MFAH Puts on the Ritz With Art Deco Style

There's a reason we get all fired up when iconic architectural landmarks are threatened. From the modernistic design of Houston's City Hall to the Gothic-inspired JPMorgan Chase & Co. skyscraper to the beloved River Oaks Theatre, the symmetrical, machine-inspired designs of the popular Art Deco movement remind us of a golden era, that post-WWI period of prosperity, optimism and elegance. As sophisticated as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (the movie set of Swing Time), or as iconic as the New York Chrysler building, the movement originated in France and soon took hold in fashion, interior design, graphic arts and especially automotive design.

Now, view 14 incredibly sleek cars and three motorcycles from this innovative era in “Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929–1940” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“This is the first time that the museum has ever done a show like this before,” says Cindi Strauss, assistant director, programming, and curator, modern and contemporary decorative arts and design. “It's our first show focusing on transportation. We're just delighted to be able to share these incredibly rare, beautiful, technically and sculpturally exceptional vehicles with our public. It gives us a great opportunity to have people look at design in a very different way.”

The fully restored vehicles are in mint condition and include a 1929 Bugatti Type 46, with its continuous S-curve bucket seats; a 1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet with its art moderne styling (Frank Lloyd Wright owned one); and a 1930 Henderson KJ Streamline motorcycle – known as a concept vehicle – which was misunderstood by the conservative motorcycle community of the time, which treated it as a “futuristic cartoon,” according to the exhibit's companion catalog.

The provenance for each vehicle is known, often telling stories of years in storage, or a soldier shipping out for Vietnam only to return to find a seized engine, or the passing of an original owner. The tales all end the same, with each vehicle's final stop landing in the hands of a collector who had the means to restore that vehicle to pristine condition.

“All of the vehicles in the show are exemplars of that [Art Deco] style, international examples drawn from collectors from all over the United States. It's a loaned show,” says Strauss. “The genesis of the show was the exhibition that Ken Gross, our guest curator, did for the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2013.”

While the Nashville show was larger, the Houston show has been tailored both to fit the space and to relate to MFAH's own Art Deco collection. “I wanted to cover the widest range of styles and car bodies within the Art Deco style. I wanted to make sure we had some significant motorcycles. We have a BMW that has not been shown before in exhibition; that's really exciting for us to be able to do that,” says Strauss, adding that choices were made to highlight streamlining, chrome details, overall form and teardrop shapes. The goal was to convey the “great sense of excitement, speed, innovation [and] technological advances during that period.”

Also on view are historic images and videos of the vehicles, which offer a fascinating look at the people, architecture and fashion of the era. The exhibit pairs nicely with the concurrent exhibit, “Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age” (on view through June 5), which includes photographs, prints, drawings, books, cameras, glassware, couture costumes and evening accessories.

“Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929–1940” is February 21 through May 30, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 12:15 to 7 p.m., 713-639-7300, mfah.org.

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