We Atlantans have love-hate relationships with cars.
Without them we wouldn’t be able to go about our daily lives in this sprawling city, but because of this, we endure endless traffic, staring at a sea of bumpers and brake lights. We should want cars to be the furthest thing from our minds during our free time.
Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas, the High Museum’s exquisite new exhibition, might just change your heart.
Dream Cars, which runs through September 7, features 17 automobiles — a mix of one-of-a-kind vehicles, concept cars never intended for production, and prototypes that were later produced. Produced between 1934 and 2010 in Europe and America, they share a common thread of ingenuity and vision, demonstrating, as High curator Sarah Schleuning says, “what it meant to be innovative.”
Though we take it for granted, everything in our daily lives is designed. While many utilitarian objects are relatively simple, cars are complex machines with details that are carefully planned and honed by designers. The exhibit makes this point with conceptual drawings, patents and scale models. Additional materials, including photographs, videos and text, give a greater social, historic and design context.
Arranged neither chronologically nor geographically, the exhibit presents the cars not as a linear trajectory of design innovation but rather as individual vignettes, instances of creative design in their own context. In this manner, each car is presented as a work of art, often placed in the center of the gallery spaces to offer a 360-degree view.
The first car guests encounter is the Special, designed and built by mechanical engineer Norman Timbs in 1947 for his own use. The sweeping form of the body, seemingly crafted out of a single piece of aluminum, can only be described as sexy. Featured on the cover of a 1949 issue of Motor Trend magazine, the car epitomizes both the exuberance of postwar America and the futuristic vision that pervaded the middle decades of the last century.
The next car, the 1936 Stout Scarab, is one of the most interesting in the exhibition. Most of the cars in the exhibit are sporty, embodying the youthful freedom associated with car culture. In contrast, the Scarab, a behemoth with an imposing presence, looks utilitarian. Yet, with its highly articulated detailing on the exterior and front fenders that resemble facial features, it is more fanciful — like an anthropomorphic living room on wheels — than the minivan its form presaged.
The sinuous lines of the earlier cars in the exhibition give way for a moment to the more angular designs favored in the 1970s. The Lancia (Bertone) Stratos HF Zero, constructed in 1970, is a low wedge, topping out at a low 33 inches. Designed with the lowest profile possible, the car represents a paradigm shift in the auto racing industry. While too low to go into practical production (being too low to have doors, the driver enters through the windshield), the car’s aerodynamic wedge shape influenced cars to come.
Considered with the Pininfarina (Ferrari) Modulo, also of 1970 (which stands 3.5 inches taller), the two cars are mesmerizing, seemingly too sleek to be functioning vehicles. The color schemes and angular construction are a radical departure from the curvilinear forms and pleasing colors of the other automobiles in the exhibit — an indictment of the ’70s as a decade of poor judgment that extended well beyond disco and bell-bottoms.
Beyond pure aesthetics, many of the cars are included because they contain features that were decades ahead of their time. The 1956 Buick Centurion’s back-up camera and the built-in radar of the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone to alert the driver of possible road obstructions were prophetic. It is a marvel to see the features in cars more than a half century ago; even now these technologies are still just taking hold. In addition to displaying technologies that have been adopted, the newer prototypes offer a glimpse of what the future might hold. The 2001 BMW Gina, skinned in fabric, is a sight to behold.
The range of vintages of the cars displayed ensures there is something to interest everyone. The retro 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt and the 1951 GM Le Sabre are sure to take some visitors down memory lane. The rocket shaped 1954 Firebird I, the final car, is sure to excite the imagination.
The museum hopes to repeat the success of its 2010 exhibition Allure of the Automobile, which, according to High director Michael E. Shapiro, lured new audiences to the museum. Schleuning, who organized the exhibition in consultation with Ken Gross, feels that nonmuseumgoers can get more excited about something that is tangible and seemingly omnipresent in our daily lives.
Not just for car enthusiasts, the exhibit offers a variety of entry points. The vehicles can be considered simultaneously as sculpture, objects of industrial design, mobile architecture and feats of engineering. Demonstrative of the importance of design in our daily lives, the creativity embodied in the 17 cars on display ought to engage High Museum regulars and first-time visitors alike.
The audio guide, available for $6, is well worth the price. The iPod offers historic videos and commentary by the curators as well as more detailed information about the development of each automobile. The audio guide is also available for download in the Apple App Store and Google Play so that even those that cannot make it to the museum may experience the exhibit.
Family Movie. June 1 – p.m. Hill Auditorium. Kids can create cardboard cars and watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Gallery Talk: Sarah Schleuning. June 14 and 15, 2 p.m.
Arts & Rec: Makers Fair. July 13, noon to 5 p.m., and September 7, noon to 5 p.m. A family-friendly event with race cars, demonstrations, art making and more.
Teen Night. August 23, 7 to 10 p.m. For high school students only.
Conversation with Contemporary Artist: Syd Mead. August 28, 7 to 8 p.m. Gallery stays open until 9 p.m.
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