This week was the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World’s Fair. Held in Corona, Queens, the global exposition was dedicated to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” More than 51 million people roved through 175 pavilions and structures in which companies from around the world showcased their technologies and innovations.
Most companies offered small exhibits in industrial halls. But H.F. Johnson Jr., then-leader of household cleaning supply company SC Johnson, was set on doing something that would stand out. The company ultimately collaborated with major design and branding firm Lippincott in creating a grand pavilion called “The Golden Rondelle,” which resembled a cross between a shiny alien spaceship and a giant clamshell. Inside, a theater seating 500 people featured To Be Alive!, an 18-minute film about peace in a time of rampant political and social upheaval, a nod to the fair’s theme of “Peace Through Understanding.” Some company executives feared the Rondelle would be a major waste of money, but the theater and the film quickly became one of the fair’s most popular sites.
The 1964 issue of Design Sense 40, the marketing publication of Lippincott & Marguiles (now known as Lippincott), details the making of the Johnson Pavilion and the design philosophy behind it. “The entire Johnson exhibit has won so much acclaim that our company is pleasantly embarrassed by its success,” the pavilion’s creators wrote.
We present that issue, in a slide show, as a slice of history and a window into what was then considered to be cutting-edge architectural thinking. Architectural Forum called the Rondelle one of the few “exceptional” fair structures, and the New Yorker also lauded the design. “It is notable that The Golden Rondelle expresses Johnson’s international identity through its very lack of design nationality and ancestry,” the company wrote. “It cannot be accused of looking like an upside-down Manhattan skyscraper or a non-leaning Tower of Pisa or an attenuated Buddhist shrine.” The design was wholly original in its time, looking to the imagined future for inspiration instead of to the past.
After the World’s Fair ended, The Golden Rondelle made its home Racine, Wisconsin, where it’s still a functioning movie theater.