Brightwork

by Ken Steacy

Published by Chronicle Books

120 pages, 2000


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Fascination With Shiny Objects

Reviewed by David Middleton

 

Take a stroll through Ken Steacy's basement and you'll likely need a pair of shades to cut the glare. Walls, shelves and cabinets are filled with gleaming and glinting metal. Author/illustrator Steacy is described as an "avid" brightwork collector, though to look through Brightwork: Classic American Car Ornamentation, "rabid" would be more appropriate. Not that this is a bad thing. Steacy shows more passion, care and dedication to the collection of the shiny objects that once graced automobile hoods, quarter panels and dashboards than just about anyone I've encountered. The dedication to his "collecting disorder" is evident in just the presentation of the pieces. The massive collection of hood ornaments alone tells you a lot about Steacy as a collector. Almost every piece is lovingly mounted on a solid hardwood base shaped to duplicate the curve of the car hood the mascot originally stood upon.

Brightwork is a heartfelt nod to the designers and designs of a time when chromium flair and glossy details meant everything, and Steacy laments the all too unfortunate passing of this period in automobile history:

Cars in the fifties had more of everything: more chrome, more glass, more horsepower, more weight, length, and width. As the surface area grew, so, too, did the need for more brightwork to identify the make.

As brightwork proliferated, new motifs reflected advances in technology. Rocketships, jet planes, and other atomic age icons abounded until late in the decade, when Detroit decided that these were extraneous. The hood ornaments went first, then the nifty horn buttons, and finally the inventive script and emblems. By the mid-sixties, all that was left were plasticplaques that spelled out the makers name in cold sans-serif face. A couple of snazzy models bucked the trend, but by the Summer of Love in 1967 it was all over.

Of late, Detroit stylists have reached all the way back to the thirties to retrieve corporate emblems to stick on their latest computerized and style-challenged cars. But the effect is distinctly ad hoc and fools no one. It's been a long time since a kid could identify a car from a block away... or cared.

Steacy's obvious bias for decades-old car ornamentation is evident in the preface written by author Douglas Coupland:

I wasn't the least bit surprised when Ken told me he was doing a book on brightwork, and one would be hard pressed to locate anybody more capable of doing the job. Most of all he's... well, he's just crazy about the darn things!

Steacy's introductory text is short but concise and he makes his points clearly, giving a brief but enlightening history of automotive style and its place in culture and commerce.

Brightwork is further broken up into obvious sections "Hood Ornaments," "Horn Buttons," "Emblems" and "Script" with a finishing chapter on "Collecting" which covers how and where to find brightwork as well as restoring (should you or shouldn't you) and displaying the pieces once they are in your grubby and eager hands. But the real point of this book is the brightwork itself. The gleaming bits of 3-D graphic design. My favs? Being a bit of an auto design fan myself, it's a bit of a toss-up between the dramatic amber glassed Indian head mascot of the 1953 Pontiac Deluxe, the campy Buck Rogers-styled rocket ornament of the 1935-36 Hupmobile and the elegant Egyptian sun god Ra who adorned the radiator cap of the Stutz from 1926 to 1935.

As fine as this collection is, and short of seeing it in person, it would mean little if the pieces themselves were presented in a lackluster way. Helping render these fragments of history in their best light is photographer Rob d'Estrubé. A lot of credit should go to him as he not only creates a crisp visual record of the pieces but really carves them out of the two-dimensional medium of the printed page.

Brightwork is a captivating view of auto ornamentation and its relationship to the popular cultural sensibilities of the day. And thankfully Ken Steacy has preserved and shared with us these fascinating little curiosities of industrial sculpture. They're Glint-O-Rific. | August 2000

 

David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine and his brightwork collection consists solely of the not-so-sought-after hood ornament of his once beloved 1978 Honda Accord.