Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s Opens at the Museum of the City of New York

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Exhibition showcases six World’s Fairs from across the country, featuring New York’s Fair in 1939-1940

Breadlines and raging unemployment were a hard reality during the height of the Great Depression, but the world’s fairs of the 1930s provided a spectacular diversion. Six American world’s fairs presented streamlined cars, models of skyscrapers, electric toasters, nylon stockings, and television, providing a vision of a brighter future for tens of millions of Americans. On December 5, 2012, the Museum of the City of New York will open "Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s," an exhibition celebrating the six fairs, including New York’s 1939 World’s Fair, which was the largest and one of the last of the six, masterminded and built by then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in what is today Queens County’s Flushing Meadows Park. Significant elements of the 1939 Fair still exist today, including the roadways built specifically for the exposition, and the park that hosted the fairgrounds.

The other fairs highlighted in the exhibition are Chicago (1933/34), San Diego (1935/36), Dallas (1936), Cleveland (1936/37), and San Francisco (1939/40).

The fairs foretold much of what would become commonplace in prosperous postwar America—and they allowed leading corporations, like Con Edison, AT&T, and DuPont, an unparalleled opportunity to present newly engineered and designed modern conveniences and consumer products. They were also prophetic in advancing concepts of the future, such as the nation’s superhighways and its suburbs.

Visitors to the exhibition will see sleek, modern furniture and appliances, vintage footage from the fairs, and futuristic drawings of the New York World's Fair's buildings, both built and proposed, from the Museum's collection as well as nearly 100 fair artifacts that were debuted at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. From advertising to architecture and domestic innovations and furnishings, all of the fairs’ most popular and recognizable attractions are incorporated into the exhibition.

In custom built “pavilions” that are reminiscent of the larger pavilions at the fairs, visitors will also view examples of innovations from the areas of material culture, science, technology, and housing. A full-scale replica of Elektro, the talking robot created for Westinghouse, and a modernized toaster are on display in the science pavilion. Futurama, the most popular exhibition at the New York world’s fair, occupies its own section in "Designing Tomorrow." Visitors will see vintage footage of this ride, designed by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors, which took fairgoers on a narrated trip across a 35,000-square-foot model of an imagined metropolis of the 1960s. Samplings of tubular steel furniture, models of streamlined buses, and images of cities filled with light and color all illustrate the creativity and hope these fairs came to represent. Also on view is much promotional memorabilia from the six fairs.

"Designing Tomorrow" begins with a projection of never-before-exhibited Kodachrome slides of the New York fair from the City Museum’s collection. (Kodachrome was one of the first commercially successful color photographic films, in its infancy in 1939 and showcased by Kodak at the fair.) Providing a first-hand look and taken by two amateur photographers, these slides flash vivid scenes in glowing colors—the blue of the skies; the dazzling white of the New York fair’s icons, the Trylon and Perisphere; a hot pink parachute falling through the air; and water appearing orange like flames during the evening light show at the Lagoon of Nations.

The impressive architecture of the fairs themselves was a marvel, and a selection from the more than 200 design drawings given to the City Museum by the New York World’s Fair Board of Design feature rich, bright, and futuristic renderings for 1939’s buildings of tomorrow. Renowned artists include Hugh Ferriss, who transformed the ideas of famed architects and industrial designers, such as Raymond Loewy, into drawings that are works of art themselves. These renderings—created between 1936 and 1938—offer special insight into the original intentions for the New York fair, showing both buildings that were realized and those that were simply boldly imagined. Another source mined at the City Museum is the Wurts Brothers Collection, and their series of photographs taken at the 1939 exposition reveal the beauty of the grounds and the palpable excitement of the visitors.

“We are delighted to mount this exhibition in a collaboration with the National Building Museum,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “We expanded their exceptional work focusing our presentation more on the New York Fair and including wonderful artifacts from our collections. The World’s Fairs of the 1930s are really exceptional in that they were a celebration of innovation during a period when outlooks were bleak and the country was in the throes of the Great Depression.”

"Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s" was organized by the National Building Museum and expanded and adapted by the City Museum. The exhibition was curated by Laura Schiavo and Deborah Sorensen for the National Building Museum, and was adapted and curated at the City Museum by Jessica Lautin, who is Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow at the City Museum, in collaboration with Curator of Architecture and Design, Donald Albrecht. Cooper Joseph Studio was the exhibition designer in New York City.

This exhibition at the National Building Museum was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities*: Because democracy demands wisdom; and the National Endowment for the Arts.

*Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

At the City Museum, the exhibition is also made possible by the generous support of: The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation; Con Edison; Mary and Marvin Davidson; Nixon Peabody LLP, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP; and Agnes Gund. Additional support is provided by Sally Spooner and Edward Stroz; Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel; Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation; and Lee P. Gelber.

"Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s" will run through March 31, 2013.


Tuesday, December 11 at 7:00 pm
“As the World's Fairs Turn: At Home and Abroad”
The United States has not hosted a world's fair since 1984, but fairs are still held in Asia and Europe; the 2010 Shanghai World Expro drew some 70 million visitors. Designer Jack Masey and historian Robert Rydell will explore the history of world's fairs and reflect on their future at home and abroad. Masey, a former Director of Design for the United States Information Agency has been involved with world's fairs, internationally and diplomatically, for over five decades; and Rydell is co-author of Designing Tomorrow's companion book.

Saturday, December 15 at 2:00 pm
“World's Fair: Gallery Tour”

Join Jessica Lautin, Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow and local curator for the Designing Tomorrow exhibition, to see how the six American world’s fairs of the 1930s sold the promise of a better tomorrow. Design was the key; form married function, and everything from cars to toasters and coffee pots had a sleek and streamlined look that suggested increased efficiency.

Additional public programs will be scheduled. Please visit the Museum of the City of New York’s website ( for a complete list of programs and events.


Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. The Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City, and serves the people of the city as well as visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections.

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Meryl Cates - Communications/ Press
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