The Competition in June 1952: the “Ile de France”
ILE DE FRANCE
Neither largest nor the fastest ship on the ocean, the Ile de France had a mythical quality that endeared her to over a generation of transatlantic passengers. At 44,000 gross tons and 790 feet long, she was slightly smaller than the SS United States, and with a service speed of 23.5 knots, she was considerably slower. On the outside, she was not particularly striking, having a rather squarish hull and blocky superstructure. When completed in 1927, she had three stovepipe funnels. After a major post-war refit and restoration, her funnels were reduced to two.
It was her interiors that captured the public imagination; she was the first ship completely decorated in the so-called Art Deco style. There were no visual allusions to traditional Loire chateaux, London clubs, or other land-based historical structures. Paintings and sculptures were thoroughly modern. She was the quintessential ship of the “Jazz Age.” During the lean years of the 1930s, she was one of the few big liners to turn a profit.
It was the Ile de France and ships like her that fascinated Swiss-French architect and theorist Le Corbusier, who was enraptured by her unabashed modernity. “The steamship is the first stage of a world organized according to the new spirit,” he wrote. “Ocean liners demonstrated the potential of highly-serviced mega structures to provide ideal living conditions.” Much of his 1930s architecture, most notably the Villa Savoie and the Unite d’Habitation, are directly inspired by liners such as the Aquitania, Ile de France, and above all the Normandie.
After five years of strenuous trooping duties under the British flag, the Ile de France returned to commercial service in 1949, modernized and restored to much of her prewar luxury. Yet by 1952, it was clear that the twenty five year old Grand Dame was structurally aging and would not be commercially competitive for much longer. Still, the elite from two continents, as well as thousands of ordinary tourists, preferred the Ile de France over all other liners: for her unsurpassed cuisine, superlative service, elegant interiors, and intangible aura of Gallic je ne sais quoi.
Footage of a crossing aboard the SS “Ile de France” in 1927, when she was brand new and the “it” ship of the Jazz Age.