The interior design of America was a small revolution: for the first time in the history of navigation, a team of female interior designers broke with long-standing traditions of this classic men's domain, and brought their own contemporary interpretation of modern life on the high seas.
With the interior design of the America two companies were commissioned which complemented each other in perfect harmony.
The technical interior design was taken over by the New York firm "Eggers & Higgins". The aesthetic and artistic interior design was the job conducted by "Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald Inc.". In their time, this company of Miriam Smyth, Anne Urquhart and Dorothy Marckwald was the only women-led maritime interior design company in the world. The three were responsible for the establishment of over 20 lounges, all passenger cabins, lobbies, corridors and stairwells. The America was not their first job, they had previously gained a name with the decoration of other famous ships. But this time, unlike with their previous contracts, they had the possibility to implement their own idea of modern design nearly undisturbed by presetted specifications thanks to the great latitude given by United States Lines company on that matter.
The only requirement of the shipping company was to create a modern, vibrant atmosphere on board, representing the American culture. For everthing beyond that, free rein was granted.
Interior design of the first class smoking room on promenade deck.
-Picture: Library of Congress-
Unlike the hitherto prevailing rather rustic decor of american passenger ships, the America marked a complete reorientation in interior design.
When planning the interior of America by the female designers, special emphasis was placed on contemporary, modern comfort, which should be reflected in a friendly, comfortable and carefree atmosphere.
This style was a mix of elements of the Streamline Moderne, Art Deco, classic elements of American Modernism in general, but also other contemporary styles of the '30s, like trends in interior design of private houses influenced by Hollywood films sets. Some elements of the interior also anticipated the Mid Century Style, dominant especially in the 50s and 60s.
In renunciation from the then customary dark wood tones, the defining color schemes of the ceilings and walls of America were held in neutral, warm white cream and beige tones, complemented by colorful accents in soft red, green and blue tones. Dark areas were used only sparingly. Clear shapes and surfaces replaced wainscoting and carved oak paneling, geometric patterns took the place of pseudo-Victorian ornaments. Metals were no longer hidden behind stucco and carving, but used as structuring design elements. Hunting trophies and Chinese vases were replaced by contemporary art. Strong contrasts and central eye-catching elements shaped the public spaces. In many areas of the ship indirect lighting has been installed, which made it possible to use light as a design element itself to influence the atmosphere of a room. Thus, an overall picture emerged that could be described primarily with one adjective: elegant.
Every piece of furniture, every decorative element was tuned to this elegant, contemporary and homely overall appearance and participated in the unmistakable charm of America. And this concept did not end at the borders of the first class. All three classes on board were given a similar attention: Material selection, design and artwork run like a red thread through all passenger areas of America.
Anne Urquhart and Dorothy Marckwald were responsible not only for the entire interior decoration and for the selection of artists to be commissioned. Their company also managed the contracts to implement their outlined designs by furniture manufacturers, floor covering manufacturers or foundries. The interior designers of "Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald Inc.", the interior architects of "Eggers & Higgins" and representatives of the shipbuilding engineers firm "Gibbs & Cox" met regularly to coordinate their concepts in the headquaters of "Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald Inc.". The company's headquarters at 821 Madison Avenue in New York was thus the creative control center and birthplace of the inner appearance of America.
When planning the interior of the ship, the interior designers also had in mind the passengers of the coming decades, whom, if possible, the style still should appeal. Therefore a top priority in America's interior design was timelessness. A confirmation of the success of this aim was the fact that the interior of America throughout her 39 years of service -and beyond- remained almost in its original condition. A record that only very few other ocean liners and cruise ships operating for over so many decades can determine for themselves.
Of particular importance for Dorothy Marckwald were also the needs of the female passengers on board. Thus, for example, she made sure that each cabin had a full length mirror and a wardrobe suitable for long dresses.
William Francis Gibbs, the main naval architect of America, was once asked why he repeatedly choses the team of "Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald Inc." for his ships. His more probably black-humored answer: "I prefer known horrors to the unknown ones."
With the production of the furnishing exclusively American companies were commissioned. The background for this was, as in nearly every part of the ships construction, the stimulation of the US economy by the 'New Deal', but also the idea of the America as a national symbol.
The final result impressed with friendly, bright and functional interior design and furnishings, which, without lapsing into superlatives or pompous, showed the way forward to the future with courage for innovations, but without losing comfortable ambience or feeling cold. A style that should determine the spirit of America until the end of her days.
At the end of her passenger career in 1979, America was one of the largest surviving synthesis of the arts of American Modernism and the zeitgeist of the late 30s and remained so until its beaching in 1994.
Interior architecture and design of first class cocktail lounge.
-Picture: United States Lines/ Byron-
Drastical change of style in direct comparison: left- smoking room of SS Manhattan (build only 8 years prior to America), right- smoking room of America.
-Pictures: US Lines, Chandris Lines postcard-
Interor architecture, swimming pool.
-Picture: Newport News Shipyard Bulletin-
Ball room deco.
-Picture: US Lines-
Staircase corner with aluminium sculptures of the signs of the zodiac.
-Picture: US Lines-
When selecting the material for the new ship, there were radical innovations. These were mainly required by the new fire safety regulations and inspired the interior decorators to innovative surface designs, as it was necessary to present these new materials visually appealing. The interior of America was more than 90% fire proof. What may have looked like wood in reality was a synthetic fire-resistant material called Marinite with a waferthin wood veneer. Nearly all visible wall and ceiling coverage aboard America was done with these Marinite panels.
Materials, colors, surface coverings, everything had to submit to the dictates of security and still be optically appealing.
Interior architecture and design, second class dining room. Strong lines, geometric forms, metal used as decorating element and chromed copper reliefs of famous landmarks as central eyecatcher.
-Picture: US Lines-
Strong colors set the tone in one of America's 'cabin de luxe'.
-Picture: US Lines-
Main foyer on promenade deck. The floor design was inspired by a braided rope.
Space-saving comfort in a third class interior cabin.