5 Questions with “Streamlined” Curator Matthew Bird

Design historian Matthew Bird, left, and Nicholas Bell, Museum senior vice president for Curatorial Affairs, explore the engine collection in the Watercraft Hall in January 2019 as Bird began to curate the exhibition, “Streamlined: From Hull to Home.”

Matthew Bird has spent the past 25 years working in different parts of the art, design and gift professions. Trained as an industrial designer and metalsmith, he designs products that are distributed to gift stores, museum stores, galleries and catalogs throughout the U.S. and overseas. He regularly participates in trade- and craft-show juries and is a frequent guest critic and lecturer at various schools and universities. He has developed and managed multiple retail environments and participated as a designer and buyer for several others. First as an exhibitor, then as a marketing consultant and later as a buyer, Bird has attended hundreds of wholesale and retail trade shows, bringing him in contact with a wide range of manufacturers, designers and consumers.

Knowledge of contemporary product design and familiarity with manufacturing techniques got Bird involved as an expert witness in copyright infringement cases. He frequently designs and manufactures custom wares for a wide variety of institutions (including Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), for which he designed the popular RISD tote bag, umbrella, multiple key rings and even a school tie). His passion for history has led him more recently to focus on design projects for museums. 

Bird is the curator of Mystic Seaport Museum’s Summer 2019 exhibition, Streamlined: From Hull to Home. He took some time recently to answer five questions about the exhibition, which opens June 15.

1. What is the story you seek to tell with this exhibition?

A. “Streamlining” is used all the time in today’s world to mean simplifying a process or making easier to facilitate. And many people are familiar with “Streamlining” as a design style from the 1930s and ’40s that created smooth shapes with rounded corners, and visual references to speed, like bands of horizontal lines, or dramatic wind-swept shapes. The fact that all of the ways we use the word and think about the style come out of a long history of naval design and progress in boat construction is an untold part of the story. The Museum has the objects (BOATS!) to tell that story in an dramatic, visual, irrefutable way.

In short: The collections at Mystic Seaport (boats, motors, photographs) tells a better, truer, more exciting story of how “streamlining” transitioned from engineering to design, and shows how we went from fast boats to fast planes to fast LOOKING everything else (vacuum cleaners, cookware, radios).

2. How did Mystic Seaport Museum’s maritime focus and collections influence the development of the show?

A. Two collections items stand out as obvious foundations for everything the show has developed into:

The 1938 Waterwitch outboard engine is the ultimate example of the streamlined style. It is a beautiful gleaming aluminum, pod-shaped celebration of speed. It was also created at the cross-over point where engineering created shapes designed to reduce resistance, and designers copied those forms to produce manufactured objects that looked fast, even if they went as slowly as a 2 hp motor, or didn’t even move at all. The Museum has a vast collection of other outboard motors, and it was immediately clear that a progression of them show the arrival of design in our manufactured items.

The 1904 Panhard ElCo auto launch is a wooden boat that uses hand-construction methods to create a completely rounded, pod-shaped hull that seems impossibly modern for something made in 1904. It points out that the shapes needed to make a boat go fast, the natural outcome of hydrodynamic engineering, arrived at being as beautiful as they were functional. Using boats in the collection to show the development of these shapes, and how they fueled innovations in airplane, bus, train, and car design, is a great way to connect the collection to the world outside. A trip to this exhibition would be worth it JUST to see the Panhard. It is so insanely beautiful, and unlike anything else that remains from 1904. It made me completely reconsider what I think of as old-fashioned

3. What is special or unique about Streamlined?

A. There have been scores of museum exhibitions about Streamlining as a design style. They have all made the connection from the visual references to speed in things like radios and desk fans to airplanes, which were the best evidence of 1930s advances in speed. But all have ignored the true origins of streamlining, which was being investigated and perfected in boat design long before it migrated to other forms of travel. Early passenger airplanes were called flying boats for a reason; aeronautic engineers used hull designs,  pontoons , and construction methods that were perfected by naval engineers. This exhibition shows the progression from boat to airplane to toaster, and tells the complete story in a way that hasn’t happened before.

4. Is there something that surprised you as you researched and put together the show?

A. Two big surprises arrived while working on this show:

  • The first is the contrast in speed boat designs of the 1920s and ’30s. The topsides are smooth, sleek shapes that we recognize visually as the shapes fast boats are supposed to have. But the undersides, the engineered hulls, are radical experiments in how water resistance can be overcome, and even harnessed to change how the boats went through the water. This transition from cleaving the water to planing over it led directly to airplane design. Boat people might already know that but the rest of us (especially design historians!) don’t.
  • The second is that once Streamlining was a recognized design activity, and proven as a successful way to increase sales in a Depression-era economy, boats went from being naturally streamlined, as part of their evolution and genetic make-up, to being stylistically Streamlined. Boats in the 1940s had to endure the addition of chromed trim and hardware, horizontal banding, and rounded edges not because they needed them but because it made them look more like other successful products of the time. That the shapes came from boat design in the first place was already forgotten.

5. What do you want the visitor to take away from the exhibition?

A. Obvious take-aways are basic understanding of what Streamlining is in design. And how that developed, and what it led to. Also that everyday manufactured objects help us understand the world that created them, which applies to our own contemporary existence as well. But the most important take-away, which requires no descriptions or text panels or new information to make happen, is that the Mystic Seaport Museum collection is full of exciting, inspiring objects.