Radios have been around, in some form or other, for just over a hundred

years, but just what should a radio look like?

The earliest radio transmitters sent Morse

code, not news or entertainment, but public

interest grew, and interested amateurs began to

build their own transmitters and receivers. The

advent of broadcasting stations in the U.S. and

Britain after World War I meant that millions of

people could share the same radio experience.

In the early 1920s, radios really were "sets" of separate parts:

wooden boxes with dials and brass terminals and very often the

glowing valves perched on top. There were also large batteries,

a separate horn loudspeaker or headphones, and a long wire

antenna in the garden. The untidiness of the "wireless" began a

trend to disguise radios as pieces of everyday furniture.

The "smoker's cabinet" set is an early example, but radios also

lurked in bookcases and even armchairs. And from

the mid-1920s, large and heavy suitcase-style

portables were popular for picnics and motor trips.

By the l 930s, a self-contained table set (often in a

walnut cabinet) was the thing to have.

Ornamental speaker grilles echoed the flowing lines of Art Nouveau,

but generally, cabinets grew more simple during the 1930s.

Bolder Art Deco styles from this period still recall the lost glamour of

cinemas and ocean liners.

Set makers had started using "designers" to increase the appeal of their

products. R. D. Russell worked for Murphy in the 1930s

and 1940s; his wooden cabinets were functional but

still looked back to Arts and Crafts. Truly modernist

designers were often architects first and foremost,

inspired by Cubist art and the machine

age. In Germany, the Bauhaus art school

was a focus for functional design and architecture.

The use of Bakelite and other plastics in the 1930s soon

brought completely new and modern shapes. The Ekco

company led the way in Britain, and the now famous

"round" Ekcos seemed to hail a new and scientific era. Dark

Bakelite gave way to other plastics in lighter shades and the

vibrant jellybean colors of Catalin were used for many small

American sets.

America tooled up for mass production earlier than most

of Europe. In the 1930s the USA led the way in market

research into what would make consumers buy. Famous names like Walter

Dorwin Teague and Raymond Loewy worked in advertising or stage

design before making their names as industrial designers, and their sleek

"streamlined" styles for cars and airplanes soon spread to domestic

appliances. Skyscrapers, too, provided a powerful image for American

designers, as Harold van Doren's Air King radios show.

Even the fantastic glitter of 1950s' American cars rubbed off on radio

cabinets. People had leisure time and money to spend, and as T.V.

claimed the family's attention, the radio became more of a

personal accessory. Set makers wooed women buyers with

vanity-case and handbag styles.

In the later 1950s German design was again

influential. The clean simple lines of Dieter Rams' designs

for Braun weren't a mass-market taste at the time, but the

functional look, linked to Japanese technical know-how, led

to a more or less international high-tech style by the 1970s.

In Italy, too, the 1950s and 1960s saw a new

confidence and belief in "the good life," reflected in the

Brionvega company's stylish radios and

T.V.s. The transistor chip, born in the U.S.A. in the late

1940s, was cheap enough for the mass market by the

late 1950s. By the start of the 1960s listening to pop on

the "transistor" spelled teenage rebellion just as much as

clothes and haircuts did.

By the late 1970s, hi-fi systems and cassette players had

pushed the simple radio into the background, though the style- conscious

1980s brought the "designer" gadget, and a niche market for matt black

models. But by then the functional look was under assault from Post-

Modern architects and critics; cult designers plundered past

styles and came up with witty anything-goes objects.

Today, clockwork and solar-powered sets highlight green

concerns, and those old radios, once thrown out as junk,

are collectors' items. But they're not just beautiful objects;

they give us a glimpse of who we were and how we lived.

by David Attwood