From the Brooks Stevens Archive: “Looka’ that slide, isn’t she a honey!”

elephant from MJS 1938

Design rendering by Brooks Stevens (American, 1911–1995) as pictured in The Milwaukee Journal, December 19, 1938.  Article included in the Brooks Stevens Archive, Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Brooks Stevens Family and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

One of my job responsibilities is to be the curatorial liaison with the Museum’s Brooks Stevens Archives, a repository of renderings, photographs, and ephemera from Milwaukee’s preeminent industrial designer.

Today I was searching for information on a custom Packard “woodie” wagon that Stevens designed in 1940 for the Stratton Family, and I turned up nothing useful to an inquiring researcher.

However,  turning lemons to lemonade, while thumbing through Stevens’ press clippings from the late 1930s, I found something unusual and fantastic to share on this blog!

I stumbled onto a Brooks Stevens design project that differed dramatically from the snazzy lawnmowers, small engines, and radio covers that we’re used to seeing.  Brooks Stevens designs always have a touch of streamlined or space age glamor, but it is not often that you see his playful side as exhibited in his 1958 modifications to the iconic Oscar Mayer Weinermobile.

Tucked into a scrapbook filled with press clippings, I was delighted to see that in 1938 The Milwaukee Journal published images of Stevens’ designs for a Children’s Playground at the New York World’s Fair. I have never encountered these particular designs in our archive of audio visual material and renderings, so these charming designs were a surprise.

(The closest relating thing we’ve found–thus far—in the collection of black and white negatives is this image of his design for lettering to be used at the Children’s World in the World’s Fair.)

MJS 1938 streamlined

Playground equipment by Brooks Stevens (American, 1911–1995) as pictured in The Milwaukee Journal, December 19, 1938. Article included in the Brooks Stevens Archive, Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Brooks Stevens Family and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

For the 1939 “World of Tomorrow” exhibition, in addition to sliding down the 11-foot tall trunk of an elephant, children could enjoy Stevens’ designs for “other modernistic and streamlined apparatus for the fair, including teeter-totters with lifelike heads of animals and birds with a climbing structure called a ‘Junglegym.” (The Milwaukee Journal, 12/19/38)

Does this mean that Stevens invented the term Jungle Gym?!

The local newspaper article published in December 1938 (four months before the New York Fair would open on April 30, 1939) gives a sense of the national excitement behind World’s exhibitions. The New York “World of Tomorrow” Fair was the Unite States’ second largest in history after the 1904 St. Louis exhibition, with 44 million attending over its two summer seasons. Preparations for all the exhibitions took years and stretched worldwide, with various countries erecting their own pavilions.

the Milwaukee Journal, 1938

The Milwaukee Journal, December 19, 1938.  Article included in the Brooks Stevens Archive, Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Brooks Stevens Family and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Here in Milwaukee, The Milwaukee Journal boasted that “Stevens Designs New Playgrounds for World Fair”. The text is worth a read:

“Ohhhh, Skinnaaaay, come on over and look at this. Geeeeeeee! Looka’ that slide, isn’t she a honey!

If that conversation isn’t heard a few million times next year at the New York world fair, it won’t be the fault of Brooks Stevens, industrial designer here, who is completing designing toys and playground equipment for the J. E. Porter Corp., Ottawa, Ill. That firm will supply all the equipment for the two model playgrounds at the fair.

Since the inception of playground equipment little or no change has taken place in the design, according to Mr. Stevens. The Porter equipment, however, will be so changed that the kids may have to look twice before they recognize it. Streamlining has been used extensively and there are a lot more innovations that can’t be mentioned yet because the management of the fair wants to surprise the children.”

If you are interested in learning more about the work of Brooks Stevens, I personally use the Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World catalog as my desktop reference. Glenn Adamson’s publication for the 2003 exhibition at the Milwaukee is a great resource, and is always available from the Milwaukee Art Museum store online in paperback or hardcover. (This is not shameless mercantilism, I truly recommend this beautifully designed book for anyone interested in Milwaukee history or design history!)

The Industrial Strength Design exhibition catalog covers the highlights of Stevens’ work, but you won’t find the elephant slide included. That is an “Under the Wings” blog exclusive!
Update 7/11/2012 – There is a fantastic new museum exhibition that examines arts on view at the fairs from 1851 to 1939. Visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s website for the Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 exhibition.  The exhibition is on view in Kansas City until August 19, 2012 and it will be in Pittsburgh at the Cargnegie Museum of Art Oct 13, 2012–Feb 24, 2013. The exhibition travels to the New Orleans Museum of Art from April 14 to Aug 4, 2013, and The Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, from Sept 21, 2013 to Jan 19, 2014.

Mel Buchanan is the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

About Mel Buchanan

Mae E. Demmer Assistant Curator of 20th c Design, Milwaukee Art Museum. Lover of museums, objects, and cilantro
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One Response to From the Brooks Stevens Archive: “Looka’ that slide, isn’t she a honey!”

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