When the Future Had Fins

Remember when the world was seemingly full of blue-sky concepts? Things you never knew could exist were it not for the creative mind of a designer with the artful skills to show it all to you? It was a world without limits, a creative melting pot of innovation and flights of fancy; a time when people dreamed big.

That’s exactly what Christopher W. Mount, founder of the eponymous gallery in Los Angeles, California, is showing attendees at an exhibition titled ‘When the Future had Fins: American Automotive Designs and Concepts, 1959-1973.’

Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles

Mount, who trained as an art historian and landed his first job as a curator at MoMA’s architecture and design department — acquiring a Jaguar E-type and a 1990 Ferrari F1 car for the museum’s permanent collection — opened his 2,400 sq-ft gallery in the Cesar Pelli-designed Pacific Design Center in May of last year. He also has another gallery space on New York’s Columbus Avenue.

But while the gallery regularly showcases the works of prominent photographers, furniture designers and architects, Mount has been drawing cars “as early as I can remember” and enjoys the artistic and engineering aspects that combine in the creation of a car design. His passion for art paired with his enthusiasm for vehicles led him to curate the exhibition currently on show.

“In the last two decades, the art of drawing by hand has all but disappeared in many of the design professions,” says Mount. “In fields such as architecture, automotive design, industrial design and even typography fewer and fewer practitioners take hand to paper to sketch and resolve ideas.”

Many automotive designers now use tools such as Photoshop, Autodesk Sketchbook and Wacom tablets as well as Alias and Bunkspeed to gain access to shapes. But while these have created a useful bridge between inspiration and production, Mount feels that many of the aspects that turn a design into an art form have been lost in the process.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo by Terry Brochstein (c.1970)

“The advantages of a digital dependence can be vigorously argued both pro and con,” he says, “However, what is disappearing is the wonderful expressive form of the design sketch or study — often a work of art that not only contains the height of skill and formal craftsmanship but also combines this with cultural and historical significance.”

Taking a walk back through a time when designers relied on pencil and gouache, the exhibition includes 39 drawings for America’s Big Three — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – which were used in the design process as studies and styling experiments as well as presentation drawings. The subjects range from a new version of a Cadillac to far-flung concepts, and include visions of the new age illustrated so poignantly by futurist extraordinaire Syd Mead in his work for US Steel.

The work represents a halcyon period for the American auto industry, with little foreign competition, regulation or worries about oil shortages, the designs are filled with an almost naïve optimism. Primarily concerned with styling and appearance, the designers took advantage of the medium.

This is wonderfully illustrated through drawings by prominent designers such as Wayne Kady (Cadillac and Buick), Robert S. Ackerman (Chrysler), Bill Michalak (General Motors), J. R. ‘Dick’ Samsen (Ford and Chrysler), Dave Cummins (Chrysler), John Perkins (General Motors) and Carl Renner (General Motors), many of which are on loan from northern California dealer Leo Brereton.

Dodge rendering by Carl Cameron (1966)

Issues of practicality often take a back seat as the exhibition is divided between those by ‘advanced stylists’ — who created the futuristic concepts in the hopes that this experimentation would keep the companies product fresh and cutting edge — and the more traditional stylists creating new version of existing or new models. It’s clear that the fascination with personal luxury coupes was in its heyday, and though many of the illustrations on show demonstrate a return to simplification of form, some denote a reverence to the ornate opulence of the 1950s.

“Since the early 1970s our society’s unquestioned faith in technology’s ability to fix problems has waned,” says Mount. “However these drawings importantly signify a time when artistic skill and expression met beautifully and significantly with Americas most important and defining industry, the automotive industry.”

If you get a chance to make it to Los Angeles for a visit we promise you won’t be disappointed. The exhibition – on the second floor of the Blue Building at 8687 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood – is open until May 20, 2015.

About the Gallery
The Christopher W. Mount Gallery presents drawings, sketches, models, prints, art experiments and photography by prominent figures engaged in the design arts and offers the public a chance to view and purchase stunning and culturally significant types of works already collected for many years by major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Visit the website here.


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