Precursors to the cruise ship, ocean liners got their start in the late 19th century.
And the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. is about to open an exhibition – in conjunction with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – that explores their history.
“It starts at the first appearance of professional designers – Arts and Craft designers in the 1870s – who used stamped leather wallpaper and embossed ceilings,” says Dan Finamore, PEM’s curator of maritime art and history. “It runs through the last ships launched in the late 60s – QE2 and the France.”
In between are the glory days of point-to-point, ocean-crossing by Americans to Paris, London, Italy and Germany – on ships decked out in Beaux Arts, Art Deco and Art Moderne designs. “They were representations of the modern world in a very positive way,” he says. “No one yet has looked what they were doing to present themselves to an American audience – creating an idealist vision of themselves in a very controlled environment.”
That could mean travel to Europe in the French Art Deco style with French waiters, or a comfortable English country house approach with chintz upholstery.
Finamore has created five sections for the exhibition – the first, about promotion, with posters, ship models and bookings, all demonstrating how the lines presented themselves so passengers would book on their ship rather than competitors’.
There’s a section on speed, safety and comfort, with the design of ship oriented toward passengers’ interests – and galleries that focus on design history of national styles. There’s one about life on board, with the development of ships with specialized social areas – religious spaces, swimming pools and children’s spaces.
“Then there’s the big arena of dining and cocktails – for 15 second s of fame, where passengers can be seen in the dining room with Cary grant and Marlene Dietrich,” he says.
Finally, there’s the role of ocean liners in views of modernity – the futuristic designs for ocean liners, mass housing, high rise apartment buildings, and references to ocean liners in modern architecture today.
Not to mention in the island-hopping cruise ships of the Caribbean.
The exhibition opens on May 20 and runs through Oct. 15. For more, go here.