Deco Radio: When Art Met Industry

By Peter Sheridan

A grouping of radios influenced by industrial designers and showing the influence of the streamline aesthetic.

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Artes AR3, Spain, 1947.

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Kadette K25, Clockette, United States, 1937.

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FADA 1000, Bullet, United States, 1945.

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Radio-Glo, United States, 1935.  

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Rubis 70, Belgium, 1933.

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Motorola 50XC, Circle Grille, United States, 1940.

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Emerson BT245, Tombstone, United States, 1938. 

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Symphony, United States, 1939.

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 EGM, Mexico, 1940.

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AWA Radiolette and Cigarette Box, Australia, 1934 and 1936

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Famous industrial designers used a new style, new materials, and mass production in the turbulent 1930s and 40s to create beautiful, colorful, streamlined tabletop radios, starting a trend that brought modern Art Deco styling into homes around the world.

 

The years from 1930 to 1940, wedged between the deprivations of the Great Depression and upheavals that presaged World War II, presented a pocket of opportunity for radio design. The common image of radio before its miniaturization to the transistor radio in the 1960s is that of a drab piece of wooden furniture or an unremarkable brown plastic box. But there was a period of glamor and innovation that is almost forgotten, except by a small group of collectors who hold the last specimens of this important lineage. Fueled by the genius of industrial designers, the advent of new materials and methods of marketing, better manufacturing processes, and changes in consumer buying habits, this was truly a golden age of radio and an important element in the globalization of modern style.

Radio may be seen through a number of different prisms: as an important type of mass communication; through the technical framework of radio electronics; via the evolution of radio stations; through the diverse news and entertainment content, often featuring celebrities; and through the aesthetics of its presentation as a cost-effective, visually appealing domestic appliance. The focus here is on design, with radio as a leading player in the evolution of a new style movement, animated by the genius of the most famous industrial designers in the world. This flowering of radio from 1930 to 1940 is rarely appreciated for its importance in the world of industrial design and to the beginnings of Art Deco styling in the home.

 

The first consumer radios in the 1920s were a complex mix of separate elements, consisting of a receiver with multiple controls, a battery, and a speaker or headphones. As these components became integrated, radio design initially followed the style of the gramophone and in the late 1920s, aided by the availability of electricity in the home, evolved into the popular console radio. This was a piece of wooden furniture with Victorian styling hiding the radio components, intended for the living room and usually controlled by the man of the house. The wooden console always remained popular but even with Art Deco styling in the 1940s, rarely strayed from its box-like form and eventually morphed into the radiogram (radio, record player, and sometimes television) in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Radio boasted the fastest uptake of any of the new technologies of the twentieth century, including telephone, television, and the Internet. Radio brought about a third wave of the democratization of information (the advent of speech and the printed word being first and second). Newspapers, magazines, and books were the predominant communication media of the nineteenth century, but literacy rates overall were not high. The spoken word was universal, and radio enfranchised the least educated with information they could assimilate. In addition, it was actually less expensive to provide radio waves than newspapers in remote and rural areas. By 1940, 90% of the people in the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Australia had radios in their homes, and 75% got their news through this medium. This saturation could not have happened without the advent of the tabletop or mantel radio, which first appeared in Germany, created by the Nora Radio Company in 1929. This was a portable cabinet with simple tuning and volume controls containing all the electronics and a speaker and connected to an electrical outlet. By 1930, tabletop wooden radios appeared in Great Britain and the United States, but Nora led the way in Germany in 1930 with the first Bakelite tabletop radio, the Sonnenblume (German for Sunflower), which is a masterpiece of early radio technology enveloped in an Art Deco designed and mass-produced Bakelite cabinet.

The first Bakelite tabletop radio. Nora Sonnenblume (Sunflower), Germany, 1929.

Unlike the console radio, the tabletop radio had no design predecessor, and although countless numbers were subsequently made of wood and with traditional styling, there was an opportunity for new ideas in cabinet design, materials, and the target market. Its success is measured by the fact that after 1933 many more tabletop radios were sold than consoles. By 1930, radio had moved from a novelty to a necessity, and, given the number of people out of work and struggling financially during the years of the Great Depression, it is extraordinary how many radios were sold around the world from 1929 to 1935. This was a burgeoning market in an otherwise commercially depressed era. Hundreds of radio manufacturers looked for opportunities to expand their markets, and the confluence of many diverse factors created a unique moment in the evolution of this medium.

 

The new profession of industrial design engaged people who had come from other disciplines, such as graphic design, theatrical set design, fashion illustration, and architecture. They all had little or no work during the Depression. However, the new tabletop format for radio offered an integrated, more user-friendly apparatus of a portable size, creating potential for multiple units in the home and workplace. In stepping away from the constraints of the large wooden console radio in the living room, the tabletop radio effectively changed the listener from the family to the individual; it also broadened the scope of radio programming and the listening audience. Importantly, the concurrent expansion of electricity in the home underpinned the expansion of radio sales.

 

Added to this was the utility of the new nonflammable synthetic plastics (Bakelite, Catalin and urea formaldehyde products with brand names such as Plaskon and Beetleware.) These could be mass-produced much more cheaply per unit that wood radio cabinets which required more skill and time for production and finishing. Being nonflammable, the plastic cabinets could closely approximate the chassis and its tubes with infinite possibilities for external design. Here the artisan was replaced by the assembly line.

 

The new plastics offered scope to incorporate the new Style Moderne design (which today we call Art Deco or Streamlining) and create a whole new type of radio cabinet that reflected modernity and progress. Some radios clearly derive from other streamlined Deco objects; skyscrapers, trains, and rockets, others from the aerodynamic shape of a bullet, a sled or the grille of a car. Reduction in the size of radio tubes in the mid-1930s allowed for small cabinets to be produced and, almost exclusively in the United States and Australia, a wide choice of colors encouraged advertising targeted to women to place radios in all the rooms in the home.

 

A number of smaller radio companies commissioned industrial designers to create radios that would offer a cost-effective home appliance to be mass-produced and mass-marketed. These designers were all early in their careers, and almost all went on to be founders of Streamlining, luminaries of industrial design, and much more famous for their subsequent commissions. These commissions for inexpensive radio designs were not for major corporations and clearly not considered prestigious, as they were generally ignored in later homages and biographies. But the larger, more complete picture confirms that this was the moment when art met industry, and it was the embedding of electronics into consumer products that gave rise to a radical shift in both design possibilities and people’s relationships with objects. For the first time, a product’s potential behavior and functionality was disconnected from its physical form. Radio became an object consumers chose for their homes, on the basis of not just what they would hear, but how it would look. Radio became a visual as well as aural experience. Companies manufacturing radios were forced to modify their cabinet designs each year (whether or not there were technical advances) as choice and change became synonymous with retail marketing.

 

The industrial designers were innovators who empowered their successors, creating a benchmark for other radio makers to aspire to quality styling. They used a wide range of materials (mainly plastics, but also glass, metal, and wood), but their coherent bond was the shedding of fussiness in favor of streamlined design. The collateral effect over the next 10 years was significant in the U.S. and all around the world. Australia is a good example of a country with no known radio designers, yet the style of locally made radios in the mid-1930s clearly was influenced by the radios created by American and British industrial designers. A true anomaly is the very rare wooden console, the Pacific Elite, made in New Zealand in 1934, which shows how good design can overcome the inherent limitations of material and a furniture mentality. By 1950, in the U.S. many inexpensive Deco-style radios sold in department stores were made from painted metal. A small quantity were chromed, and today these little gems are highly sought by collectors.

 

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Pacific Elite, New Zealand, 1934. One of the few wooden radios in the world that exemplify the streamline aesthetic.

A group of six chrome radio from Arvin and Temple sold in department stores in the US in the 1950s

Overall, this small subset of designer-influenced radios from the 1930s represented  a minuscule proportion of global radio production and sales, but by virtue of their aesthetic attributes and clever incorporation of radio components, they influenced all radio cabinetry to some extent. Their influence was global, reinforcing the spread of the Art Deco aesthetic in radio design around the world. It should be noted that the impact of the Depression and the upheaval leading into World War II meant that in many countries consumer radio production was halted or severely limited, and the prewar designs emerged only when production resumed in the late 1940s and even the early 1950s.

 

Most of these radios are rare today, and some are limited to a few remaining examples. They are highly collectible and valuable, not so much for their design lineage, but for their genuine beauty and visual appeal.

Some 37 designers have been identified who created Art Deco radios, with most coming from the U.S. and UK, but with a representative each from Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Of the Americans, Harold van Doren and Raymond Loewy started the ball rolling in 1933. Van Doren became the President of the Society of Industrial Design. Loewy was later known as the ”father of streamlining,” “the father of industrial design,” and “the man who shaped America.” Norman Bel Geddes is known as “the man who designed America” and Dorwin Teague as “the dean of industrial design.” John Vassos was called “the quintessential modernist.” All these designers are more famous for other—mainly later—creations, everything from a matchstick to a city.

 

In the U.K. the Ekco Company led the world in the early 1930s to produce modern style radios in the new plastics, hiring well-known architects including Wells Coates, Serge Chermayeff, J.K White, Jesse Collins, and Misha Black. Coates designed the world’s first round radio and refined the use of the circle within the radio itself, a feature that spread around the world. But try as it might, Ekco, for all its beautiful designs, could not persuade the British public to buy a radio that wasn’t black or brown until the late 1940s. The Castiglioni Brothers designed for Phonola in Italy and Louis Kalff in the Netherlands for the Philips Company. Walter Maria Kersting in Germany was notable for using radio design for Nazi propaganda purposes.

Catalin was first used for radios in 1936 by the Fada Company in New York and became popular in the U.S. Catalin was a cast phenolic commonly used for jewelry, with glorious translucent colors. This was perhaps the first introduction of mix-and-match elements in retail choice with the Catalin cabinet in one color matched to the grille and knobs in another. An example is Dorwin Teague’s tiny Sparton Cloisonne of 1938, probably the most cultured and evolved of all the Art Deco radios. With a white Catalin cabinet, which fades over time to butterscotch, and Tenite (cellulose acetate) knobs, the front is enameled in one of four colors—red, blue, brown, or yellow—and decorated with chrome circles and horizontal lines. One circle contains the textured speaker cloth. It is the only radio with such a variety of materials, and yet the effect is a seamless and subtle unity. It is perhaps a high point of the integration of form, color, and texture in the evolution of radio cabinetry, these criteria also forming the mantra of the industrial designer and underpinning much of Art Deco styling.

 

Radio brought the world into the home, opening channels to all sorts of news and entertainment, breaking down isolation and privacy, exposing people to an expanding world of listening opportunities. For example, music in the home in the nineteenth century—before the advent of the gramophone—was performed by family members on their own musical instruments. The gramophone and record player, which were popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century, were overtaken by radio from the mid-1920s to the 1950s, when individual records and stereo became desirable. Radio dramatically increased the number of individuals listening to music and expanded the audience for music to all ages and all social classes. Initially all music on radio was live, with bands and entertainers performing in the studio, but better recording methods in the 1930s allowed for programming flexibility and, with the networking of radio stations, hugely expanded the listener base.

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Walter Dorwin Teague, Sparton Cloisonne, United States, 1938. Blue and red models of a small, rare, and elegant expression of Art Deco styling.

A beautiful radio can satisfy the senses. Looking at the colors and shapes is a visual delight. Run your hand over the surface of a Catalin or Bakelite radio, and the smoothness and fluid curves are almost sensual. When you turn on an old valve radio, there is first nothing, then a light hum, and then the crackle of static. These aural cues speak of a time past and another social milieu.

 

The streamlined radio cabinet was a new style of modern object in home décor. It represented, and was symbolic of, the new Machine Age future by virtue of its aesthetics, independent of the core audio function and its many benefits.

 

Today, radio is part of a blended barrage of modern digital broadcasting, and future generations will most likely not recognize a radio as a discrete device. Radio still serves as an entertainment and information medium and, in a more modern iteration, an arbiter of social exchange. But as it dissolves into the cocktail of digital mass media, it is important to articulate the evolution of its social, technical, and design history. There was a time when radios were beautiful, and after a hundred years it would be a shame if they were forgotten.

RAYMOND LOEWY, UNITED STATES

   1929 Gestetner Duplicator Revamp 

uu1931uWestinghouseuColumnaire       uGrandfather Clock Radio

   1933 Colonial New World Radio

   1933 Colonial 300 Radio

   1934 Electrolux Coldspot Refrigerator for           Sears & Roebuck

   1936 Pennsylvania Railroad K4S Locomotive

   1936 Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 Electric          Locomotive

   1939 Lucky Strike Cigarette Packet

   1941 Schick Electric Razor

   1950 Studebaker Champion Starlight                Coupe

   1953 Studebaker Starliner Coupe

   1954 Greyhound Scenicruiser Bus

   1961 Studebaker Avanti Coupe

   1961 British Petroleum Logo

   1962 Shell Logo

 

WALTER DORWIN TEAGUE, UNITED STATES

   1928 Kodak Gift Camera

   1932 Marmon 16 Automobile

   1934 Kodak Baby Brownie Camera

   1935 Sparton Nocturne Radio

   1936 Sparton Bluebird Radio

   1936 Sparton Sled Radio

   1936 Kodak Bantam Special Camera

   1936 Texaco Gas Stations

   1937 Kodak Bullet Camera

   1938 Sparton Cloissone Radio

   1939 Polaroid Desk Lamp

   1939 Steinway Piano

   1948 Polaroid Model 95 Camera

   1946 Boeing Stratocruiser Airplane Interior

   1940s Maxwell House Automatic Coffee            Making Machine

   1940s UPS Delivery Truck

HAROLD VAN DOREN, UNITED STATES

   1933 Air King Radio

   1933 Skippy Racer Scooter

   1934 Wayne Pump Company             Gasoline Pump

   1934 Sno-Plane Sled

   1935 American National Company     Children’s Bicycles,    

   Tricycles, Scooters, and Wagons

   1935 Toledo Scale

   1939 Maytag Master Washer

NORMAN BEL GEDDES, UNITED STATES

   1931 Philco 370 Lazyboy Radio

   1937 Majestic 651 Radio

   1937 Revere Manhattan Cocktail Set

   1939 New York World’s Fair               Futurama GM Pavilion 

   1940 Emerson 400 Patriot Radio

JOHN VASSOS, UNITED STATES

   1924 Armand Products Screw-Top         Lotion Bottle

   1932 Perey Turnstile Company             Turnstile

   1935 RCA Phonograph

   1936 RCA 6K10 Radio

   1936 RCA Victor 8T11 Radio

   1936 RCA Victor 9K10 Radio

   1937 Streamlined Kitchen Paring         Knife

   1938 Hohner Accordion

   1939 RCA Television

   1939 Hohner Harmonica

   1939 Storytone Electric Piano

   1939 General Electric Teardrop           Record Player CJM3 Bakelite

ISAMU NOGUCHI, UNITED STATES

   1929 Portrait of R. Buckminster             Fuller

   1937 Zenith Radio Nurse

   1944 Noguchi IN-50 Table

   1956 UNESCO Le Jardin de la           Paix, Jardin Japonais 

   The Garden of Peace, or                     Japanese Garden

CASTIGLIONI BROTHERS, ITALY

   1938 Caccia Cutlery Set

   1940 Phonola Radio

   1956 R.E.M. Spalter Electric                Vacuum Cleaner

   1957 Sella Stool

   1962 Flos S.p.A. Arco Floor               Lamp

   1962 Flos Taccia Lamp

   1965 Brionvega RR126 Stereo             System

WELLS COATES, UNITED KINGDOM

   1930 British Broadcasting                   House Studio

   1932 Kensington Palace Gardens

   1934 Ekco AD65 Radio

   1934 Ekco AC85 Radio

   1934 Isokon Flats Building Lawn           Road Flats

   1935 Ekco AD36 Radio

   1935 Ekco AD76 Radio

   1935 Yeomans Row

   1936 Embassy Court

   1939 10 Palace Gate

   1940 Ekco AD75 Radio

   1945 Ekco A22 Radio

   1949 Telekinema Cinema Building

Design Timeline listing some of the most notable industrial designers with their early work on radios highlighted in gold.

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Raymond Loewy, Colonial New World, United States, 1933.

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Wells Coates, Ekco AD65, United Kingdom, 1934

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 J. Sampson Spencer, Automatic Tom Thumb, United States, 1938.

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Harold van Doren, Air King, United States, 1933. Norman Bel Geddes, Emerson Patriot, United

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Walter Dorwin Teague, Sparton Nocturne, United States, 1935

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Norman Bel Geddes, Emerson Patriot, United States, 1941.

A grouping of radios designed by some of the notable industrial designers listed in the Design Timeline.

About the Author:

Peter Sheridan is an internationally renowned collector and speaker on Art Deco as well as a committee member of the Art Deco & Modernism Society of Australia and an accredited professional photographer. Sheridan has authored three major photographic reference books on design and architecture including: Radio Days: Australian Bakelite Radios (2008), Deco Radio: The Most Beautiful Radios Ever Made (2014), and Sydney Art Deco (2019).

 

This article is a reference from Sheridan’s 2014 publication Deco Radio: The Most Beautiful Radios Ever Made.

 

All Photos: From the collection of the author.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Winter 2021. View a digital version of the full journal here.