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John Sloan, a New York City artist, cynically observed: "The artistic taste of most persons in this country is formed by the illustrated calendars distributed by corner groceries." To overcome this charge of pedestrianism, the Fair's Board of Design created a comprehensive blueprint for "The World of Tomorrow."

For decades, communal architecture reflected the design of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. Its orderly, classical, all-white look held a firm grasp on the American mind. The creators of the New York World's Fair determined to change the public's perceptions.

According to its members, the board intended to create a physical environment of buildings, landscape, murals, sculpture and exhibits that would appeal to the great mass of visitors, the so -called 'man in the street.'

The Board of Design intended "The World of Tomorrow" to look "modern." To that end, the board set a few unusual, but very specific restrictions on the construction of the fair buildings. All pavilions must frankly reflect their temporary character and not appear like permanent materials. And, excluding the pavilions in the Government Zone, no buildings could imitate any historic structures.

Following these instruction, to a large extent the architects designed single story buildings, thus forcing the fair to install many decorative pylons to break up the monotony of the low sky line The pavilions with multi-levels, however, included ramps, elevators and escalators to reduce visitor's fatigue to a minimum. Revolving platforms also helped maximize circulation through the pavilion.

The architects included an interesting feature in most of the pavilions – a lack of windows. This intentional design element allowed for more exhibition space, excluded the summer heat (twenty-five percent were air conditioned), and avoided interference with the exhibit's artificial lighting. Notable exceptions included the enticing entrance to the Borden exhibit and Westinghouse. Westinghouse had a real "hook": its two glass-fronted wings allowed fairgoers a view of a giant swinging pendulum and faintly hear Electro, its mechanical man.

Walter Dorwin Teague, one of the seven members of the Board of Design who created the Ford and U.S. Steel exhibits, proclaimed: "World's fair architecture is to be amusing." And for many buildings, it was just that.

A few architects created fanciful designs in the Architecture Parlante style buildings whose characteristics best reflected their function. Without having to refer to their guidebooks, visitors could conjecture the Maritime Building by its prow, like façade and the Aviation Building through the hangar-like appearance. Even Teague employed this style placing a huge cash register atop the NCR pavilion.

Regrettably the Board of Designs' intent to appear "modern" failed to impress most architectural critics. "The buildings sprawl, billow, leap, perambulate, following no order except the sweet will of the exhibitor and his architect." "Opium-dream architecture ranking in esthetic significance with the current fashions in women's hats will be visible on every hand."

Others complained: "Designs here run the whole gamut from surrealism to cockeyed." "The architecture of the future seems to envision us living and working in tubes, tunnels, triangles and practically everything except four walls and a roof."

And renowned architect Harvey Wiley Corbett predicted: "The Fair's architecture will not exert any more influence on design than would a band of musician on musical taste if each member were playing a different piece."

Perhaps the most influential and devastating reviews for the general public came from Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore.

Following a consultation with President Roosevelt in the White House about the memorial's progress, a friend persuaded the Borglum to visit the New York fair. To say the least, he was not impressed. "I don't like it. Fairs are all degenerating." He did, however, appreciate the lights, fountains and fireworks in the evening as they hid "that horrible mass of architecture" exposed in the daylight.

Borglum found the scientific exhibits "perfectly marvelous" and raved over the Soviet pavilion because it was not marred by "classicism." But his harshest words fell upon the examples of his own profession.

As a sculptor, Borglum said the Fair's statuary made him sick in his head, heart and stomach. He believed the massive representation of George Washington made the first president look like "a clodhopper." And he declared the Soviet's "Big Joe" "no more embodies the spirit which should be inherent" in the revolutionary ideal.

W. H. Collins had had enough of Borglum's rantings. In a letter to the Sun's editors, Collins wrote: "Considering that Mr. Borglum is deforming the face of nature and a beautiful mountain with his monstrosities, it ill becomes him to criticize the sculpture at the fair, after all, is only for temporary decoration."

In keeping with the Board of Design's overall intent to control the look of the Fair, Julian E. Garnsey, a color consultant, proposed the half-wheel design of the main exhibit area suggested a color plan roughly based on the progression of the spectrum.

Grover Whalen announced: "We are taking off our kid – or rather our rubber gloves and are plunging both hands deep into paint pots. We anticipate that the New York Fair will popularize color in the same way as the World's Columbian Exposition popularized classicism (translation: all white facades).

The totally white Trylon and Persiphere would stand within the Fair's focal point. The designer explained the Theme Center as actually being "an all-color hub" since all visible wave lengths of light result in the sensation called white.

The three avenues radiating towards the Government Zone would be hued in Gold, Red and Blue. Starting at the Theme Center, each color scheme would begin in pale shades, deepening farther along the avenues until they ran into Rainbow Avenue. Mr. Garnsey provided a range of 499 carefully graduated colors to the architects. As The New York Times' editors observed: "We moderns, at any rate, have outrun all previous civilizations in the range of colors at our disposal."

However, as with the Board of Designs' efforts to stimulate "modern" architecture, the color scheme failed to impress. "It's the old amazing circus idea of color – with a college education. Except in the Amusement Area here, color drops its Harvard accent and lapses into pure, unadulterated circus."

So, having struck out in the areas of architecture and color control, where did "The World of Tomorrow" succeed?

"The exhibits without exception are the work of a world of today. This country can take pride in the exhibits of its business men, its artists and the organizing genius of its corporations. All of the resources of the country have been placed at the disposal of the Fair and they prove to the world that this country is the most powerful in the world."

"Today the radio, film and press have made the fair-going public pretty familiar with almost anything a fair can show them, and it has become the practice to try to kill the bird with four barrels instead of one. Fairs and their crowds have swelled to preposterous sizes using this technique, and New York is no exception."

So, who loaded the four barrels? Industrial designers.

Industrial designers, a relatively new occupation in the United States, looked at form and function to determine the best connection between a product, in this case those within the various business pavilions, the user and the environment. Norman Bel Geddes, then a successful theatrical designer and the creator of General Motors' "Futurama" for the '39 Fair, opened the first industrial design office. His groundbreaking work popularized the streamline look of the Thirties.

Raymond Loewy, another major proponent of industrial design, admitted: "In our consumer-oriented, machine-age America, the fair is more like a huge department store." Planners estimated fairgoers would spend approximately seventeen minutes per exhibit, with the average number of visitors per pavilion at 693 an hour. Therefore, to capture their attention, the designers established three functions for any pavilion's exhibit:

Draw the visitors'/consumers' attention through color, light, motion, and sound
Create and sustain their interest through entertainment and beauty
"Tell a Story" through progression, unity and simplicity.

A quick review of the successful pavilions revealed that architectural design, proper use of illumination and good color effects were essential for an effective exhibit. Surprisingly, however, only 8% of the pavilions included a musical background to enhance their exhibits. A rare exception was the Ford pavilion which, after discovering that opening week crowds tended to pass through their display quickly, without taking time to notice the details, added a musical backdrop. To the Ford exhibitors' delight, the crowds now paused to look and learn and enjoy.

Chicago's Century of Progress taught exhibitors that visitors liked exhibits in which they could participate. Therefore, 77% of "The World of Tomorrow's" pavilion's provided exhibits of an operating type.

Kodak received rave reviews for its Hall of Color which projected Kodachrome color slides on multiple screens to a musical accompaniment. A.T.&T. packed visitors in hoping to make a free long distance phone call, take a hearing test or "watch" their voice in a magical mirror. General Electric astounded in the House of Magic with thyratrons and stroboscopes.

The poorest attended pavilions drew approximately 7% of the fairgoers; the most successful 40%. So what drew the crowds in? The top ten at the close of the 1939 season:

  • General Motors: pavilion and Futurama
  • Ford: pavilion and Road of Tomorrow
  • A.T.&T
  • General Electric
  • Chrysler
  • Westinghouse
  • The Perisphere: Democracity
  • Goodrich
  • Firestone Aquacade