THE GREAT WOMEN DECORATORS:
The S.S. United States and America embodied America on the high seas in the same manner as did the ‘Queens’ for the Cunard Line and the Ile De France for France. Walk up the gang plank after a long sojourn in Europe and you were back in the USA. The American style and sprit of these liners was no accident. Interior designers Dorothy Marckwald and Anne Urquhart discarded the stuffy old world style previously found on American ships and replaced it with a modern fresh contemporary look that emphasized simplicity over palatial, restrained elegance over glitz and glitter, and modern interiors that were soothingly homelike.It was a winning combination that brought back travelers year after year.
Impressed with their work on the Santa’s, William Francis Gibbs hired the decorators to design the interiors of the America, a wise move since women made eighty percent of the booking decisions. Gibbs admired Marckwald’s ability to absorb practical engineering matters, and apply them to interior design. He also respected her intelligence, willingness to speak her mind and toughness with hard-nosed shipyard executives.
In designing the America Marckwald departed from the mixed of old world and native styles found on the US Liners Manhattan and Washington. “We were thinking of the passengers in the 1950’s who would be using the ship when she was well along in years. We knew the Elkhorn style would soon be dated and we wanted to be ahead of the pack.”
.The America was a bright statement in Hollywood Moderne, with light neutral tones. with linoleum, streamlined strip lighting as well as decorated inlaid patterns in the linoleum floors. In between ship jobs Marckwald and found the time to work on other projects, such as decorating a railroad car for the Santa Fe railroad in 1949, remodeling five star hotels and renovating the home of the rich and famous including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bahamas.
In early 1949 Gibbs called the team back and offered the opportunity of a life time, the contract to design the interiors of the United States. They would have their work cut out for them. Instead of a luxury passenger ship designed to meet the highest standards of passenger comfort the new United States was the inverse; a U.S. Navy troopship with a secondary role as a luxury liner. The two concepts don’t mix well. However Gibbs needed the Navy’s funding to build his dream ship. An amateur juggler who could keep five balls in the air, Gibbs knew he would have his hands full balancing defense and civilian comfort. Drop the defense ball by sacrificing safety to passenger comfort or cut back on passenger comfort in favor of troopship austerity and the end result could be a freak compromised ship. This left Marckwald and Urquhart with the challenge of transforming troopship austerity into an elegant, comfortable superliner.
And then there was the implacable Mr. Gibbs who insisted in approving every piece of furniture, bolt of drapery and carpet sample. For the United States Gibbs pursued fire safety with a passion, nothing could be flammable, right down to the aluminum baton of the band leader. The piano and butcher block were the only wood reluctantly allowed on board. According to Dorothy Marckwald, “There were no exceptions. Paint, fabrics, furniture, art objects, all had to be tested and found impervious to fire. The second important limitation was that everything had to be made of light-weight material. This specification is not as simple as it sounds. For example, even the weight of various types of seat cushions had to be taken into consideration.” Not only did the furnishings have to be fire resistant and light-weight, they also had to wear like iron to survive constant use by a large number of people.
Colors played an important role in defining the ship’s atmosphere. According to Marckwald, “all the rules of color go out the porthole when you consider the problem of seasickness.” From previous experience she knew that selecting the wrong color could lead to an unhappycrossing. “One thing we don’t do on a ship is use any color that is yellowish green – you know anything that reminds a traveler of the condition of his stomach.” Colors had to pass the “Ugh” test. Marckwald explained,” Anne is really our seasick expert. If she looks at a color and says “Ugh” we don’t use it” What they did use was a combination of furnishing, art, and colors befitting a superb sailing machine. Most passenger liners of the day were designed as stereotypical
floating “grand hotels,” isolating their passengers from the watery environment outside. This is a ship, Gibbs reminded critics, “not an ancient inn with beams and plaster walls.” Marckwald and Urquhart used colors to connected passengers with the nautical and heavenly world outside: the sea, sky, and stars. Dark midnight and soft dawn blues reflected the celestial elements. Sea colors included a spectrum of sea greens and blues, coral reds, light grays, misty blue and oyster white. A speedy ship also required interiors that were stylishly fast, as Ms. Marckwald put it, “quick and snappy”. In vogue during the postwar 1940’s, streamlining, metallic forms and machine age efficiency were in. Called “Art Modern,” or by a looser definition “Art Deco on steroids,” the style provided a sense of speed with a touch of sensuality. It worked well on moving objects such as trains. Marckwald collaborated in 1948 with the industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss on the acclaimed design of passenger cars for the New York Central’s prestige train, the 20th Century Limited. Called “streamliner” and “clean lined,” the look suggested exhilarating speed and a sense of sophistication that were the train’s trademarks. Marckwald selected the best of the style to create interiors that blended modern design concepts with tradition. The allure of speed came from long, sleek straight lines, curvatures and simple geometric forms. Smooth, gently curved, uncluttered shapes provided the sensuality. The Urquhart/Marckwald team created a tremendous feeling of lightness and cheer on the United States, especially considering the limitation imposed by the Navy and Gibbs.
Did they succeed in bridging the gap between troopship austerity and the plush standards of a luxury liner? Yes, according to Newsweek, “The interiors are clean, bright, and awash in color. Reds, greens, pleasant blues and warm browns are blended to create an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.” Not everyone agreed, describing the ships as bland and sterile in comparison to the palatial interiors of the Cunard Queens. However the contemporary interiors stood the test of time and appealed to a younger, more affluent America. Many who sailed on the ship in the late 1960’s remember the Marckwald/Urquhart elegant interiors as still very much in vogue.
FROM THE DRAFTING BOARD TO REALITY