In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Star Wars by Saul Bass | Main | What All Kinds of People Like »

March 06, 2008

Lean and Fat Conveyance Aesthetics

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Do humans have an innate tendency to find lean more attractive than fat?

I don't know of any research results regarding this question, though I would think that studies have been made. Nevertheless, I suspect that people do indeed prefer lean to fat. This is despite the fact that I'm about 25 pounds over my college weight and in spite of the assertions from organizations claiming to represent overweight people that they are being discriminated against unfairly.

Fighting human nature is a long, hard struggle.

Just for fun, rather than dealing with humans, let's consider conveyances. They need to be at least passably functional, otherwise they couldn't be sold. But there remains a range in form and appearance within functional parameters. Below are some pairings for your consideration. The fat version is shown first, followed by the lean.


Pan American Boeing Stratocruiser over San Francisco Bay

Pacific Northern Constellation over Seattle
The Stratocruiser was largely a B-29 bomber where the bomber's fuselage was chopped off just above the wing and a wide fuselage section for passengers was placed on top. That accounts for the odd shape. The justification was that, by using major B-29 components such as the wings, it would be cheaper to build than a totally new design. Also, the lower fuselage section could store baggage and incorporated a passenger lounge towards the rear. The Lockheed Constellation, on the other hand, is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful transports ever built, and I agree.

Modern cruise ship

Profile view of Normandie

SS Normandie - another view
The Normandie, like the Constellation, is widely claimed to be a classic; it's certainly one of my favorite liners. Functional purists might flinch at the fact that the rear funnel is non-functional, its presence is for appearance only. Modern cruise ships will probably never be as graceful as the Normandie because customers prefer the multi-deck arrangement whereby each superstructure cabin has its own little patio. The result is a top-heavy appearance that makes me wonder how seaworthy such ships are.

U.S. M3 tank

German Panther (Panzerkampfwagen V) tank
The M3 (known variously as the Lee and Grant) pre-dates the Panther by about three years. Combat in the North African desert demonstrated that it was too tall (too easy to see) and that the inability of the sponson-mounted 75mm gun to traverse placed it at a disadvantage once shooting started. The Panther lacked these defects and looks much better as well.

1949 Nash

1949 Chevrolet fastback
Both cars debuted in the 1949 model year. The Nash was the postwar car that most embodied late-prewar notions about the car of the future. The idea was that cars would feature streamlining even to the point where the front (maneuver) wheels are enclosed in the cause of smooth airflow. The result was a car kids like me derided as an "upside-down bathtub on wheels." The Chevy shown here is also a "fastback" style to keep the comparison as fair as possible. I suppose the Nash would perform better in a wind tunnel comparison, the Chevrolet looking more streamlined than it really was. Still, the Chevy looks sleek compared to the Nash and is the better design, in my opinion.

Even though most of the chubbier objects can claim functional reasons for their form, I prefer the leaner ones on purely aesthetic grounds. What do you think?



posted by Donald at March 6, 2008


These pictures all support the old adage: you can't be too rich or too thin.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on March 6, 2008 5:04 PM

I'm going to call foul on the aircraft and tank comparo. Aircraft - you're comparing something that wasn't designed so much as hacked (and still isn't too bad) to one of the - I agree - prettiest things to take wing. Not sure what I'd nominate on the zaftig side, though. The M3 is complete design train wreck (probably product of a committee) from when tank doctrine was still in a bit of flux, again, compared with one of the pinnacles of the form - the vehicle that defined armored conflict WWII and after (imho). How much of the aesthetics of the cars are bound up with our knowledge of aerodynamics and thus, elegance of fit?
On the human for, I offer (as evidence of our malleability) the Venus figurines and the adjective Rubenesque (until recently, a good thing). Cheers!

Posted by: dr.hypercube on March 6, 2008 5:38 PM

My dad the aerospace engineer prefers skinny planes like the 757 to chubby ones like the 737. I like the chubby 737 though I think because all the parts of the plane shape are closer to each other; it's easier to see them all at once; you can take the whole shape in with one viewing angle.

Posted by: James on March 6, 2008 6:07 PM

Dr Hypercube -- When I started to assemble pictures for the post I was thinking of Porsche's super-Tiger, sometimes called the "Elephant." It came out near the end of the war and I was going to contrast it to the British Centurion, also a late WW2 development. Alas, a reference book classed Porsche's monster as more a tank destroyer or self-propelled gun than tank. So I had to scramble.

Still, the issue is fat vs. lean.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 6, 2008 6:07 PM

I wonder if it's so much fat vs. lean as stubby or blocky vs. lean. I noticed a tendency to using "chubby" in the comments, which indicates that others may be thinking along the same lines.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 6, 2008 6:42 PM

Nash's skirted front fenders were at best counterproductive: they made for a turning circle rivaling that of a school bus.

And neither of these cars looks quite as absurd as that year's Packard, which was quickly dubbed "pregnant elephant."

Posted by: CGHill on March 6, 2008 9:16 PM

It seems almost a crime that the Connie isn't flying today. Is there any reason that the shape couldn't be retained with jet engines placed where the props are? I don't see why not.

If you trace a line from the nose to the tail what you get is the classic S curve of beauty, elongated of course. That's the key to what makes her so irresistible.

Posted by: ricpic on March 6, 2008 9:30 PM

Minor correction: the Porsche "Elefant" was based on Porsche's rejected 1942 design for the "Tiger". It was produced in April and May 1943. You may be thinking of the "Jagdtiger" - the turretless version of the Tiger II, which appeared in late 1944.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on March 7, 2008 2:55 AM

Donald, I think that what you are really noting is the iterative nature of design.

The first stages of design could be called the "kitchen sink" stage. Every imagineable feature of the object to be designed gets thrown into the pot.

In each successive iteration, features that are not really necessary are discarded and the positioning of the remaining features is streamlined.

Of course, this does not explain the fin explosion in car design of the 1950s. In retrospect, the bulking up and tricking out of American cars in 1950s was the beginning of the demise of American car makers. Fatter, bigger and more chrome doomed the U.S. car industry.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 7, 2008 9:44 AM

Pilots refer to the 757 as the "perfect woman" - long legs, big cans, and a slender body.

Posted by: secret asian man on March 7, 2008 12:58 PM

I think you're onto something here. I imagine that a machine's design is pleasing when its visual language conforms to our preconceived ideas of its function.

Take the Panther for example. It is a fighting vehicle. When I think of good fighters I tend to think of big, lean men with a knockout punch. The tigers big slabbed shapes confer the idea of mass, its sharp lines give it "definition", like the ripped muscle look in a lean prizefighter and its single large gun suggests decisive power.

The Grant on the other hand has curves , on the front suggesting flabbiness(beer gut), its "purpose" seems to be "confused" by multiple guns suggesting indecisiveness, it doesn't suggest that it can give a knockout punch, rather lots of little blows. The Panther speaks a better visual language than the Grant in that it conforms to our preconceptions of decisive strength and power.

Speed on the other hand suggest sleekness, gentle curves and delicacy. The Constellation visually conforms more to these ideals than than the Stratocruiser.

Intellectual exercise: Suppose you wanted use an aircraft fuselage to support a heavy roof. Which would be better, the Stratocruiser or the Constellation?

Posted by: Slumlord on March 7, 2008 5:13 PM

The comparisons of planes and tanks are loaded in favor of what you find aesthetically pleasing. The Connie, which I love, would be better compared to something like the DC-6. The Connie still looks better, especially with its triple-rudder tail, but it's closer than the Boeing, which looks atypical even for the period.

The Panther should've been compared to the Russian T34, much closer in its profile and capabilities to the Panther than the Grant.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on March 7, 2008 8:19 PM

Peter -- The whole point of the post was to select near-extreme cases rather than similar examples from the same time frame. I tried to keep timing the same to control for technological change and other time-related effects. I couldn't make this work for the ships, but the others were pretty reasonable, I think.

However the M3 tank was half a wartime generation older than the Pkw V so, on second thought, perhaps I should have used the British Crusader as the "lean" example.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 7, 2008 8:38 PM

If we're looking for a tank that fought the Panther, and fits the chubby esthetique, how about the Churchill?

Posted by: Rolf on March 7, 2008 9:42 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?