these was some amazing Frank Lloyd Wright architecture – it’s something of a sore point!”
If certain areas had to be sacrificed in order to explore wider narratives, some of those that remain also have complexities and contradictions smoothed away. For instance, the degree to which cars were expressions of change, rather than instruments of it, is slightly fudged. If you zoom out the lens too far in any narrative, it becomes clear that all systems are enmeshed in one another, that all act upon one another. To maintain a perspective that ascribes distinct agency to, say, the automobile becomes increasingly unsustainable. To take a small example in Cars, the Frankfurt Kitchen by modernist architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky is included as an example of the impact of time and motion studies in the 1920s. That these techniques emerged from the steelmaking and construction industries – influencing the motor industry’s assembly lines rather than vice-versa – is passed over. Or indeed that Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen was, in fact, inspired by railway dining carriages – just as the nearby B3 Wassily armchair by Marcel Breuer was inspired by the architect’s own bicycle. Such minor intricacies are understandably overlooked in favour of the bigger picture, but when the topic is as weighty as American industrial policy, or the rise of the Gulf states, visitors are placing a lot of faith in the curator’s vision, and in the wisdom of their choices of omissions and elisions, however necessary they may be.
In this instance, one subject that has been rather unexpectedly smoothed away – the car designer. The introduction in the exhibition’s catalogue describes how the V&A chose to steer away from “individual (messianic) designers and marques” in order to claim “a place for [the car] as a serious object of study”. The decision has justification – engineers in car firms remained, in effect, designers for longer than many such high-profile industries.
And, as Cromier points out, when looking at the topic of design in the automobile industry, or indeed any industry, far more is at play than the form of the car itself. “The moving assembly line was designed; the factories were designed; supply-chain management was designed – you can start to see design as a kind of total work that exists within the nameless sphere of corporate culture…The real beginning of design in the automobile industry comes at General Motors, who were the first to actually introduce an art and colour section, which gets renamed a styling section. Essentially, they come up with the role of the designer, in order to package the car, to sell the image of the car.”
Despite this evident good sense – it is indeed “a more honest way of discussing design” to look at objects as part of global systems – it does seem a little harsh that the car in particular must be denuded of frivolity in order to be allowed to enter the V&A’s hallowed halls. Such talented figures as Giorgetto Giugaro and Flaminio Bertone are passed over, despite having given compelling form to one of the most complex consumer products of the last century. Presumably, a major fashion exhibition is being prepared that dispenses with Coco Chanel and Issey Miyake in favour of clothing as a patriarchal project and an environmental disaster, or perhaps a furniture show concentrating solely on flatpacking, deforestation and MDF.
But that is a side point – the truth is that a shift in emphasis towards a more holistic view of design brings undeniable benefits. And, of the recent shows I have seen in this new mould, Cars: Accelerating the Modern World is the most adept, opening and exploring avenues in a persuasive manner (and with an inventive diversity of exhibits), without ever losing sight of its centre. However, in design’s ever-expanding field, it may just be that the largescale exhibition is an inherently problematic format for presenting new research on substantive topics, risking ponderousness or advocacy. There is certainly a long road ahead, particularly when it comes to keeping the public onside, with consequent challenges for the balance sheets and curatorial acumen of design museums. It may take time to discover exhibition formats that deliver on all fronts, and there may be failures – perhaps even catastrophes – along the way. Fortunately, Cars is not one of these.
The exhibition Cars: Accelerating the Modern World is on until April 19, 2020, at the V&A, London.
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