William Stout, Stout Motor Car Company’s Scarab, 1936
Bodywork designed by Figoni & Falaschi, Delahaye, 135MS Roadster, 1937
You don’t have to be an automotive fan to appreciate one of the most unique exhibitions the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has ever mounted. “Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929 –1940,” rolls into at the MFAH this month, serving up a delicious slice of 20th-century design, specifically the dazzling steel and chrome coupes, speedsters, roadsters and sedans that were the calling cards of the international Deco movement in America and Europe.
The exhibition features 14 automobiles and three motorcycles, including the 1934 Model 40 designed by Ford Motor Company’s styling wizard Bob Gregorie for Ford progeny and company president Edsel Ford — the only one in the world. The Great Depression notwithstanding, was there ever a more glamorous age for motoring?
Guest curator Ken Gross is a man passionate about cars whose street cred includes his former directorship of the Holy Grail, L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum. He joins Cindi Strauss, MFAH curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, in organizing this car-centric exhibition, inspired by a concept originally developed for the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville. (The motorcycle component reminds us of the Guggenheim’s mighty homage to Harleys and more, mounted in 1998.)
We’re going for marvels of aerodynamic design, with swoops and curves and assertive grilles such as those featured on the 1938 Dubbonet Xenia Coupe by luxe Spanish/French carmaker Hispano-Suiza, or the long, sleek excess of the Delahaye 135MS Roadster, a special design by Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi for the 1937 Paris Auto Show with an all-aluminum body complemented by a cosseted leather interior and matching car carpets from Hermès. American manufactures such as Packard (represented by a stately, stoic 1934 Twelve Model 1106, bodywork by LeBaron) and Chrysler (the sturdy 1935 Imperial Model C-2 Airflow Coupe with its commanding presence, articulated by designers Carl Breer and Norman Bel Geddes) exude attitude that makes today’s luxury rides look too tarted up or plain prosaic.
Among the three motorcycles presented, we were won over by Indian’s classic Chief from 1940. The strangest offering among “Sculpted in Steel” prefigures our era’s minivan: a 1936 Scarab crafted by American airplane and auto designer William Bushnell Stout for his eponymous engineering firm, featuring moveable seats, a folding table and a back seat that transforms into a settee.
“Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929 –1940,” February 21 – May 30, at the MFAH, Beck Building; mfah.org.