Function Over Form

Space Shuttle Enterprise: Icon of 1970s Unstylish Design (Photos)

From the Pacer to New York’s new Enterprise, a look at the era of anti-aesthetic aesthetics.

We know what 1930s objects look like: streamlined in black and chrome.

We know the look of the ‘60s: Space Age in plastic and DayGlo.

But how about 1970s design? That seems to be an era whose look we can barely pin down. Maybe the problem is that the ‘70s were a decade when the dominant aesthetic was an anti-aesthetic—a commitment to function (and funk) that was so extreme that looking good could be a drawback. Which of course just redefined what counted as looking good.

The space shuttle Enterprise, being unveiled July 19 in its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, may be the icon of a ‘70s love of pure function, as I’ve argued in the Daily Beast. But this Web gallery also presents other contenders for the so-bad-it’s-good prize. (The trophy should be shaped like Jethro Tull.)

– Blake Gopnik

NASA / Corbis

Space Shuttle Enterprise

The Enterprise was the first shuttle to be built, but it never went into space. It was used to test the design of the later shuttles that did. Here, it’s seen on one of its first solo flights, in 1977. "It was strictly a physics-based and a science-based design—but it does look very 1970s," says Steven Sullivan, a current NASA engineer.

Courtesy of NASA

(Not) Warp Speed Ahead

The shuttle Enterprise and the crew of its earliest test flight, photographed on Sept. 17, 1976: At left is former Apollo 13 lunar module pilot Fred Haise, with C. Gordon Fullerton beside him. The Enterprise was named after the famous Star Trek spacecraft—but came without a warp drive or phasers.

Courtesy of NASA

The Odd Couple

If ‘70s design is characterized by the good-enough and the cobbled-together, then the awkward mating of the shuttle and its Boeing 747 must be the era’s ultimate image.

Courtesy of Carroll Gantz, author of "Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century"

The Volkswagen Rabbit

The VW bug, whose roots lay in the ‘30s, was an archetype of streamlining. With its 1970s successor, the German car company deliberately went for a chunky,  awkward, space-shuttle look.

The Apple II Computer

There’s no reason the Apple II couldn’t have looked more like an iMac—except that it was born in 1977, at a moment when high design was suspect.

Courtesy of Carroll Gantz, author of "Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century"

The Sony Walkman

This first model, introduced in 1979, had a boxy, thrown-together look. That didn’t stop shoppers from gobbling it up.

Courtesy of Carroll Gantz, author of "Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century"

The Dustbuster

One of the best-selling home appliances of all time didn’t win a design award until 2009, says Carroll M. Gantz, who came up with its look in 1979. He says that its angular profile was meant to evoke a Rubbermaid dustpan hanging on the wall.

Courtesy of Carroll Gantz, author of "Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century"

The Honda Civic

Introduced to the U.S. in 1973, the Honda Civic seems to have made no effort to look good. That’s what makes it such an icon of its era’s design. Historian Raymond Guidot believes that products from postwar Japan were modelled on the purely functional objects fielded by the American military during World War II.

Courtesy of Carroll Gantz, author of "Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century"

The Cuisinart

This is a revised version of the famous food processor, from 1978. It still has the awkward, chunky feel of objects made in the space-shuttle era. Its designer clearly didn’t aim for the sleekness of Braun.

Courtesy of Carroll Gantz, author of "Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century"

The Black and Decker Workmate

Introduced in England in 1973, the Workmate bench is yet another practical, functional object that eschewed any attempt to look good—and was just what ‘70s shoppers wanted to see.

The AMC Pacer

One of the first American compacts, the Pacer has recently been voted ugliest car ever. But a 1975 review in Road & Track described the design as "fresh, bold and functional-looking"—not concepts we’d be likely to pair today.