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Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style

Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, Massachusetts
Through October 9, 2017

Paquebot Paris, by Charles Demuth, 1921–22. Oil on canvas. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Image: © Columbus Museum of Art

“When aboard ship,” wrote industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes in 1932, “you have seen better modern architecture than you have ashore.”

This expansive exhibition sails along with the giddy delight of a besotted vacationer. Much of the show details décor, as the ships, appealing to the tastes of customers from the mid-19th century to the late 20th, adorned dining rooms and cabins in Beaux-Arts, Art Nouveau, or Art Deco style.

Shipping companies co-opted trendy designs. Modernists, in turn, co-opted ideas from the ships, and this show explores that give-and-take. When modern architects stepped aboard, they ignored the curlicues, classical references, and nature motifs inside, and marveled over the sleek industrial designs outside.

Le Corbusier, who favored sea travel, called ocean liners “a liberation from cursed enslavement to the past.” On one transatlantic voyage, he strolled about photographing air intake cowls and winches, but opted not to document the luxurious interiors, where décor was still slave to history.

It wasn’t only the functional designs that grabbed him. He noticed how even first-class passengers put up with small-scale accommodations because so much was available outside the cabins — shops, public spaces, amenities. He followed that template when designing Unité d’Habitation, his Marseille housing project. Even certain architectural elements — ventilation stacks, ribbon windows — echo those of an ocean liner.

Maritime designs started popping up elsewhere on land. Robert V. Derrah’s Coca-Cola Bottling Plant in Los Angeles looks like a ship.

Ocean liners in many ways symbolized the modern era. Models of propellers and engines in this exhibition echo the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal Machine Art show in 1934. But nobody ever built a purely Modernist ship.

Bel Geddes designed one — a teardrop-shaped beauty. The model is on view here. It never came to be. Modern designs aimed for a utopian ideal, but for ship passengers, the ideal was opulence, and they got what they paid for.