Tin, Chrome, & Steam
July 8, 2009 | Designer and automotive historian Strother MacMinn once told me, "if it moves, even if it's a vacuum cleaner going back and forth at three miles per hour, it has to follow the rules of transportation design." For those enthusiasts who missed this year's Concours d'Elegance in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Japan Society offers a chance to examine some of the greatest hits of America's postwar love affair with the automobile—in miniature. Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile, the Yoku Tanaka Collection will be on display from July 9 to August 16. "Buriki" derives from the Dutch "blik" (tin) and these are truly exceptional survivors of items that once numbered in the thousands. Beginning extremely modestly with metal cans salvaged from U.S. military bases, by the early 1950s these now nameless designers had hit their groove and were lovingly ripping off Detroit practically as soon as the new models were announced. Even Harley Earl's "LeSabre" custom made it into production through buriki.
Curator Joe Earle has written a beautifully illustrated catalogue to accompany the show. For those who can't get enough automobile imagery, Taschen has once again provided the biggest bang for the buck with 20th Century Classic Cars: 100 Years of Automotive Ads. Chosen from the collection of Taschen editor Jim Heimann and with commentary from design journalist Phil Patton, this is easily the largest and most extensive examination of the subject in a single volume. The rise of the American automobile coincided with the golden age of American illustration, and it's almost disappointing when the first photographic ad appears (for Chevrolet in 1937). I hope that the bevy of names now largely unknown found in these pages (Marmon, Pierce-Arrow, Packard, et al.) will inspire younger readers to investigate some of the most inspired designs ever to emerge from a workshop.
Finally, Jay Raymond's Streamlined Irons (Streamline Press, 2008) offers an even more definitive treatment of its subject matter. Truly superb photography and an elegant layout will encourage readers to linger over the images and hopefully appreciate formalism in design and the richness of streamlining's visual vocabulary. Factual information is concise and definitive and provides a backbone of information to this very appealing book.