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Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Edsel Ford, Eugene T. “Bob” Gregorie, Ford Aircraft Division, Edsel Ford’s Model 40 Special Speedster, 1934, courtesy of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.

Edsel Ford, Eugene T. “Bob” Gregorie, Ford Aircraft Division, Edsel Ford’s Model 40 Special Speedster, 1934, courtesy of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.

Westfall Henderson 049

Ray Courtney, Henderson Motorcycle Co., KJ Streamline Motorcycle, 1930, Frank Westfall, Ner-A-Car Museum, Syracuse, New York.

“Sculpted in Steel” features 17 American and international examples from the classic era of automobile design

Today’s automotive manufacturers often strive for economy and efficiency, but there was a time when art and elegance reigned. In February, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929–1940, an exhibition that celebrates the cars and motorcycles designed during this iconic period. Fourteen cars and three motorcycles will be on view alongside vintage images and historical footage. Showcasing vehicles from renowned car collectors and museum collections in the United States, Sculpted in Steel will be presented through May 30.

The American and international examples featured in Sculpted in Steel display the classic grace and modern luxury of Art Deco design — the innovative, machine-inspired style that developed between the two World Wars. The Art Deco movement began in France in the early 1910s, but its development was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. The style reemerged across Europe after the war and was propelled to international prominence with the success of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. During this period, automakers embraced the sleek iconography of streamlining and introduced industrial materials to present aircraft-inspired body styles. Grilles and hood ornaments, headlamps, windows, and instrument panels are just some of the elements that were transformed through the use of chrome detailing and innovative aerodynamics.

Ken Gross, a noted automobile expert and former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, worked together with Cindi Strauss, the Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, on the selection for the exhibition, which draws on a concept originally developed for the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville.

“The 1920s to 1930s proved to be one of the most creative eras for international design in all mediums, and Art Deco styling influenced everything from fashion and fine art to architecture and autos,” said Gary Tinterow, museum director. “Sculpted in Steel includes rare and one-of-a-kind examples that epitomize the artful approach to industry employed by the leading auto designers of the day. These dramatic automobiles and motorcycles are truly works of art.”

“The 14 remarkable cars and three motorcycles on view in Sculpted in Steel were crafted from the finest materials of the time,” said Gross. “They remain today some of the most exciting, iconic, and refined designs of the 20th century.”

“Transportation design in the first half of the 20th century affords numerous opportunities to study the global influence of style,” said Strauss. “The Museum’s collection is rich in objects from the Art Deco period, but it lacks automobiles and motorcycles. Sculpted in Steel offers museum visitors the chance to learn more about this important period in design history from the point of view of automotive innovation.”

Exhibition highlights include:

1930 Henderson KJ Streamline. Hen­derson was a division of Excelsior Motor Mfg. & Supply Co., a competitor of Harley-Davidson. The custom, one-of-a-kind Model KJ, designed by O. Ray Courtney, is perhaps the fullest expression of streamlining in a motorcycle. Its teardrop-shaped body, fuselage-like fenders, and chromed grille and details unite to form a unified image of speed.

1934 Edsel Fords Model 40 Special Speedster. Designed by Ford Motor Company styling chief E.T. “Bob” Gregorie with Ford Aircraft Division fabricators, the Model 40 Special Speedster was built specifically for the company’s president, Edsel B. Ford, and is the only of its kind ever made. Its low-slung design incorporates both racing and aeronautical elements.

1936 Stout Scarab. Designed by William Bushnell Stout for his own engineering firm, the Scarab features a streamlined, beetle-like shape and a rear engine. In the Scarab, Stout created a living area on wheels: interior features include movable seats, a folding table, and a backseat that folds into a couch. For these aspects and its capacity to carry numerous passengers, the Scarab is often described as the precursor to the minivan. Fewer than 10 were produced.

1937 Delahaye 135 MS Roadster. Created by elite French coach builders Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi for the 1937 Paris Auto Show, the Delahaye 135 MS Roadster features an all-aluminum body, as well as leather interior and matching carpets provided by Hermès. The disappearing front windshield, sleek convertible top, and fluid chrome detailing are signatures of Figoni & Falaschi.

1938 Tatra T97. Designed in Czecho­slovakia by Hans Ledwinka, the Tatra T97 embraced the teardrop form of streamlining by licensing the concepts developed by Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray. Its prominent rear dorsal fin, “fast-back,” and integrated fenders projected a futuristic, speed-oriented form. The T97 was the smallest model that embodied Tatra’s new design philosophy.

Sculpted in Steel will be complemented by an exhibition of Art Deco objects from the Museum’s permanent collection. Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age, on view through June 5, will feature costumes, accessories, furniture, metalwork, and glass, along with photographs, books, and works on paper that reflect entertaining in the 1920s and 1930s.

A fully illustrated catalogue, published by Stance & Speed, accompanies Sculpted in Steel. The catalogue contains essays by guest curator Ken Gross and architecture expert Thomas Mellins, along with detailed commentary by Gross and automotive historians Richard Adatto and Jonathan Stein on the automobiles featured in the exhibition.

For more information, visit mfah.org.

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