Bon-voyage to the luxury liners

Within this 20th century the great era of the mammoth ocean liners has come, flowered, and almost gone. It has now receded just far enough into the past to make a museum show both feasible and welcome. That exhibition, "The Oceanliner: Speed, Style, symbol" opened late in January at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum at 2 East 91st Street in New York and will be there through April 6.

It is a eulogy to a glorious era, and for New Yorkers and visitors it stirs deep nostalgia for bygone days. For those of us who believed the ads that "getting there is half the fun" and sailed out of New York Harbor to ports abroad, who often greeted arriving friends at the piers, and attended gala bon-voyage parties for friends departing on board the liners, the exhibition is a trip down memory lane.

Stephen Lash, a curator at Christie's auction gallery and himself an avid collector of ocean liner graphics, suggested the idea of the show. Richard B. Oliver, curator of contemporary architecture and design at the museum, agreed and served as director.

Plenty of collectors were found who were willing to share, through loans to the exhibit, their treasured collections of ocean liner memorabilia. The result is probably the first great coming together of this vast assortment of material, and ocean-travel buffs are taking heed.

The exhibit shows illustrations of the ocean liner in all its major design aspects, from its streamlined hull, to the machinery inside, to the accommodation areas, and the style and decoration of the luxurious interiors themselves.

Mr. Oliver begins the display with the launching of the Lucania in 1892, and ends it with the launching of the Queen elizabeth 2 in 1967.

he reminds us the Cunard Line's two ships, the Mauretania and the Lusitania, both launched in 1907, were hailed as the first great liners. Each carried 2, 000 passengers, and each pioneered the steam turbine engine.

The show depicts the triumph of the Normandie (built in 1935 at a cost of $60 million) as the great nautical design achievement of the 1930s, followed by Cunard's impressive Queen Mary, launched in 1936, and its sister ship, the Queen elizabeth, in 1940.

These three svelte liners were the fastest, largest, and most famous ships built before World War II. However, as Mr. Oliver points out, the Ile de France , built in 1927, was the precursor of the architectural and design look that emerged in the 1930s with the name le style paquebot,m "the ocean liner style." This was an integrated, modernistic art deco style, rendered in marble, glass, and lacquered surfaces.

Later, eight liners -- the Bremen, Europa, Normandie, Queen Mary, Rex, Conte di Savoia, Nieuw Amsterdam, and America -- were conceived as ships of state and showcases for the modern art, decoration, and architecture of each country. In each case, vast teams of architects, engineers, designers, and artisans collaborated to make each liner a veritable floating palace. Their aim was to delight, entertain, and bedazzle as well as coddle and care for every passenger every inch of the way across the Atlantic.

For years England, Germany, holland, Italy, France, Sweden, and the US basked in the glory of these posh liners which were complete resorts within themselves and which moved majestically to and fro across the Atlantic in five to seven days.

They offered speed, stability, and comfort. But more important, their grand assortments of salons, lounges, promenade decks, movie theaters, Olympic swimming pools, and block-long dining rooms offered nonstop opportunities for socializing and recreastion. as Mr. Oliver points out in his exhibit catalog, "the sumptuous ocean liner became an architectural device aimed at transforming the ordinary events of life into a kind of theater."

They represented an age of leisure and of elegance, now long gone. Those floating dynamos connected the wonders of the Old World with those of the brave new world of America.

"The liner was an embodiment of popular ideas and aspirations regarding the integration of art and technology," says Mr. Oliver. "It seemd to galvanized the technological and aesthetic concerns of our day in one remarkable artifact: the largest moving object in the world."

Many of the opulent leviathans are now extinct. The Queen Mary is docked as a tourist attraction in Long Beach, Calif. The liners that are left have been converted to cruise use.

The liners, at the height of their sway, certainly influenced style, architecture, and furnishings. But art deco and related "modernistic" looks of the 1930s have already enjoyed their period of recent revival. No liner-mania of new liner-inspired objects is anticipated. Collectors, of course, are feeling encouraged, and spurred on, by the museum display.

The exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt evokes the whole picture: the liner as design masterpiece, the romantic decades when it flourished, the glitter of the period, and the sadness of the decline. The look it provides is bittersweet.

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