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Commercial Art Discovers Design

Published onApr 22, 2021
Commercial Art Discovers Design

Design is now studied in relation to its purpose.… Art as now taught is not an end but a means … we are at last beginning to teach art as an economic as well as an aesthetic factor.

Frank Purdy, 1921 ([102], 208)

As the 1920s opened, there was still a polarization between those who believed that the Americans either could not or should not hope to develop their own design capabilities in the decorative and industrial arts and those who were convinced that the Americans must be awakened to the necessity of adding aesthetic value to their products if they were to meet worldwide competition. Some felt that, since the United States was peopled with immigrants, the resulting mixture of races was not conducive to the evolution of a national cultural identity. Many well-meaning Americans seemed to be caught in a web of European fashion and taste, fascinated with foreign expression and forever doomed to look abroad for cultural leadership. They were either caught in the avalanche of artifacts from the continent when “great decorators of note ravaged Europe for the spoils of the luxurious reigns of the Louis’ and the splendid relics of the Renaissance” [178] or caught in the apologies of those who claimed, as Mrs. John Henry Hammond did, that she bought foreign things “not because I prefer foreign goods, or have necessarily greater confidence in foreign goods, but because in so many cases they have suited me better; their artistic merit is higher, showing the results of more highly trained designers and artisans.” “If I could always find what I wanted in American goods,” said Mrs. Hammond, “I would support American industry every time.” ([100], 38) Louis Tiffany contradicted her, saying that “the average American would rather bring back poor and thoroughly inartistic work from abroad than purchase domestic art in his own country.” Tiffany expressed his frustration in attempting to convince manufacturers that they could benefit by supporting American designers: “Our manufacturers are entirely too commercial. We imitate rather than originate…. The artist must be as much a part of the business as the efficiency expert.” ([98], 196) Unfortunately, American manufacturers were slow in recognizing American creative talent and skill.

Tiffany and others believed that World War I had marked a turning point—that the American industrial arts, despite the general feeling that they were generations behind those of Europe, would begin to catch up. William Frank Purdy, president of the Art Alliance in 1920 and industrial-arts editor for Arts and Decoration magazine, was one of the strongest advocates of American industrial arts. He recognized that “whenever the art element was needed, it seemed the simpler and the surer course to import it ready-made—in the form of design, artists and craftsmen, or finished products—from Europe, although we had paid dearly for this privilege.” ([97], 27) By 1921 the New York Times was including the category of industrial design in its index, although the title was used primarily as a reference for the industrial arts. A strong sentiment had begun to develop for government-supported training of American designers.

One result of this trend was the launching in 1920 of a comprehensive study, under the direction of Charles R. Richards of the Cooper Union, of the state of the industrial arts and industrial-arts education in the United States and abroad. The study was administered by the National Society for Vocational Education with grants totaling $120,000 from the General Education Board of the federal government and the University of the State of New York. Although the study did not succeed in convincing the federal government to support industrial arts education, and the responsibility was thus left in the hands of private schools and a few state-supported academic institutions, it did reflect a shift in the traditional approach to education in the design arts.

The Richards study was directed primarily at those industries in which design exercises an important influence—the “art industries,” in contrast to the “artless” industries. The art industries (some 510 of them, including textiles, costume jewelry, silverware, furniture, lighting fixtures, art metalwork, ceramics, glass, wallpaper, and printing) were asked whether they believed that they would benefit from an improvement in American design education. No industry rejected outright the concept of American-trained designers, but all expressed a reservation about the ability of young American designers to fill their special needs. The furniture industry feared that American designers would want to make original designs in violation of that industry’s long-established custom of producing historical styles (preferably those of England). Silverware manufacturers were quick to point out that the high capitalization of their tools and dies discouraged innovative design, and that they preferred to employ highly trained technicians rather than designers. The general feeling of the industrial-arts industries was that, if any new ideas were to be introduced, they would have to be originated by architects and decorators in the specialized service of wealthy clients. They were suspicious of the intrusion of young American design ideas into their established markets.

The Richards study also noted that there were 274 schools of art listed in the 1920 American Art Annual, of which 58 were the most serious about the applied or industrial arts (although there was no clearly discernible interest on their part in finding places in industry for their graduates). The list included such privately endowed schools as the Maryland Institute, the Ohio Mechanics Institute, the Cleveland School of Art, the Otis Art Institute, Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, the School of Applied Art for Women in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum School of Design, the Carnegie Institute of Technology, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, and the Skidmore School of Art. Other schools were associated with universities, such as the College of Industrial Arts at Denton, Texas, the Newcomb School of Art in New Orleans, the Art Department of Teachers’ College of Columbia University, the School of Fine Arts of Washington University in St. Louis, and the College of Fine Arts of Syracuse University. Private art schools in the Richards survey included the California School of Arts and Crafts, the New Art School of Boston, the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York, the Academy in Cincinnati, and the art schools of the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The list also included several public schools, such as the Massachusetts Normal Art School, the Milwaukee State Normal School, the Fawcett School of Industrial Art at Newark, and the Evening School of Industrial Arts in New York. In all, there were some 55 schools teaching industrial arts in the United States in the early 1920s. However, it seems that the graduates of these schools were no more interested in the industrial-arts industries than the industries were in employing the graduates. The schools were preoccupied with the lingering Arts and Crafts movement, and few, if any, looked to industry as a primary area of service. Nowhere was there any evidence of industrial design, as such, being considered of sufficient academic value to serve the “artless” industries—those manufacturing the essential products of everyday life.

The Richards study reported at length on the need to attract promising young people to design rather than to the fine arts:

One consideration that affects the quality of American youth entering upon applied-art education is the essentially modern quarrel between the fine arts and the applied arts. The idea that the fine arts as represented by painting and sculpture are something superior to the applied arts and that their practice is a matter of greater dignity is an attitude that persists tenaciously. There is still a vast difference in the appeal to young persons as between the career of a painter or sculptor and that of a designer. Even in schools where courses in both the fine and applied arts are given, the school authorities are very often found influencing talented students toward painting and sculpture and away from the study of industrial art. We are only slowly coming to recognize the true meaning of the applied arts in our national life. We are only gradually coming to recognize that art is fine not because of a particular medium, but when the expression of line, mass and color is fine and beautiful, whether this be in a painting or a rug, and that art is not fine when this expression is poor and commonplace, whether the medium be sculptured bronze or a piece of furniture.

To obtain better student material in our art schools we also need not only higher material rewards for designers but a more recognized and dignified status. With us the designer has practically no status other than that of a worker in the industries. In Europe he is regarded as an artist and occupies a dignified position in the community. ([74], 493)

The concern expressed about appropriate recognition of the designer in this last point in the Richards study touches once again one of the most sensitive issues affecting the quality and potential of design. To some degree this lack of recognition was blamed on the fact that the work of the designer was considered to be an anonymous part of the total process of production. Yet it seems obvious that if spirited designers were to be attracted their work should be publicly recognized, whereas anonymity would serve the notion that designers were colorless slaves of the industrial system.

Another factor that kept designers anonymous was the predilection of many industries for the fashion of the moment. In 1921 Matlack Price, in the magazine Arts and Decoration, put his editorial finger on anonymity as one of the reasons why the industrial arts were not attracting outstanding talent: “The anonymity of nearly all our designers in the field of industrial art has had many disadvantageous results. The public has been denied the opportunity and pleasure of recognizing and enjoying the work of any individual designer, and many men of real ability have hesitated to become industrial designers because of the consequent loss of their identity.” ([107], 166)

It was also proposed that the better artists, architects, and painters preferred to remain anonymous when they provided designs or models for products to be manufactured because they feared that their reputations as fine artists might be put into jeopardy if they were to be identified with commercial products. In other countries the designers of manufactured products were proudly listed by manufacturers, but American manufacturers preferred to keep their designers under wraps. Perhaps they were concerned that if designers gained public recognition they might become more independent and demand more money and other favors.

Anonymity still prevails in American design, although a few products, mostly in the area of high style and high-fashion furnishings, have brought their designers rewards and public recognition.

The rationale supporting anonymity maintains in part that in industry no design can be the work of one person and that, therefore, the list of persons who would have to be given credit would be much too long to be practical. Yet if a design results in a successful product it attracts many “parents,” while a bad design remains an orphan, its parentage conveniently concealed. It is conceivable that there is so much bad design around because accountability for it is not mandated by either professional ethic or public law. Until the time when the perpetrator of an aesthetic horror or fraud is called to account, one may expect that anonymity will protect the incompetent designer to the same degree that it now often robs the able designer of just compensation for an eloquent product.

Art museums in America had maintained for years that they had a unique role to play in preserving the fine and industrial arts. They had been conceived and endowed as showcases for the cultural acquisitions of the affluent, “to inspire not only the newly-hatched millionaire, but also the moneyed day-laborer.” [180] Now they defined a new role for themselves as a design resource for industries by offering access to their collections to “all industries in which artistic design is in any way a dominant element.” ([101], 116) Their new goal had already been pointed out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibitions that were initiated in 1917. Richard F. Bach of the Metropolitan expressed the museum’s position: “There is fertile virgin soil for the art museum offering direct as well as subtle lines of art influence by which, properly used, museums may bind themselves forever to the most intimate feelings of the people, reaching them through their home furnishings, their utensils, their objects of personal adornment, their clothing.” ([101], 116) Bach was proud of the title “The Workbench of American Taste” that had been bestowed on his department in the museum, and saw nothing unnatural in the concept of industries as “great capitalizes” of art. He saw the museum’s role in the use of art as an element in business not as a sign of art’s degradation, but as a sign of art’s progress. Bach was convinced that the Metropolitan shows were “a direct reflection of trade conditions, recording as truly as the money market itself the ebb and flow of prosperity, the ascendancy of the new rich, ill-begotten fads created out of hand by scheming producers, unemployment, strikes and the devious ways of modern selling,” and the Museum as “a quietly effective teacher” encouraging in stylemakers “the tendency to go back to the strong and unpolished periods of art for inspiration.” [183]

Museums seemed to be certain in the 1920s that if they offered their collections to industry as sources of inspiration, manufactured objects would somehow be imbued with the vitality and quality of the original objects they displayed. The Metropolitan boasted that its exhibits had rendered good service to those in search of design ideas. Florentine glass, Italian gesso picture frames, and medieval armor were pointed out as having “provided” ideas for fabrics. A wallpaper manufacturer “found” his ideas in ecclesiastical vestments, an Athenian jar “inspired” the form of a modern cosmetic jar, and a paper soap wrapper “saw” its beginning in antique snuff boxes. Bach was ecstatic about the success of the Metropolitan shows: “The real truth of our progress lies in the designs which are the result of what may be termed the inspirational use of the collections—when a lamp manufacturer gets ideas from Cellini bronzes or Greek mirrors—this means progress. When a neckwear manufacturer studies armor; or a tile designer studies miniatures, we may safely say the clear light of a new day is dawning in American design.” ([103], 302)

Some museum directors believed that they should play an even stronger role in the design of products than that of a source of inspiration. F. A. Whiting, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, writing in the December 1920 issue of the magazine Art and Decoration on the subject of “The Museum and the Industrial Designer,” expressed discouragement with the misuse of museum collections by designers of poor taste and recommended that the museum should reserve the right to approve each design before it was reproduced.

Only one museum director, John Cotton Dana of the Newark Museum, dared to raise his voice against the use of museum collections as a source of ideas by manufacturers. He was convinced that rather than encourage American designers they tended to make them believe that they could not be artistic or creative without the museums’ help. “Could the money,” he wrote, “spent in one year by art museums and wealthy collectors in this country in patronizing the modern and ancient art of other countries be spent in a carefully directed patronage of art movements in this country, we would see here the opening of a very good example of art ‘naissance.’” ([101], 117) In order to stimulate designers and manufacturers, Dana repeated the prewar exhibition of industrial arts from the Deutscher Werkbund, with the aim of “ennobling and beautifying everyday life by creating artistic surroundings … down to the simplest kitchen utensil.” ([139], 332) In 1920, the Art Institute of Chicago supported Dana’s point of view by staging an exhibition of the work of the Wiener Werkstaette, with the strong support of the Art and Industries Association of Chicago. However, these exhibitions, too, may be criticized in retrospect as attempts to bring the light of originality to the Americans from abroad.

In 1921 the author of an unsigned New York Times article on the Metropolitan Museum’s Exhibition of American Industrial Art expressed the cautious hope that “great would be the joy if something American and modern, something all our own, and for that reason legitimately dear to us, should prove of finer grain, of stronger fiber, of more engrossing beauty, than the Florentine or Egyptian or Versailles mode.” [183] In the same year Charles Richards scored the museums for their narrow vision by noting in his report on the industrial arts in America that museum collections were “acquired originally for pleasure and profit” and expressing the hope that “art for people’s sake [should be] the motto of the American museum.” ([74], 436) But manufacturers did not use the museums as a source for quality, and museums did not recognize the cultural value of contemporary products. Richards felt that the museums should be awakened to the necessity of deciding the part they should play in modern industrial life. The museums had pledged to enlighten the public and to stimulate better designs by serving as inspirational centers, but they may actually have diverted and even retarded the evolution of indigenous American design.

The dearth of native industrial-art designs in the United States and the pent-up desire of American industrial-arts manufacturers for foreign ideas were not lost on the Europeans. It was in the early 1920s that most of the foreign designers, architects, artists, and artisans who were to form half of the first generation of industrial designers in the United States emigrated there. One exception was the talented young German Kem Weber, who had come over in 1914 to install his professor Bruno Paul’s exhibit for Berlin at the Pan American exposition and had been stranded in the United States by the outbreak of the hostilities in Europe. Weber (1889–1963) eventually became an American citizen, and for many years he was a dynamic force in furniture and interior design on the West Coast. Most of the other European designers who came to the United States, though they were disheartened by the postwar depression and political crises in their homelands, were not refugees. They came to take advantage of new opportunities at a time when America was welcoming adventurous and high-spirited foreigners. Like Weber, the majority of them had been trained primarily as architects or artisans. They brought with them the moderne style, which they applied first to decorative-art furnishings, fabrics, wall decorations, and furniture and later to other special-assignment or manufactured products. In America the émigré designers found a ready outlet for their work, primarily through exclusive shops promoting foreign products and talents to the more daring members of the affluent class who were enamored with the modern art movement in Europe.

Among the designers who came to the United States in this first postwar wave were George Sakier and William Lescaze from France, Paul Frankl and Joseph Urban from Austria, Paul Laszlo from Hungary, and Gustav Jensen from Denmark. They were followed in the mid-1920s by Peter Muller-Munk and Rudolph Koepf from Germany. Three notable early émigrés were Joseph Sinel from New Zealand, Raymond Loewy from France, and John Vassos from Greece.

Kem Weber. Courtesy of George Jergensen.

Joseph Sinel. California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland.

These three men, who helped to pave the way for industrial design in the United States, were neither architects nor artisans. Rather, they were primarily artist-illustrators whose association with advertising illustration led them into the design of packaging as well as of the products themselves.

Joseph Sinel (1889–1975), who emigrated to America in 1918 from New Zealand by way of Australia and England, once made the bold claim that he “was the first established industrial designer in the United States.” ([43], 58) He may well have been in the strict sense of the term, because by 1921 he was taking on product-improvement assignments from the advertising agencies that he worked for and had already taken out design patents for products. However, Sinel was careful to point out that he did not invent the term industrial design, and was embarrassed by persistent inferences that he had. Although most of Sinel’s early training had been in lithography and illustration, his assignments in America broadened quickly to include virtually every facet of what is now commonly called industrial design. His 1923 book on trademark design, A Book of American Trademarks and Devices, anticipated the specialization that is known today as corporate-identity design by advocating that a good trademark should help to establish an appropriate image of a corporation in the public mind. Sinel’s rules for trademark design pointed out that a good mark must be simple yet unique and flexible enough to suit all anticipated applications.

Raymond Loewy (b. 1893), a French engineer whose name was to become strongly identified with industrial design in the United States, left France in 1919 with the equivalent of $40 in his pocket to come to the United States to work with his brother Georges, who had preceded him. En route, Loewy, who had been drawing all his life (as a child he had filled notebooks with drawings of automobiles and trains), produced some fashion sketches that prompted his fellow passenger, the British consul general, to give him a letter of introduction to Condé Nast, then editor of Vogue magazine. After his first job as a window dresser for Macy’s, Loewy was asked by Condé Nast to do fashion sketches for Vogue.

Trade card designed and used by Joseph Sinel in New Zealand around 1912, prior to his emigrating to Australia, to England, and then to the United States in 1918. California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland.

Raymond Loewy. Fortune, February 1934.

Advertisement in high fashion of the day, designed by Raymond Loewy. Vanity Fair, February 1927.

From this beginning, Loewy went on to advertisements in the fashionable French Art Moderne style for various companies and department stores, costumes for Florenz Ziegfeld, and uniforms for elevator operators at the Saks 34th Street store before he got his first assignment in product design in the late 1920s.

The adventurous John Vassos (b. 1898) tested his talents early in life on his father’s newspaper in Constantinople by drawing political cartoons of Turkish officials. Forced to leave Turkey in 1915, he joined the British Naval Support Systems, for which he served in World War I. In 1919 Vassos came to the United States to study art and illustration with John Singer Sargent in Boston and later with Sloan and Bridgeman in New York. His distinctive style of illustration began to earn him important commerical-art commissions for magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. His first industrial-design assignment, in 1924, was to design a new face-lotion bottle for a cosmetics company. Vasso’s bottle became popular as a liquor flask during Prohibition—people “emptied the face lotion, washed it well, and filled it up with gin!” “By the way,” noted Vassos, “I also introduced the plastic screwtop. The sales went up 700%.” (219) Vassos managed to find time to paint murals and to write and illustrate books. Later he figured in the establishment of the first professional design organization in the United States (the American Designers Institute) and, with Alexander Kostellow (1896–1956), developed one of the earliest complete programs in industrial-design education.

The productive capacity that had been developed in the United States to meet wartime needs was now being redirected to meet the daily needs and desires of a population that had just passed the 100 million mark. Moreover, since the number of kilowatt-hours of electricity available to each citizen had doubled since 1915, an enormous market was opening for electrical appliances—not only the smaller ones that had been available before the war, but now, in the 1920s, for the electric ranges, refrigerators, and washing machines that were just coming onto the market. Kitchen cabinets were also becoming appliances.

John Vassos. Fortune, February 1934.

John Vassos made his reputation as an illustrator and a muralist with a socio-political message before he turned to industrial design. One of his most enduring works has been the book Phobia, from which is taken this illustration of “mechanophobia,” the fear of machinery.

John Vassos’s recyclable cosmetic bottle for the Armand company became popular as a hip flask during Prohibition. John Vassos.

The Maytag company carefully refined its electric washing machine into a typeform before the rush to industrial design. Maytag Company.

The kitchen cabinet system manufactured by the Sellers company in 1923 was, along with others, a step toward the completely built-in kitchens that were to take over in the next decade. Roaring Twenties, November 1923.

The first major electrified appliances were essentially conceived as invented forms whose primary purpose was to function efficiently and safely. Such appearance details as were considered were relegated to legs, support brackets, and hardware. However, the General Electric Company had demonstrated its concern about the appearance of its products in 1912 by assigning J. W. Gosling of its Illuminating Laboratory in Schenectady to design the decorative lighting equipment for the 1915 San Francisco Fair, and in the early 1920s the company showed its attention to a developing market for consumer and industrial products by establishing a committee on “product styling,” of which Gosling was a member. This group was concerned with the appearance of products ranging from fans to motors, generators, turbines, and locomotives. Soon GE, like other electrical companies, moved into domestic appliances and entertainment and communication products.

The primary problem that faced manufacturers was not production, but rather how to put information about their products into the minds of prospective customers. In a happy coincidence, the advent and commercialization of radio provided the answer. A product mentioned on the air during an evening radio program would be demanded by thousands in stores across the country the very next morning. And handsome illustrations of products in mass-produced and now widely distributed magazines helped to whet the public’s appetite all the more. It quickly became apparent that the appearance of the product in an advertisement would be an important element in its public acceptability, and this placed the advertising agency and its artists in the position of having to make certain that the product being promoted was as attractive as it was useful. The public, flattered by all the attention being lavished upon it by manufacturers and the media, seemed unaware that it was paying for the privilege of being sold and assumed that it was entitled to be entertained by the media as well as to receive good-looking products as cultural prizes for its marketing dollars.

At the 1921 convention of the American Federation of Arts in Washington, Leon W. Winslow, a specialist in art education at the University of the State of New York, observed that art was becoming more important to both manufacturers and consumers. Whether or not the product had inherent artistic qualities was, he felt, essential to the proper advertising of any product as well as a controlling factor in many industries where design was involved in the construction as well as decoration of the product. Industry, Winslow concluded, was interested in art primarily from a commercial point of view and was thus on the hunt for artists who could produce salable products. In the same year, Alvin E. Dodd, secretary of the National Chamber of Commerce, expressed the same theme from the viewpoint of business in a talk to the annual conference of the Eastern Arts Association. He was convinced that art was one of the chief influences in competition: “The auto with the best lines, the advertisement with the best lay-out, windows with the best display, draw the most business.… The use of art to increase sales is a direct appeal to the appreciation of art by the businessman.” ([105], 27) However, Frank Alvah Parsons’s contemporaneous essay “The Relation of Beauty to Fashion” warned that, though the desire for beauty was a universal instinct, in practice it could be “tyrannical” in its demands. He recognized the ephemeral quality of beauty as aiming to satisfy human desires for change, distinction, or status. Its appeal to vanity encouraged invention and commercial exploitation, and thus fashion stimulated competition and affected supply and demand.

Coincidental with the realization that design had an important role to play in the competition for the consumer’s attention was the emergence of business as an important academic discipline. The first course in business had been pioneered as early as 1881 by the University of Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that business programs were introduced into the curricula of many major American academic institutions. By 1925, Stanford University was awarding a doctorate in business administration. The promotional arm of business became known as advertising and was recognized as “the ignition system of the economy, the dynamo of mass dissatisfaction and the creator of illusions in a most materialistic world.” ([67], 15)

A 1921 advertisement for an electric range by the Hughes-Hotpoint division of the Edison Electric Appliance Company, which eventually became part of General Electric. This range is strictly a mechanical product made palatable to the consumer with a scroll bracket on the shelf and cabriole legs. Good Housekeeping, March 1921.

The General Electric trademark. The company has resisted pressure to modernize this mark. Saturday Evening Post, September 1923.

The General Electric “monitor-top” refrigerator was manufactured with only minor changes in styling from 1927 until 1935, when the compressor was moved to the bottom. Cabriole legs, arts-and-crafts style hinges and latch, and a unique form made the original a classic type-form of the era. The later squared-off hardware reflected the modernist style. General Electric Company.

Although Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce in 1922, could not believe that the American public would put up with “advertising chatter” on the wireless, the public was enraptured with radio and heeded its appeals to buy in return for the “free” programs that it offered. C. D. Gibson drawing; Life, 1922.

It is logical that advertising should have been one of the two elements that established industrial design in the United States. It was emerging as the most sensitive of all of the business forces, offering financial rewards and larger opportunities to artists to become a part of the technological economy. Modern printing methods, high-speed presses, and multicolor advertising gave magazines a great advantage over traditional poster promotion. Mass-produced magazines brought handsome promotional material into the home, where the promise of the product and its beauty could be pondered at length in privacy. “The forces,” wrote Earnest Elmo Calkins, “that are making our fast-paced, bright-colored, sharply defined civilization are producing our modern art. It is appropriate that modern art should enter business by the door of advertising.” ([121], 153)

Earnest Elmo Calkins must be credited with having had the vision to see that success in mass production depended upon mass promotion and that, therefore, packages as well as products would have to be redesigned if they were to attract and hold the attention of a vast buying public. Joseph Sinel claimed that the Calkins and Holden firm was the first advertising agency in the United States to offer this creative service, and it was probably from Calkins that Walter Dorwin Teague caught the spark that he was to blow into the flame of industrial design later in the 1920s.

Walter Dorwin Teague (1883–1960) was involved in design as early as 1903, when he was studying at the Art Students’ League in New York and supporting himself partly by lettering signs. He found freelance employment drawing shoes and neckties for mail-order catalogs before taking full-time employment with the Ben Hampton Advertising Agency. In 1908, when Teague’s employer Walter Whitehead went over to the Calkins-Holden agency, he took Teague with him. Teague, like Sinel, credits Calkins with having taught him what he knew about making a successful business out of art.

Walter Dorwin Teague. Fortune, February 1934.

Teague border and illustration from a 1927 Literary Digest publication.

This dramatic black-and-white illustration for an automobile advertisement by Teague is typical of the strong high-style technique that was suitable for the publishing technology of the day. Art in Industry, 1923.

By 1911, Teague was operating his own art agency and specializing in the decorative typographical borders of the day. Teague’s dignified, rather classical borders set a style in the industry that came to be identified with his name. From borders he expanded his services to the design of full advertising pieces, including illustrations in which, to please his clients and attract the attention of sympathetic purchasers, he must certainly have emphasized and enhanced the finer qualities of the products. The 1921 Art Annual lists Teague as a designer of advertising for such companies as Community Plate, Phoenix Hose, Arrow Collars, and Adler-Rochester Clothes. By 1922 his advertising designs were being included in the annual industrial-art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the editor of the magazine Art and Decoration called particular attention to the fact that such promotional styling “makes beautiful a thing of primarily utilitarian character,” he was referring to the high quality of Walter Dorwin Teague’s layouts and advertising. (106, 174) As the demand for decorative borders and the like began to decline in the mid-1920s, Teague found himself drawn to the new spirit of design that was sweeping France. He returned from a visit to Paris determined to do no more borders but, rather, to concentrate on product design.

Egmont Arens (1888–1966) was sent by his family to New Mexico to recover from tuberculosis, and began his career there in 1916 as sports editor of the Albuquerque Tribune-Citizen. After a year he moved to New York, where he purchased and operated the Washington Square Book Store and established (in 1918) the Flying Stag Press as a printer of magazines. Arens’s interest in the arts led to the editorship of Creative Arts magazine and then of Playboy (the first American magazine devoted to modern art). Later he became editor of Vanity Fair, one of the leading style and fashion magazines in the country. From these beginnings, Arens went on to become a leading packaging and product designer. Also, from 1929 to 1933, he headed the industrial styling division of the Calkins-Holden Advertising. He coined “consumer engineering” as the title of his philosophy of matching products to public interest and demand. Once again, one can sense the influence that Ernest Elmo Calkins had on the practice of industrial design in the United States.

Egmont Arens (from his 25 Years of Progress in Package Design).

Donald Deskey (b. 1894) did not consider himself a pioneer industrial designer, yet he was one of the first Americans to find a proper and profitable connection between modern art, advertising design, and manufactured products. After an adventurous youth on the West Coast and sporadic art training, he took a job in 1920 with an advertising agency in Chicago at $15 a week. He went to New York in 1921 to work for an advertising agency there, only to be fired because his work was considered to be too modern. His response was to open his own art agency, and soon it was paying him the princely salary of $12,000 a year. The restless young Deskey was convinced that the most exciting art was being done in Paris, so he closed his office and went there. He returned to the United States in a year to head the art department at Juniata College in Pennsylvania and to refine his theories on art and design, but within a short time the runaway success of the Decorative Arts Exposition in Paris drew him back for a second and perhaps more telling exposure. In a way, Deskey’s decision to go abroad in order to satisfy his curiosity and perhaps expand his artistic sensitivity was not so very different from the thinking of those manufacturers who chose to be inspired by foreign ideas rather than nurture native ones, or from the position of those museums that offered foreign treasures as sources of inspiration to benighted American designers. Upon his return Deskey combined his artistic ability with product design by producing decorative screens and other furnishings that found favor with architects working in the Art Moderne style. In addition, his products found their way into stage settings as the epitome of modern art in the theatrical world.

Lurelle Guild (b. 1898) also showed an early interest in the theater (as an actor). He received a degree in painting from Syracuse University, where he showed signs of his unique ability to combine aesthetic sensitivity and business acumen. As an undergraduate Guild maintained an off-campus studio where, with other students that he hired, he produced advertising art and design ideas for local agencies and industries. As he wrote to the author,

Donald Deskey. Fortune, August 1943.

Deskey’s bold use of modern materials such as cork and linoleum for interiors, and his use of traditional materials such as rattan to create modern products, helped him acquire major clients. Annual of American Design (AUDAC), 1931.

A year after graduating from Syracuse in 1920, I was selling covers to House and Garden and illustrated articles to the Ladies’ Home Journal, Delineator, Pictorial Review, and other periodicals. The editorial acceptance of my drawings led to illustrating advertisements and by 1923 I found that the advertisers also wanted me to design their products. In 1926 I developed a textured embossed linoleum for the Armstrong Cork Company. Although I had had many appearance design patents, this was my first mechanical design patent. At that time I used the title of The Guild for Industrial Guidance’ for my business and in 1928 changed it to ‘Guild of Industrial Design, and still later to ‘Lurelle Guild Associates.’ [213]

Guild (who to this day holds the greatest number of design patents for products) also pioneered the techniques of testing market acceptance by interviewing consumers—he would often tour neighborhoods with a truckful of products.

The theater shares with advertising the distinction of having been the early source of industrial design in America. In the make-believe atmosphere of the stage, just as in advertising, success often depends upon the ability of the designer to translate the “client’s” (the playwright’s) intentions into a believable experience for the public. Theater thrives upon sensitivity, imagination, and daring; so does advertising. Furthermore, experience in the theater is, like advertising and the products that it normally promotes, transitory. Designers of theatrical settings were able to make a convenient transition, first to the design of show windows and product displays and then to the challenge of bringing the actual and apparent quality of the products displayed up to the quality of the exhibit and the enhanced anticipation of the public.

Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958), of all the emerging American industrial designers in the early 1920s, stands out as the first to have felt the cultural surge of the twentieth century. This dynamic and voluble showman, the P. T. Barnum of design, who successfully combined careers in the advertising and theatrical arts, was the catalytic designer of his generation. For over thirty years a surprising number of important American designers acquired their first exposure to design practice in Bel Geddes’s studio and workshops. He came closer than any of his contemporaries to the ideal of the Renaissance man, as a painter, an illustrator, a graphic designer, a conceiver of window displays, exhibits, theatrical settings, and extravaganzas, an inventor, an architect, and ultimately a product planner and an industrial designer.

Lurelle Guild. Fortune, February 1934.

Before 1920, Bel Geddes, a high-school dropout, had tried unsuccessfully to acquire formal art training at the Cleveland School of Art and the Chicago Art Institute, worked for Aline Barnsdall’s Little Theatre in Los Angeles as a designer-technician, and served as illustrator and art director for the Peninsular Engraving Company in Chicago and then for the Barnes-Crosby Advertising Agency in Detroit. In 1918 he landed in New York as a theatrical designer. His “star” status was quickly ensured by two set designs. The first was his innovative and dramatic 1923 concept for staging Dante’s Inferno, which, although realized only in model form, attracted enough attention in the threatrical world to land him the assignment for the second, staging The Miracle for Max Reinhardt. For this, Bel Geddes transformed the entire interior of the old Century Theater in New York into a Gothic environment and seated the audience on crude benches before the cathedral facade as participants in the performance. Thus, early in his professional career Bel Geddes was able to demonstrate the drawing power of grand spectacles and soaring design concepts as well as his lifelong conviction that the worlds of fact and fancy are often inseparable.

In retrospect, one American industrial designer seems to have been endowed with the deeper and more humane values (concern for the consumer and for the fitting of products to people) that have been claimed by the field of industrial design. Henry Dreyfuss (1904–1972) quit high school in a huff because his 100-percent grade on an art exam was lowered to 98 on the grounds that perfection in the subject was unattainable. He finished his education at the Ethical Culture School, where under the progressive educator Felix Adler he was indelibly impressed with the philosophy of a liberal education based on natural capacity, individual difference, and cultural necessity. Dreyfuss dedicated his career to proving that people were more important than products. This wise and scholarly man managed to practice industrial design with a sense of responsible service to both client and consumer.

Norman Bel Geddes. Fortune, February 1934.

Bel Geddes designed posters and advertisements between 1910 and 1920, including this one for Bagley’s Buckingham Tobacco in the bold style of the era. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

Bel Geddes designed the settings for a staging of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This photograph shows a model of the spectacle, which was to be presented in a theater designed by Bel Geddes in the ancient Greek style. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

Dreyfuss was—and, for many, remains—the conscience of the industrial design profession. Yet when he joined the staff of Norman Bel Geddes in 1923 as an assistant to work on sets for The Miracle, he seemed to be attracted more to the make-believe than the real world. From this he went on to design stage pieces and backgrounds for the Strand and other theaters and decorative schemes for the Roseland dance hall. In 1927, when he was in Paris, Dreyfuss received a letter from Oswald Knauth of the R. H. Macy Department Store in New York asking him if he would consider a new kind of job: “Would I pick out Macy merchandise that lacked appeal and make drawings in the form, shape and color I thought would sell better? The drawings would be submitted to the manufacturers, who would be expected to revise their products accordingly.” Wrote Dreyfuss: “I took the next boat home.” ([27], 15) Back in the United States, Dreyfuss made a study of the store’s merchandise and concluded that the best way to improve manufactured products was to work directly with the manufacturers rather than to second-guess them afterwards. Macy’s considered his proposal wise, but was unable to take it up. From this experience, however, Dreyfuss determined to become an industrial designer. He opened his first office in 1929, and for a while he combined small industrial-design assignments with the design of stage settings for big Broadway musicals. In a way Henry Dreyfuss managed to find a balance in employing the imagination and fancy of the stage and the logic and dedication of design. “Joe” and “Josephine,” cartoon surrogates for the public, appeared on his drawing board and led him through a long career of service.

Russel Wright (1904–1976) also began in the theater and then turned his sharpest attention to improving the quality of products for the domestic environment. As a young man he spent the summer after his sophomore year at Princeton University with a friend in the art colony at Woodstock, New York, designing a series of papier-mâché circus animal costumes for the summer festival. Instead of going back to school, Wright took a portfolio of his work to New York City to show to theater designers including Robert E. Jones, Lee Simonson, and Norman Bel Geddes. Bel Geddes hired him as an assistant on sets for The Miracle and introduced him, as he had Dreyfuss and others, to the challenge of capturing the public’s imagination through design.

Henry Dreyfuss. Fortune, February 1934.

Wright’s summer experience at Woodstock (where he met his future wife and aesthetic guide, Mary, while she was studying sculpture with Archipenko) gave him the idea of making and showing small plaster models of his circus animals to Rena Rosenthal for sale in the New York gift shop that she and her husband Rudolf had set up (at the urging of her brother Ely Jacques Kahn) to market Art Moderne products. The shop, which may have been the first “contemporary” shop in the United States, became an outlet for the products of European designers and craftsmen. Mrs. Rosenthal was intrigued by Wright’s sculptured pieces and convinced the young American that she could market them if they were cast in metal. Wright went on to make clever caricature sculptures in uniquely appropriate materials, including Herbert Hoover in marshmallows and Greta Garbo in blown glass, that were widely publicized in such magazines as the New York Review. From these experiences Russel Wright, the consummate craftsman, found his way into a career devoted, as he once said, to “humanizing functional design.” [220] Like his colleagues, Wright believed that the practice of design should cut across traditional artisanal preoccupation with a single material, process, or product. Unlike his contemporaries, however, he found his métier in the world of decorative and useful products for the American home, and he devoted his career to an unremitting search for domestic forms that were uniquely American in character.

There were other American designers who entered the practice of industrial design from the promotional side. John Alcott, of Boston, began as a display manager for a department store in the early 1920s and then went on to design floor coverings before interesting the Massachusetts Department of Commerce in providing active support for those designers who wished to serve industry. Robert Sidney Dickens painted advertisements on the stage curtains of a burlesque house in Gary, Indiana, before moving up to the position of assistant window trimmer of an Army and Navy Store and the W. T. Grant Company and eventually establishing one of the most successful package-design offices in the United States. Others were drawn into the new profession from a broader range. Thomas Lamb began as a textile designer. Harley Earl and Alexis de Saknoffsky were custom automobile body builders. Harold Van Doren was a museum director. Jack Morgan was a haberdashery salesman. None of the American designers were architects or engineers, nor were any of them schooled in the European academies that were later to be given credit by some for the origin of industrial design in America. Rather, in one way or another, they were all drawn into the vacuum for industrial design that existed in the United States in the 1920s.

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