"It flashed by like a steel thunderbolt, the ground shaking under me, in a blast of air that almost sucked me into its whirlwind."
Not surprisingly, these words do not refer to a pencil sharpener. Not directly.
They open Raymond Loewy's impassioned description of the S1 steam locomotive he designed in 1937. His words have the ring of the Italian Futurists' manifestos a quarter century earlier, extolling the irresistible thrust of modern machines, sweeping away the past.
Loewy's S1 was the very image of streamlined modernity. Yet streamlining itself, such a prominent design concept in the 1930s, had roots in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when forms of least resistance (in nature and manufacture) were already being studied and the principles of hydrodynamics and aerodynamics explored.
Loewy himself, French-born, emigrated to the United States and espoused the American way of life like a true convert. His design work was sought after once he and his contemporaries in industrial design managed to persuade manufacturers that "good appearance is a saleable commodity."
Streamlining was a crucial aspect of this aesthetic. It was applied to many objects as well as trains, boats, cars, and airplanes. Thus this pencil sharpener, designed by Loewy in 1933, strikingly appears to respond to airflow. Essentially static, it has the look of a dynamic mode of transportation. Indeed, the prow of Loewy's S1 locomotive, with its prominent headlight punctuating its swept-back torpedo form, bears a striking resemblance to this sharpener.
In the Depression, people were responsive to successful images of modernity. Art Deco in particular recognized this. In today's difficult times, this approach to decorative art has renewed appeal. Deco was, in fact, a strange mix of modernity and a comforting naturalness of form. This object clearly celebrates nature's forms, prompting one to ask, "Is it a bird? Is it a dolphin?"
Such forms inspired fondness. Loewy kept this patented prototype on his desk. It has never been in production. Ironically, a renewed effort on the designer's part to have the sharpener manufactured led to his losing this model.
Today, this icon of 1930s style is in a private collection. By rights it ought to be in a museum and its classic Art Deco form ought to be reproduced, as Loewy wished.
I wouldn't mind a clone of it on my desk.