Clunky, Chunky & Funky

Space Shuttle Enterprise: Flashback to an Icon of ‘70s Design

The space shuttle now atop the Intrepid is a flashback—to an era of pure functionalism. By Blake Gopnik.

07.18.12 4:45 AM ET

The space shuttle Enterprise was about moving people through space, but I’d say it is also a time machine. On July 19, crowds will gather to see the shuttle’s unveiling in its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, on an old aircraft carrier moored off Manhattan. Sitting in a custom-made bubble on Intrepid’s decks, the Enterprise won’t be going anywhere soon, but that won’t stop it carrying fans back to the era it came from. Enterprise was the first shuttle to take to the air, on February 18, 1977, and for me it’s an icon of what the ’70s looked like. It’s also a reminder of how far we’ve come from the aesthetic behind it.

With its bulbous nose, stubby wings, and boxy body, the Enterprise seems of a piece with the boxy bulbousness of other designs of its era. Think of the first Honda Civic, from 1973, which comes closer to a hacked-at child’s block than to an elegant Packard or Corvette. Remember the first Walkman, introduced in 1979, with its tubby buttons and workmanlike profile. Visualize the wide-hipped Dustbuster (1979), splay-legged Workmate (1973) and the Apple II computer (1977), whose disk drives could almost be cargo bays. None of these objects are obvious beauties. Not one is in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, which set the good-design standard for most of last century. But that, I think, is just the point: Alone among decades, the ’70s had an anti-aesthetic aesthetic. That’s why today’s beauty-trained eyes, used to MacBooks and iPhones, can barely recognize it.

The shuttle may be iconic of this unstylish style because it was not, in fact, ever designed, in the normal sense of the word. No one ever made a choice about what it should look like, says Steven Sullivan, once a chief engineer on NASA’s shuttle program. (He’s still involved in coordinating the shuttle’s private-sector successor.) “Everything is functional, and not so much aesthetic,” he says, explaining that the machine’s specific forms and volumes came out of a compromise between what the Air Force wanted from a shuttle and what NASA was looking for, since it took that dual sponsorship to make the project fly in the halls of the Capitol. (Enterprise was used as a test vehicle, but never made it out into space. It was on view at the Smithsonian until curators got their hands on Discovery, one of the fully operational shuttles, and bundled the test model off to New York.) “The shapes are all done by aeroscience …. It was strictly a physics-based and a science-based design—but it does look very 1970s,” says Sullivan. If the shuttle seems iconic of its era, it’s because pure, unlovely function was the hallmark of that decade’s most successful designs.

The bestselling Walkman, for instance, came out of a design culture in postwar Japan that was built around the unglossed functionalism of American army surplus, according to an essay by Raymond Guidot, a pioneering design curator who has worked at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Walkman has stronger roots in a U.S. Army field radio than in any Bauhaus artwork, and that was part of the market appeal of the first Japanese exports to America. Guidot, like others, also cites the Apollo program’s spindly, spidery Lunar Excursion Module, the lander that touched down on the moon, as having “dethroned an aerodynamic style that had, until then, been the model for high-performance technology…. It called into question all of design’s sculptural values.” A ’50s toaster had been streamlined because that told its users its functions were up to date; 20 years later, a Walkman made the same point by looking as though it had come together by engineering accident—like some weird compromise between government agencies.

Carroll M. Gantz is an 81-year-old design historian who also happens to have designed Black & Decker’s Dustbuster portable vacuum, one of history’s most successful consumer products—the first, as Gantz points out, to sell more than a million units in its first year. Speaking by phone from his home in Florida, Gantz gives an account of the Dustbuster’s origins that is all about teamwork with engineers and solving practical challenges: fitting four batteries and a motor into the new vacuum’s handle; allowing it to sit flat on the wall as it charged. “Many designers were looking at function, not MoMA’s design ideas…. Functionalism was sort of a built-in requirement to everything we designed.” He points out that many viewers “confuse functionality with simplicity of design”; his Dustbuster, with its chunky space-shuttle-ish corners, actually works better than many of the sleeker objects from Braun. Rather than evoking some sculpture by Brancusi, the Dustbuster’s angular profile, Gantz says, was meant to evoke “a Rubbermaid dustpan on the wall.”

Anne Bony, a French design expert, writes that in 1970s design, “after centuries of the ‘tyranny of the object’ and its apotheosis in consumer society, the world began to entertain doubts about its coherence.” Incoherent design—bits and bobs of pure function, cobbled together just well enough so they’d work—had an all new appeal, whether in the separate modules of the inelegant Apple II computer or in the first Cuisinarts, whose square bases and cylindrical bowls look as though they could come from two different machines. “The market favored conveying social and functional messages,” Bony writes, and encouraged design that pushed back against “all those beautifully finished, self-contained products typical of the bourgeois interior.” Especially after the oil crisis, “the watchword was reasonableness.”

That’s why one of the original reviews of the 1975 AMC Pacer, voted the ugliest car of all time in several 21st-century polls, could praise its design as “fresh, bold and functional-looking”—as though that last adjective were somehow of a piece with the other two, which now seems hard to fathom. Today, as Gantz points out, “we’re sort of drifting back in the direction of the old MoMA aesthetic.” Our leading designs, after all, are all about hiding the real mess of electronics that’s inside a laptop, say, behind the sleekness of water-etched metal. It’s almost the difference between Bill Gates’s MS-DOS, with its command line right there out front for everyone to see, and the sleek, aestheticized interface that Steve Jobs replaced it with.

Thomas Hines is the author of a book about ’70s design called “The Great Funk,” and he once compared the classic objects of the space-shuttle era to the collapsed, chaotic narratives in Robert Altman’s Nashville or Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues. Reached by phone in Philadelphia, he describes archetypal ’70s design as “authentic, salvaged, not unduly ambitious. It’s participatory, and if it’s a little clunky, that’s OK, because that makes it real.” And what could be more real than the clunky, chunky Enterprise? After the showy glories of the Apollo program, Hines says, the shuttle was a classic 1970s compromise, “something to be done until something better could be done.”