By the 1930s, advances in materials science and propulsion combined with the design principles of Art Deco and the functional aesthetic of the Futurists to culminate in Streamline Moderne. A vigorous and well-recognized style in architecture, it was to prove equally influential in other design arenas, from toasters to transportation.
In a stylistic orgy of advanced materials such as stainless steel, bakelite, chrome and aluminum, in its transportation applications, Streamline Moderne was unashamedly fixated on aerodynamics, speed and motion. One of the earliest examples is the innovative Lockheed Vega (1928), made famous by aviation pioneers such as Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart.
Designed by the talented Jack Northrop, it marked the limits of wooden design and single-engine performance. It had a streamlined, smoothly rounded monocoque fuselage that was made of molded plywood in two halves and glued together to produce an extremely smooth surface. It had no external struts or wires to break its smooth look and was what Northrop called "clean." The plane had cantilever (internally braced) wings set above the fuselage, a feature that had been introduced by the Dutch aeronautical pioneer Anthony Fokker in the early 1920s, and a similarly constructed tail assembly. Its wing design helped give the aircraft its superior speed.
In 1935, Howard Hughes used the California Institute of Technology's wind tunnel and took those principles to yet another level in his design for the Hughes Racer (Hughes H1) monoplane, which set a set a world speed record of 352 mph. Two transcontinental speed records were also set in the following years.
The first automobile to exemplify the new Streamline Moderne aesthetic was the 1934 Chrysler Airflow. Engineer and designer Car Breer drew inspiration from aerodynamic principles after a trip to Selfridge AFB, and set in motion a 30-year period in automotive manufacturing where aircraft design principles became a visual manifestation of the swaggering technological confidence of the era.
"That 1934 Chrysler Airflow was Chrysler's first unit-construction car. It fundamentally changed the architecture of the American automobile by placing the passengers between the axles for a vastly improved ride. In moving the passenger cabin forward and down, the Airflow was Chrysler's first "cab forward" design. The Airflow coupe was also one of the first American cars to conceal the spare tire in the trunk. Further, the 1934 Chrysler Custom Imperial Airflow CW Limousine was the first American car to incorporate a curved, one-piece windshield. But as with many changes from the norm, the Airflow was not a commercial success and its significance in design ingenuity would not be realized until years later."
- Chrysler Design Institute website
Despite the Airflow's poor sales, the 'aircraft' aspect of ground vehicles was emphasized more and more as time went by, with fantastical prototypes such as the 115 mph 1938 Phantom Corsair demonstrating the heights to which the style could aspire. Much like the concept cars of today, the Phantom Corsair never became a production offering, despite its advanced technologies. But the die was cast, and the modern concepts introduced by the Airflow, the Phantom Corsair and the Cord 810 fired the imaginations of automotive designs for the next quarter century, culminating in the outrageous styling and exaggerated fins of the late 1950s and early 1960s, as exemplified by the 1960 Chrysler Imperial.
Trains were subject to the streamlining craze as much, if not more so, than any other mode of transportation. Even while steam locomotives were still in wide usage, operators such as Canadian National Railways and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad took delivery of streamlined, snorting monsters, which were further augmented by the advent of modern diesel and diesel-electrics, culminating in the first bullet trains (or Shinkansen), and ultimately the streamlined monorail in which thousands travel during trips to Disney World.
Over time, even less visibly 'speedy' objects inherited the streamline style, from tractors to trailers, design cues which are still evident today in today's postmodern era, in modern airliners, sportscars and watercraft.
When the combined impact of Streamline Moderne is considered, on both transportation and architecture, it's hard not to conclude that it was one of the most influential design movements of the 20th century.