The products we design are going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse. If the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more efficient—or just plain happier—the industrial designer has succeeded.

Henry Dreyfuss

The 20th Century Limited

Designs from America's Favorite Train

The 20th Century Limited was a luxurious, premier passenger train that ran between New York and Chicago from 1902 to 1967, in a record time of just twenty hours. It is often regarded as one of the greatest trains to have existed and the idiom of "red carpet" originates from the red carpet that led passengers into the train.

In 1938, the esteemed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (famous for creating iconic designs for companies such as Bell System, American Airlines, John Deere and Polaroid) was commissioned to design several trains for the route in the ultramodern Art Deco, streamlined style. In addition to designing the interiors, which were simple, refined and in a sophisticated palette of blue and gray, Dreyfuss designed the trains to be more lightweight, cutting the travel time down to sixteen hours. Dreyfuss also designed every minute detail of the luxurious cars, from the matchboxes to the dinner plates.

Interior of the observation car on the 20th Century Limited

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the 20th Century Limited's high-profile was sustained by the many famous figures that frequented the route, including politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, high-society families like the Fields and the Wrigleys and countless actors, such as Bette Davis, Kim Novak and Bob Hope. Perhaps most notably, the train was the setting for Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film, North by Northwest featuring Cary Grant. The present light fixtures, striking in their elegant, understated design, can be seen in a still from the film below.