Ocean Liners: Speed & Style review

Ocean liners have long seduced the imagination with their promise of luxury, style and glamour. At their peak, in the late nineteenth century and early parts of the last century, they showcased the very finest in engineering, design, craft, fashion, food and entertainment. These large scale industrial vessels were a symbol of progress, of modernity. They were grand hotels drifting at sea and remain the epitome of luxury travel.


ormandie, New York (1935/39) collection French Lines © V&A ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’
Normandie, New York (1935/39) collection French Lines © V&A ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’


The V&A in London has re-imagined the golden age of ocean travel with a blockbuster exhibition ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’. A joint effort with the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the show explores the aesthetic and cultural impact of the ocean liner. Vessels that were once used to transport migrants from shore to shore were to become a place for fun, socialising, mingling – albeit strictly within your class. They were a place for making business deals and finding a suitable spouse, or perhaps re-inventing yourself. The destination came secondary. It was more about the experience – the glamour at sea.


Olympic in dry dock, about 1911. © Getty images
Olympic in dry dock, about 1911 © Getty images


The objects, photographs and poster-art on display here reveal how the design of these ocean liners evolved through the decades from the Titanic’s Edwardian splendour to gloriously sleek art deco designs of the 1920s and 30s. It was about creating pure theatre so everything mattered right down to the type used on menus. Post-war, as strict social and class rules began to relax, before sea travel lost its luster to commercial cruises, ocean travel entered a more democratic age. The new-era liners were the last to represent the glamour of ocean travel and they attracted leading modernist artists and designers – Gio Ponti, David Hicks, Marion Dorn, William De Morgan, Richard Riemerschmid, Jean Dunand, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone.

‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’ will be at the V&A in London until 10 June 2018.

Nargess Banks

Paquebot 'Paris', Charles Demuth, 1921 – 22, US. Gift of Ferdinand Howald. © Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio
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