Up until the 1930s, boxy, black, hearse-like cars ruled. Then they gave way to marvelous creations: Curvaceous, elegant, beautiful, made from fine materials. To behold one of these babies was to feel the particular sense of wonder, and limitless possibility, of Deco design. These days well-preserved specimens from the era are rare, but this month brings your chance to see 14 of them—along with three spectacular motorcycles—at Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929–1940 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
“The cars speak to people who were interested in design and style,” says Cindi Strauss, who co-curated the show with Ken Gross of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “They certainly also speak to people who were interested in innovation… And in a certain number of them it’s about glamour as well. It’s a style that embraces both the handmade luxurious materials and the industrial.”
Strauss brought in these automobiles—which have nameplates like Packard, Bugatti, Chrysler and Hispano-Suiza—from museums and private collections around the country, gingerly loading them into the museum’s Beck Building via freight elevator. In an exhibit full of showstoppers, standouts include a one-of-a-kind, aerodynamic C27 Aerosport Coupe from aviation pioneer Gabriel Voisin and a teardrop-shaped Henderson motorcycle that resembles the Light Cycle from Tron.
Attention to detail is everything in Deco, and these cars have all the bells and whistles—think headlamps, wood and chrome detailing, even buttons instead of door handles. Beyond that, museumgoers will be impressed to learn about their performance on the road. The Ford Model 40 Speedster, for example, could hit speeds of up to 160 mph.
Deco design, of course, was everywhere in its heyday, with the automobile as one example. If Sculpted in Steel leaves you craving more, you’re in luck. The MFAH is concurrently featuring Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age, an exhibition Strauss co-curated with Christine Gervais. The show features photos, prints, drawings, books, cameras, glassware, couture costumes and accessories that give a glimpse into the nightlife of the era, something that’s fascinating to Strauss, especially when placed in the context of the Great Depression. “This style emerges and finds its way to be relevant even with all that was going on,” she says.
Of course, nothing lasts forever. When World War II hit, the focus shifted from opulence to efficiency. “As with any style, there is a shelf life,” says Strauss. “In terms of the progressive art and style, you have people who move on. What you see is a different type of interest in industrial collaboration and good design for everyone, and an interest in more common materials.”
But Strauss says old is new again, pointing to the return of craftsmanship in everything from cocktail clubs to handmade goods in Houston. “There are elements that are still part of our culture,” she says. “You look at forms of dress and cocktails and accessories—there’s a resurgence in it.”
Sculpted In Steel, Feb. 21–May 30.
Deco Nights, Through June 5. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet St., 713-639-7300. mfah.org