September 12, 2016
This week at the Art Department, architect, Ph.D and curator Silvia Perea takes us on a journey through the prophetic designs of Count Alexis De Sakhnoffsky. Inspired by aerodynamism, Sakhnoffsky’s streamlined designs of automobiles, homewares and entire lifestyles in the 1930s and 40s embodied the idea of a hopeful and technologically efficient future.
Read on to discover how De Sakhnoffsky was instrumental in spreading the idea of the comfortable and luxurious domestic ‘American dream’ around the world, and why he can be considered a precedent to transhumanist artists like Stelarc and ORLAN:
If we define a prophecy as the revelation of a future event by somebody gifted enough to see beyond the known world, we can state that prophecies come ultimately from an imaginary utopia stretching behind the curtain of the sky. In their anticipatory motivation, prophecies follow man’s impulse to ‘conquer’ the secrets of the universe; in their summoning to be alert, they often prompt creative reactions. It is no surprise that among the devices envisioned throughout history to explore the Earth’s confines, those capable of flying have traditionally accepted the label of ‘prophetic’ at ease. Through industrial and technological development over the past centuries, prophecies evolved from being inspirational, religious and pagan-centered to now being rooted in the aims of science. At the beginning of the 20th century, as airplanes allowed men to gain freedom up in the sky, aeronautical engineering surfaced as a prophetic discipline. The wind tunnel became a crystal ball to predict the behaviour of solids subjected to air currents and provided mathematical clues to perfect the relationship between these solids’ speed and their energy consumption. The aerodynamic patterns drawn from the wind tunnel, infused with long flowing vanishing lines, were immediately associated with the ever-increasing speed at which technology was then progressing. By the early 1930s, these lines, in their modest whooshing trajectory, were commonly believed to represent the future.
In the United States, aerodynamic design embodied the dream of progress that suited the consumer market’s need to overcome the hardships of the Great Depression. This fact explains the popularity that the aforementioned belief attained in the North American country, as well as the application of aerodynamic principles, or ‘streamlining,’ to the production of aircrafts, automobiles, ships and trains. In need of an ideal reality to alleviate oneself, the developing consumer society in the U.S. encouraged the transference of the futurist look of streamlined airfoils, fenders, hulls and locomotives to the design of daily objects. Cookware, tableware, furniture, appliances were thus trimmed with sweeping rims and curved corners to seduce the household’s pocket. This transference was indifferent to the emptying of economic and physical sense that had originally suggested streamlining the bodies of cars and vessels. Embracing the new style eagerly, the emergent figure of the industrial designer turned the assembly line into a ‘path to the future’ and was soon regarded as a prophet of marketable taste. Such was the case of Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes, whose careers exemplify the crisscross between futurist vision and marketing strategy. Even if distanced from the strict austerity of the European International Style, contemporary to it, streamlined design supposed a step forward in the simplification of the curlicues of its predecessor, the French-imported art deco. Dominating magazine ads and store windows, the allusions to aerodynamism in industrialised goods projected an image of a soothing tomorrow.
Significant among the industrial designers that prophesised the American dreamy existence through the streamlining of its features, is the almost-forgotten-today Count Alexis De Sakhnoffsky. Born in Kiev in 1901 to the Russian Czar’s private financial counsellor and the granddaughter of a sugar tycoon, De Sakhnoffsky became fascinated with speed while experiencing it at an early age in the blazing thrust of his father’s Mercedes-Benz. The young Count’s amazement with some of his relatives’ automobiles convinced him that his future would be somehow connected to big, fast and beautiful cars. Following the collapse of the czarist regime, De Sakhnoffsky went on to study engineering in Switzerland before getting a job initially as draughtsman, later as art director at the Van den Plas coach builder company in Brussels, Belgium. In 1928, after making himself a name among car stylists by collecting prestigious awards for his designs and publishing articles in specialised magazines, the Hayes Body Corporation of Grand Rapids, Michigan, hired him as an art director. Once in America and all throughout the 1930s, De Sakhnoffsky’s consulting agenda grew from styling automobiles to include a myriad of miscellaneous clients, such as manufacturers of belt buckles, watches, radio players, cookware, refrigerators, bicycles, furniture, trailers, buses and trucks, for which he (as he also did for his car designs) produced aerodynamic-looking original projects. As frequently stated in the magazine articles and ads that aired his works, De Sakhnoffsky’s services were requested for his credited expertise in striding forward everything he touched. Two of his finest creations, the award-winning Cord L-29, a two-seat car escorted by sweeping crafted fenders followed by a prominent croup, and the critically acclaimed Labatt’s beer delivery trucks, a collection of streamliners with malleable-looking profiles, account for the styling mastery that the Count amassed through the thirties. All the while he responded to these and other numerous commissions with the apparently ultra modern traces of streamline design – the future seemed to take shape on his drafting table.
Even though the Count’s work was artistic, not technical, it was not merely decorative but rather, it conveyed many forward-looking concepts. The designs of what were said to be the first completely streamlined truck in the world (White 704), the first automatic air-conditioned bus (White Dream Coach), or the first curved wristwatch (Curvex), carry his signature. De Sakhnoffsky’s focus on updating and improving all sorts of goods for mass production enriched his critical vision. Ultimately, this practice confronted him with the human body and led him to theorise about its streamlining. “In the midst of all this advance,” he pointed out “man remains the same as he always was. He is lamentably old-fashioned and I think it is time he were changed. Don’t think for a minute that I advocate the robots visualised by cubists. Far from it. (…) Our cumbersome body is an anachronism. We must trim it; push it in here and pull it out there until the whole has the appearance of being caressed into shape by a gentle breeze.” After exposing the need to streamline men’s feet, nose and ears, he fearlessly called for the organisation of a worldwide conference that integrated a surgeon and a famous artist, to come up with a copyrightable “perfect human being”. Resonating with the engendering premises that Aldous Huxley had presented in A Brave New World a couple of years before, De Sakhnoffsky’s reference to the use of bioengineering for improving the human body anticipated the working basis of contemporary transhumanist artists, such as ORLAN, Patricia Piccinini or Stelarc.
As it had happened during the Great Depression, in the aftermath of World War II a progressive reassuring spirit rose globally among creative circles. Upon his return to the U.S. from Moscow’s front where he had served as an Air Force Intelligence Officer, Alexis De Sakhnoffsky welcomed that spirit, zealously proposing new streamlined ideas for the American market. Fifteen of these were published in the form of “Mechanical Prophecies” between June of 1946 and September of 1947 in Esquire —a men’s magazine to which the Count had supplied articles and illustrations on prospective trends in consumer goods since 1934, shortly after the magazine’s launching. Each Prophecy consisted of the presentation of the futurist features that a common object or space acquired through De Sakhnoffsky’s styling line. Along with the illustrations of these features, a brief text stressed the direct benefits that their commercialisation would provide to the average consumer. The fact that these proposals seem today completely assimilated and even obsolete confirms perhaps their original prophetic value. At the same time, the familiarity that they convey arises from their inspiration in the ideal of luxurious and comfortable domesticity that the U.S. market promoted during the postwar period and that transcended worldwide subsequently as the ‘American Way of Life’.
While the model of the industrialised house, intended to free its users from maintenance rituals, became a source of reference for the Prophecies’ functional aspects, the design of bombers and flying wings continued to inspire their shape. “Mechanical Prophecy No.1”, for example, presented a camper as a translation of a family home (bathtub included!) ergonomically arranged inside a zeppelin-shaped carcass with a clear plastic nose. Though naïve and simplistic, its streamlined design was a promise to end the ‘camping-out’ atmosphere traditionally associated with caravans. In this regard, it foresaw the sophistication that the design of motorhomes has known ever since. The second and third Prophecies exposed gliding sedans equipped with fabulous gadgets (a walkie-talkie and radio control integrated in the steering-wheel and electrically operated sliding doors, among others), which preceded those of James Bond’s fleeing companion for a few years and the components of a contemporary standard car by decades. Prophecy number seven included an iron-plate-like ‘feminine phone’, which featured rubber buttons instead of the usual revolving dial and that looked like a proto-cell phone. Equally stylised, the rest of the Prophecies featured home spaces turned into spots for self-indulgence, as well as ships, planes and even a scooter as homey hybrids. Arranged exclusively for masculine entertaining whether up in the air, at home or on the road, most of the Prophecies were in reality, a primitive version of today’s ‘man cave’, a private room usually reserved in American family homes for men’s amusement and hobbies. In the Count’s proposals, just as in these retreats, technology was put in service of male pleasure: automatic drink mixers, flying and driving compacted instruments, pedal-operated illuminating systems, self-lighting pipes… So was their chrome and puffy décor, which suggested a high standard of living. Prophecy after Prophecy, De Sakhnoffsky made future file as a masculine-chic, glamorous, liquored, technified, playful, and (only supposedly) affordable extrapolation of reality. In cultivating the consumerist aspirations of the postwar American society, the Count’s vast dreamy output contributed to elevate design to the realm of art.
From a current stance, De Sakhnoffsky’s vision for the future, though suggested through the styling of accessories rather than through a comprehensive plan, was not fulfilled in the assembly line as much as it influenced the epoch’s visual culture. Furthermore, the agile tempo that streamlining invokes underlines the anticipatory value with which his proposals were publicised. Both the impression of logical feasibility that his designs give and the feeling of lively timing that their contours transmit, place De Sakhnoffsky’s figure between that of the inventor and the prophet. Such is the way he was referred to by the press long before Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Director of the Department of Industrial Design at MoMA, labeled streamline design with a four letter word* and its appreciation as a merely decorative craft began to transcend. Altogether, a broader historical perspective shows us today that as the sky, the ultimate source of inspiration for streamline seers, was progressively ‘conquered’, their visions of the future were increasingly tamed. Even if De Sakhnoffsky’s styling language remained unaltered for life and was eventually outmoded, he deserves some renewed credit for fuelling the takeoff of industrial design as a prophetic discipline and underpinning the ideal of smooth and progressive tomorrow that still defines the American identity.
*That so-called ‘four letter word’ referred to ‘shit’.
Silvia Perea is a Spanish architect, Ph.D and curator of art and architecture.
This article is part of the Prophecies theme by the Art Department. From July – September we will be publishing articles by researchers, writers and artists that explore the relations between art and predictions of the future. Here we’re thinking about art in a broad sense, crossing science fiction, popular culture, film and music as well as, of course, visual art. Silvia Perea is one of the selected proposals from the Open Call for Prophecies.