Founders Gallery of American Design

Art of the Airwaves: Radios from the Hilbert Collection

February 23, 2024 – September 7, 2024
Curated by Clark Silva

You might not think, at first, that antique plastic radios belong in an art museum’s collection. But after you see the new exhibition “Art of the Airwaves: Radios from The Hilbert Collection,” at the Hilbert Museum, you might think again. This stunning ensemble of 22 shelf radios and one floor radio, from the “Golden Age of Radio” – the 1930s to the 1950s — spotlights the fact that during those decades, many of America’s finest industrial designers were creating the sleek, sophisticated looks of the nation’s most popular radios.

During this period, hundreds of thousands of radios, in many different styles, were marketed to and purchased by the American public as the mass medium flourished. The physical format of radios evolved from heavy floor models that resembled pieces of solid furniture to smaller versions made of bakelite and later, the new industrial plastics.

The shift to plastics meant that the outer shells of the radios could be molded into almost any decorative form, in a wide variety of colors. Smaller radios could be placed on a shelf or tabletop in any room – anywhere you could plug them in.

The Hilbert exhibition features tabletop radios in a wide variety of styles, colors and varied types of plastic. In efforts to make their radios stand out from the other models flooding the market, manufacturers turned to hiring top industrial designers to create the most beautiful and desirable radios.

One such designer was Walter Dorwin Teague (1885-1960), hired by the Sparton corporation of Jackson, Michigan to create an elegant Art Deco shelf radio, the Sparton Bluebird, and its floor-model cousin, the Sparton Nocturne.

The Nocturne, an icon of the Art Deco era, cost $350 when it made its debut in 1935 – the equivalent of a new Ford car! All its components are hidden behind a striking cobalt-blue mirrored glass disc. This unique radio was manufactured in limited quantities, and today only a few rare survivors can be found in private collections and museums. The Hilbert Collection’s Nocturne, in near-pristine condition, is the superstar of the radio collection. Museum guests have the rare opportunity to see it in person during the current exhibition – surrounded by other fascinating radios of the Golden Age.