PopCult: The Obsessive Journal of Quality Pop Culture

Modes and Motors: an art deco introduction to GM’s Styling Section of 1938

“Out of the merger of art, science and industry have come new techniques that have within themselves the ability to create an entirely new pattern and setting for the life of the world.”
Modes and Motors, 1938

In 1927, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan hired Harley Earl to head up a new department called the “Art & Colour Section.” It would prove to revolutionize the way cars are created and marketed. Previously, a car was engineered and purchased purely for its mechanical ability. Now, the average customer would look to style as a major motivating factor for buying a particular car—with GM’s prodding.

Earl was uniquely qualified to lead the public toward pontoon fenders and enclosed trunks. In the mid-‘teens, he took over his family’s carriage company in Hollywood, Calif. and by 1919 turned it into one of the first customizing shops for the stars. He would take Marmon phaetons or Pierce Arrows and do everything from installing raked windshields and wire wheels to refashioning and repainting entire bodies. His reputation grew to the point where Cadillac head Lawrence P. Fisher hired him to style a whole new car, the 1927 La Salle–the first mass-produced car to be designed by a stylist. Its success led to Sloan’s job offer and Earl soon moved to Detroit. But you could say that Earl brought a chunk of Hollywood with him.

The Art & Colour Section was a first for the industry–a team of 50 designers, shop workers, and clerks who concentrated solely on the look of automobiles rather than just how they operated. Sloan’s theory was that yearly cosmetic changes would induce people to become dissatisfied with last year’s models–a kind of planned obsolescence. Earl made it an incredibly profitable reality. Although not much of a draftsman, he nevertheless knew what he wanted and guided his team’s ideas through his gut-reaction critiques. His philosophy was simple: “When you are a designer, you kind of think, ‘Well, if I were building a car for myself from the chassis up, what would I do?'” Fortunately, his tastes were usually right on target (yes, tail fins were his idea—and they were popular for a while), and they led the auto industry until he retired in 1959, replaced by the soon-to-be legendary Bill Mitchell (shaper of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray).

In 1937, the Art & Colour Section moved into a new building and changed its name to simply Styling Section (perhaps the British “colour” was viewed as too hoity-toity). The Modes and Motors brochure was issued in 1938 by GM in order to explain what the department did and why good design was important. It’s worth noting that this was the same year that Earl introduced a new concept to entice the buying public: the “dream car” meant only for auto shows. His radical Buick “Y-job” bore concealed headlights and a streamlined look that no doubt created the first generation of teenage boys to hope in vain for a concept vehicle to be produced.

“Probably in no field have the results of the application of art to the products of industry been more apparent than in that of the automobile,” reads the introduction. “In this book is told the story of this new partnership, together with a description of the methods used in designing style and beauty into a modern motor car.”

What follows in the brochure’s next 30 pages is a short history of global art (“Wherever artistic geniuses lived and dreamed, they left behind them evidence of their hopes and ambitions and desires…”) and then a lengthy examination of the industrial design process. What makes this booklet notable is not just its breathless prose, but also the degree to which GM lavished artistic integrity on what was just publicity material. With its lovely (and uncredited) art deco illustrations, Modes and Motors is a work of art in itself—fittingly, the most attractive in a series of GM brochures explaining the company’s mission.

It’s rather disheartening to contrast Modes and Motors and its passionate intentions with the current state of GM design. Earl’s styling by way of gut-instinct is a philosophy that’s seemingly long gone, replaced by marketing committees and focus groups. In fact, after Earl acolyte Mitchell retired in 1977, GM mostly lost its way for the next 30-odd years. With very few exceptions (the Pontiac Fiero of the early ’80s, the Chevy Camaro, maybe the ’95 Buick Riviera), GM’s products ranged from underwhelming rental-fleet fodder (the utterly pathetic 2004–2008 Chevy Malibu that GM dared to tout as “The car you knew America could build.”) to downright embarrassing fiascos (the Pontiac Aztek).

The Great Recession seemed to spark a few recollections of GM’s design heritage among executives, and more chances are being taken, most notably in the Cadillac division and with Chevrolet’s Camaro and Corvette. (And maybe the convertible Buick Cascada, why not.) But, by and large, GM’s cars today are most notable for not being offensive—which is an improvement, I suppose.

Here’s what GM thought of the importance of design, circa 1938. (Jump to page 15 for the amazing illustrations.)

Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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Richard Moody

American automobile styling in the 30s has always been my favorite era. Cords, Fords, Lincolns, Cadillacs and Buicks are rolling works of art. Contract that period to the present time. Crossovers offer no beauty. They all look like angry kitchen appliances. When will Lexus get beyond those atrocious spindle grills? Why must they all have the profile of bloated jellybeans?

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