S.S. AMERICA, S.S. UNITED STATES sailing on the 'All American' team to Europe

Dream to reality


SS United States from dream to reality

The great lady decorators. Anne Urquhart, left, Dorothy Marckwald, right. Photo by Wilbur Pippin.
The great lady decorators. Anne Urquhart, left, Dorothy Marckwald, right.
Photo by Wilbur Pippin.

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 gangplank after a long sojourn in Europe and you were back in the USA. The American style and spirit 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.

Dorothy Marckwald, ‘Dot’ to her friends and “Dorothy Deluxe” in the fashion press was known for her high profile design work in the homes and offices of America’s top socialites and industrialists. In 1930 she joined up with Urquhart for their first maritime commission, decorating the Grace Line ships – Santa Elena, Lucia, Paula, and Rosa. Early on they learned that ships were different from their land-based work on hotels, town and the country homes, and the private clubs of their wealthy clients. Buildings on land are built flat and at right angles, while ship decks are built with sheer and camber, curves and slopes designed to shed water. The lack of right angles and flat surfaces created a designer’s headache. Every piece of furniture required precise measurements to compensate for the sheer and camber at their particular location. The machinery behind the walls, or bulkheads in shipping parlance, created oddly shaped spaces. The two designers quickly learned how to work around the engineering obstacles and create interiors for the Grace liners that were comfortable, wore like iron, and yet replicated the rooms of the exclusive country clubs their clients belonged to. The team’s clubby ‘Long Island’ theme was a hit with the Grace Directors.

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 mixture 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.

dinning room2
The Navy’s requirement for reinforcing columns and stanchions to support potential gun emplacements made the first class dining room appear ‘Chopped up’

In early 1949 Gibbs called the team back and offered the opportunity of a lifetime, 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 hand’s 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.

Chair MA
A Marckwald designed fire-resistant chair

And then there was the implacable Mr. Gibbs who insisted on approving every piece of furniture, a 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 bandleader. The piano and butcher block was 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 lightweight 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 unhappy crossing. “One thing we don’t do on a ship is used 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

The style is 1950's "Art modern" aka 'Art Deco on steroids. SS United States from dream to reality
The style is 1950’s “Art modern” aka ‘Art Deco on steroids.
color palette

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 1940s, 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 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.

The drawing board versus the final spaces. Notice the drawings appear more expansive and the art work is still subject to change. That change is most notable in the Cabin class dining room, where the aluminium mural changes from a spread eagle to Taurus the bull with yet another change ( see cabin class dinning room description)
The artistry of Gwen Lux has yet to be defined on the center wall.. The final sculpture in the first-class dining room provided a touch of grandeur. Soaring fifteen feet over the double-height main room, the four feminine figures created a focal point that distracted the eye from the obtrusive columns required for potential gun emplacements on the decks above.
SS United States from dream to reality
First and second class theater; “You will love the theater where the best first-run films are shown. It’s as ultra-modern as a theater can be.”
First-class theater, shared with Cabin class
“First class passengers will spend many relaxing hours in this restful smoking room.
The smoker: Colors included a hint of brown overshadowed by a variety of copper, yellow, orange, red, and green. The combination gave the room a cozy, clubby atmosphere.
First-class stateroom
Cabin class dining; The cabin class dining salon is midnight blue… the curtains are a combination of green and red stripes. With quiet indirect lighting, brilliant sculpturing in bas-relief, gleaming china and silver, and snowy white table linen, is the perfect setting for mealtime at sea.”

Cabin-class dining room. The artwork changed between concept drawings and reality. In the cabin class Taurus, the bull replaced the aluminum cast spread eagle. The representation of Taurus proved a twinge too graphic for the sedate postwar code of modesty that still dominated society. The prominent male genitalia of the well-endowed aluminum bovine caught the eye of several guests … The most notably George Horne, the New York Times’ shipping news editor, took the matter of common decency all the way up to William Francis Gibbs. Overriding objections (from the artist and decorators), the oblivious bull was unceremoniously emasculated and the severed appendage delivered to the Times’ shipping newsroom affixed to a mahogany plaque.” From A Woman’s Touch: The Seagoing Interiors of Dorothy Marckwald, Gordon Ghareeb
For the swimming pool, Dorothy Marckwald departed from the ‘Roman Bath’ school of pool design found on the Queen’s with a clever simulation of a tropical beach. Sunken lights and a starlit indigo ceiling compensated for the low space over the pool. The decorative signal flags on the far wall spelled out “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
Tourist dining
L Driscoll collection
Tourist dining
L Driscoll collection
Cabin lounge
Tourist Cabin rendering L Driscoll collection
Tourist Cabin

S.S. AMERICA, S.S. UNITED STATES sailing on the 'All American' team to Europe