When We Designed the Future

Sarah Schleuning on the automobile designers that dared to dream big during the Lawndale Design Fair.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen April 15, 2015

L' oeuf Electrique, 1942

Can design change the world? Sarah Schleuning says yes. 

Lawndale Design Fair
April 20-26
Lawndale Art Center
4912 Main St.

Take the automobile, a feat of design that most of us take for granted every day. How did we arrive in a world of cars that can see behind us, brake for us and even parellel park on their own in a pinch? According to Schleuning, the curator of decorative arts and design at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, it all comes down to the innovators of half a century ago (or more) who dared to imagine what the future might look like. 

Schleuning will be in Houston for the Lawndale Design Fair, giving a lecture entitiled "Dream Cars: Innovative Designs, Visionary Ideas." She's not talking about the Ford Shelby GT or the '57 Chevy, either. Schleuning's focus is on the one-off concept cars and other failed disrupters that included features that wouldn't make it to the market for decades to come.

"They are basically prototypes. They spent tens of thousands on these one-off cars and then just scrapped them," says Schleuning. "Many of them debuted at Motorama, these fairs by GM that were like World's Fairs. That's where the term 'dream car' came from."

Sarah Schleuning

Among prototypes like a car that looks like a rocket ship, the concept cars of the day were the first to include features like a rear-view camera (on a car that included no mirrors) and radar sensor technology. Not everything would eventually become mainstream though—like the car with a tiny door so you didn't have to roll the window down to pay tolls.

Many of these innovations were the result of dedicated divisions at the big motor companies, which employed creatives like illustrator Syd Mead, while others were thought up by outsiders and individuals, invented by necesity.

"There's one called the Electric Egg, it's a French automotive idea, designed during the occupation of Paris. It's 62 lbs of aluminum and plexiglass, the first wrap-around windshield, the first bubble car... I just picture this guy tooling around Paris in this little electric egg. " says Schleuning.

Other design innovations from the era range from the 1936 Stout Scarab, a precursor to the modern-day minivan that offered seating designed to feel like your living room, including drinks that wouldn't spill even in high-speed turns; to the 1956 Buick Centurion, which featured a fiberglass body, bubble top roof, and an interior inspired by an airplane cockpit.

1956 Buick Centurion XP-301

"I'm not your average car person, but I found the ideas behind these pieces really inspiring about what design means and what it should be. Why are things like this made? They represent that belief that anything's possible. I thought that was a very powerful idea about why design is so important."

In addition to Schleuning's free lecture at MFAH's Brown Auditoreum on April 20, the Lawndale Design Fair takes place April 25-26, featuring 20 local designers, stores and other brands exhibiting vintage 20th century pieces as well as contemporary designs in fashion, furniture, lighting, books and more.

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