Long Before Mod Design, These Graphic WWI Razzle Dazzle Ships Mesmerized!

The razzle dazzle paint jobs on WWI ships were incredibly modern.

The designs are like something from an art museum, bold abstract shapes, wild patterns, and a dizzying array of directional lines going every which-way. Dazzle painting could be fluid lines that created curves and waves or it could stripes at odd angles. Zig zag patterns were also used, as were almost-Cubist block patterns. It is no surprise that Cubists claimed that the designs were taken from their book, however many of the ships did not use Cubism. but instead used a system of lines which did not create cube shapes. The graphic patterns can sometimes appear as a confused bullseye, but rather than allow the enemy to use their rangefinder more easily, they “dazzled” whoever looked at them.

HMAS Melbourne in wartime dazzle paint 1918. Via / Wiki Commons
World War I poster by Adolph Treidler showing dazzle camouflage. Via / Library of Congress
RMS Olympic in dazzle paint. Via / Wiki Commons
From original caption: “British WW1 transport Osterle camouflaged with Zebra stripes. Nov. 11, 1918. In New York Harbor, she was decked with flags to celebrate the armistice.” Via/ Shutterstock.
Dazzle camouflage ship circe 1917-1918. Via / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
SS West Gotomska in 1918. Via / Wiki Commons
USS Tenadores 1918. Via / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Looking at these images it becomes clear that the design elements that compose many consumer goods in the decades following World War I were influenced by these wild patterns and modern art movements such as Cubism. In particular, geometric patterns overwhelmed in popularity during the 1920s-1940s and resurged again with Mod designs in the 1960s. It’s incredible to think about these absorbing patterns sailing the seas and protecting people and supplies. There are estimates that less than 1% of American civilian ships with razzle dazzle paint were lost to enemy fire. Each one was unique so as to further throw off the enemy. This meant that the elements that may have made patterns effective were not necessarily repeated, which made it hard to understand if the dazzle painting was working.

These incredible razzle dazzle ships were also painted during World War II, although to a lesser extent and with new patterns. It would be tremendous to see what these would have looked like on the water in all their colorful glory!

Click here to see some of the most interesting photographs from WWI!