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The Arsenal of Democracy and a Call for Design

Published onApr 22, 2021
The Arsenal of Democracy and a Call for Design

The situation regarding industrial design in the United States is improving, but so far as we can estimate … we shall need after the war about fifty thousand more industrial designers than are now available or in training, and probably few can be imported. Each country will need its own.… We shall have to depend upon ourselves more than in the past, not only for designers but also for styles of design.…

Walter Sargent, 1918 ([196], 442)

President Woodrow Wilson expressed the opinion of most Americans on the eve of World War I that the war (without American involvement) would benefit American agriculture and industry, and pragmatists like John N. Willys, president of the Willys-Overland automobile company, suggested that although they did not believe in capitalizing on another nation’s misfortune it was evident that the closing of many European factories would leave the world’s markets open to American manufacturers. Thus, during the three years that the United States was able to stay out of action in the front lines of the European war, it became an important source of supplies and machines for the countries that eventually became its military allies.

World War I gave the world its first glimpse of the awesome capabilities of mass-production methods as Henry Ford’s production lines became the prototype for other factories producing war materiel. In building the highly mobile and militarily effective French 75-millimeter cannons the Americans refined manufacturing techniques and improved tolerances and production controls to within an accuracy of 0.002 inch—a remarkable achievement for the day. The production rate of machine guns climbed from 20,000 to 225^000 units a year, and once the production lines got rolling they were producing 500,000 rifles and over a billion rounds of ammunition a year. The American trucks that rolled out of the factories in great number were considered to be more suitable for military service than European ones because they had solid rubber tires, wider tread, and higher ground clearance.

American two-ton trucks were welcomed by the Allies in the first world war for convoy purposes. The demands of the front forced rapid improvements in these and many other manufactured products that would influence postwar production. Automobile Manufacturers Association.


The ‘America” was the first tank to be built in the United States. J. M. Miller and M. S. Canfield, The People’s War Book.


Military and industrial success had a profound effect on the Americans’ sense of power and prestige. It not only convinced them of their self-sufficiency but also imbued them with an aspiration to hold onto the world leadership they felt they had earned. The United States had made the world safe for democracy, it was claimed. Thus, for some Americans who were far from war’s trauma of death and destruction, it seemed to be not only a profitable venture but also a glamorous adventure in a good cause. Irving Berlin caught their missionary fervor with “Over There.”

The first world war also attracted attention to products other than military hardware. Before 1915, only dudes smoked “tailor-made” cigarettes; men smoked cigars and women did not smoke. Bracelet-watches, as they were called at the time, were not worn by men lest they be considered effeminate. The manufactured smoke offered the quick solace of tobacco to men in action, and the bracelet-watch alerted men in the first gleam of dawn as they prepared to go “over the top.” By the end of the war it was apparent that mass production, which gave men comfort and victory on the front, would also provide for their needs and desires back home.

The first world war was a watershed in human relations. The war began in the gentlemanly style of the last century, with aristocratic pageantry and resplendent uniforms. It ended in twentieth-century fashion as men were driven into the mud of the trenches by machines. Tanks struggled on the ground while flying machines spied from the air and engaged in dogfights. Zeppelins introduced new atrocities when they dropped aerial bombs on the defenseless city of Antwerp. Hapless footsoldiers were raked by machine guns, incapacitated by gas they could not see, or decimated by shells from giant cannons dispatched from distances too far for the sound of their firing to be heard. Military technology had introduced the frightful concept of depersonalized combat. From now on, men could destroy one another without the visual horror of hate and hand-to-hand combat. With machines as the intermediary, men could now kill or be killed without the pain of conscience.

Thus, the war brought to the surface two factors that would influence the patterns of working and living in the following decades. One was the depersonalization of human relations as machines and the products of machines increasingly became technological intermediaries between people; the second was the belief that mass production would ensure success for everyone.

Unlike the United States, the combatant countries of Europe had recognized for years the financial importance of design in industrial-arts products manufactured for domestic and export markets and had supported national institutions to train artisans and designers. Even in the midst of war each was aware of and preparing for the economic battle for world markets that would certainly follow the cessation of military hostilities. Moreover, it was obvious that every European country would look to its own needs after the war before permitting the emigration of native talent to other countries. For example, at the onset of the war the Germans staged the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition to demonstrate to their own citizens and to foreigners their ability to manufacture products in the modern spirit with a neutrality of design that made them suitable for international consumption as well as mass production. However, during the war, almost an entire generation of German creative energy was lost, and with defeat imminent the country was obliged to take steps to ensure that artistic values would be given proper weight in all products to be exported. In order to preserve the talent that had been spared, the government ruled that no technical workers would be permitted to leave the country after the war. And, in order to reestablish the development of talent, the government authorized plans for the reopening of its national art and design schools as soon as possible and the establishment of new schools where necessary. (The most renowned of these was to be the Staatliches Bauhaus, which would open in Weimar in 1919 under the direction of Walter Gropius.)

Nor did Great Britain permit World War I to interfere with her interest in and commitment to the industrial arts. For example, the English held an exhibition of their products in Paris in 1914 at the Pavilion de Marson in order to demonstrate to the French that they had developed an efficient system of training industrial artists that would take the place of apprenticeship. In 1915, the newly organized Design and Industries Association convinced the British Board of Trade to sponsor an exhibition of the best products of its enemies Germany and Austria to be found in England, in order to encourage British industries to develop substitutes for products whose importation had been halted by the war. And in 1916, William Lethaby, who had been appointed as the first professor of design at the Royal College of Art in 1900, talked the International Studio in London into putting on an exhibition to demonstrate how a struggle for industrial supremacy would follow the war. The Design and Industries Association, which considered it a patriotic duty to keep British industry aware of the importance of design to the country, declared itself responsible for “the decency, economy and ingenuity of every object in our houses” and promoted the value of machine-made products that were aesthetically sound and demonstrated a fundamental fitness for use. [145]

The French had been sensitive to the importance of art values for many years, having established the Union Centrale early in the nineteenth century to bring the industrial and decorative arts together. Despite the severity of the war, France could not afford to let it interfere with her long-range goal of superiority in industrial-arts products. Within three months after the war began, France established a program whereby the children of an artisan who fell in battle would be educated in their father’s profession at the expense of the state.

In 1917 the Comité Central Technique des Arts Appliqués conducted a conference at Paris to stimulate art industries. The report of the conference published in the Arts Françaises reported calmly (considering the times): “The basis of teaching in any craft or industry is the technique, of which the design and modeling are the chief modes of expression.… The objects are given forms always conditioned by the needs to which these objects must respond, and by the choice and requirements of the material employed in their making. The decoration must always intervene only to complete the perfection of the craftsmanship and not to mask deficiency. The decoration comes in to define the significance of the forms and to accentuate the function.” [172]

Conferences in other French cities also supported the need and importance of design education. The Marseilles Committee urged that prejudice against the education of artists be combated. In Dijon it was recommended that the class prejudice that separated makers from consumers be eliminated. In Toulouse a committee asked that the prejudice of war be put away in an acknowledgment of Germany’s extraordinary industrial ability and that design continue to be taught and directed toward “utilitarian ends.” Two months before the armistice, the French held an exhibition of design to honor the four brother designers Peignot who had died in combat. After the armistice, in an effort to regain her worldwide cultural leadership, France would again put into motion her plans, originally proposed in 1912, for a great international exposition of the decorative arts. The landmark exhibition, which would finally be held in 1925, was to cap the Decorative Arts style and introduce Art Moderne.

Prior to the war, the needs of American merchandisers and manufacturers for design in the industrial arts had been satisfied for the most part by the importation of products to be sold or copied and by the steady flow of skilled immigrants. As the war went on, Americans were chafing because their own sources of products and design had been interrupted and even halted. As a result, American sentiment began to run again toward the need to develop native design talent. In 1917, after a conference of 300 educators, designers, and manufacturers had expressed its concern about the quality of industrial arts in America, President Woodrow Wilson urged educators to keep in mind the postwar needs of the country by paying special attention to industrial-arts education. The Art-in-Trades Club of New York City responded promptly by establishing a series of prizes for design to be offered in public schools. Even patriotism was invoked as a proper justification for attention to design, with the suggestion that when the American soldiers came home from Europe they were entitled to find a new atmosphere in their homes. It was also proposed that it was necessary and patriotic to replace manufacturers’ past practices of purchasing designs abroad each year. “We believe,” one advocate wrote, “we have sufficient talent in America to supply the needs of our manufacturers.… The public should be interested in any organized effort to improve the character of industrial design in this country.” [173]

The 1918 annual conference of the American Federation of Art (AFA), held in Detroit, was particularly concerned with the importance of the industrial arts to the United States. Keynote speaker Richard F. Bach, then curator of industrial art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, set the tone for the conference. “It is our patriotic duty to establish [industrial arts] schools during the war,” he declared. “It will be an evil day for manufacturers and dealers after the war if American taste must again go to Europe for its industrial art products.” Bach insisted that the industrial arts must be mobilized to achieve cooperation between manufacturers, dealers, designers, and the public in order to establish a higher standard of design in machine-made products. “We have gone into the European war for democracy,” he said, “while at home we have allowed our development in the industrial arts to be ruthlessly autocratic.… If all products were hand-made few of us could afford them. Therefore, it is left for us to give the machine its proper place.” [174] In response to the familiar argument that neither the public nor the manufacturers would be willing to bear the expense of training designers Bach replied, “I can say without scruple that good design is no more expensive than bad design, and that if good designs are not available for the man in the street the system which produces these designs must be undemocratic and therefore wrong.” [175] The AFA responded by passing a resolution urging the recently established Federal Board for Vocational Education, which controlled the funds appropriated through the Smith-Hughes Law, to adopt the principle “that industrial art be given a prominent place in all vocational education supported by this law.” The AFA was convinced that “good design and the highest type of workmanship in American manufactures are absolutely necessary to enable the United States to hold a foremost place in the world’s commerce.” ([92], 373) It charged the government that had recently passed the Smith-Hughes Act with the responsibility to set up industrial-arts schools comparable to the best ones in Europe. Furthermore, the AFA recommended that exhibitions and competitions be held to help manufacturers find talent and become familiar with the requirements of the trade in order to raise the standards of American industries to the level of those of the Europeans.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, recognizing that American manufacturers had lost their sources of design, had already determined, at the urging of Richard Bach, to make its department of industrial arts directly useful to designers, producers, and dealers by encouraging them to use its collections as a source of inspiration. It instituted a series of annual exhibitions of American industrial art that ran from 1917 through 1931. The museum at first stipulated that a product submitted for exhibition must have been based on an item in its collections, but over the years this rule was gradually relaxed to allow products that had found their design sources elsewhere, and toward the end the exhibitions were broadened to include original designs. As a result, this series of exhibitions neatly brackets the shift in the design of manufactured products from imitation to innovation.

Walter Sargent, the director of the Department of Fine and Industrial Art at the University of Chicago, was convinced that although American designers had ingenuity they could not compete with the foreigners: “Because we had no comparatively stable aesthetic standards which we could modify and refine from year to year, we had to compensate by producing each season something entirely novel in order to meet an untrained but insistent popular demand.… It will not be sufficient to copy even skillfully, foreign designs. If we are to compete successfully we must cultivate originality.” ([196], 442) He laid out several principles in his paper to the 1918 AFA convention that suggested a proper base for design education in the United States. It should be realized, he stated, that new patterns and designs depend upon evolution and not servile imitation, that ideas and ideals may be drawn from museum study without abject copying, that nature can be used as a source for fresh design ideas, that manufacturing processes must be well understood and concepts must be capable of automatic repetition, and that designers could be good technicians without being actual workers in the trade.

Other educators, like James P. Haney, director of art education in the New York City schools, supported Sargent’s proposals for training young Americans in the industrial-art trades. They endorsed his call for designers and his view of the philosophical goal that motivates designers: “Design … is not a luxury, but is based upon an inherent need; an elemental insistance that all constructed objects shall not only serve practical purposes, but possess also some beauty or distinction, a hint or symbol of something which is one step at least beyond utility.” ([196], 442)

By 1919, most of the American organizations concerned with design in one way or another, including the Art Alliance of America, the National Academy of Design, the Art-in-Trades Club, the Architectural League, and the National Society of Craftsmen, were working together under the title of the National Association for Decorative Arts and Industries toward common objectives. They acknowledged that the war had created a need for practical craftsmen and that Americans now had to be trained in the industrial arts. They recognized that the few highly trained foreigners still coming to the United States were invaluable in the building up of industrial arts. Moreover, they had learned that manufacturers had a need for product directors who would serve as the “architects” for a product, determine what general effect was wanted, and then call in designers to achieve that effect. It was felt that the designer should serve humbly, with self-repression more important than self-expression. The products would then be part of the new movement—the art that belongs to the present.

Despite such activities on the part of professional designers and the admonitions and pleas of educators for support for design training programs, it became evident as the war ended that Americans would be left behind. H. M. Kurtzworth, head of the Grand Rapids School of Art and Industry, published a study in mid-1919 reporting that in numbers of schools the European countries were far ahead. France had 32 design schools in operation, England had 37, Italy 24, and Germany 59, whereas the United States had only 18 by his count. He might also have pointed out that the foreign schools were supported by the governments as essential to the improvement of the trade and commerce of each country, whereas American design schools were private institutions that had no direct commitment to further the economic interests of domestic industry. In addition, Kurtzworth was concerned that the school programs that did exist were too involved in traditional academic theory and expression and did very little to prepare their students to earn a living. It must be pointed out that Kurtzworth’s primary interest was in industrial-arts products such as furniture, textiles, tablewares, and the decorative and costume arts rather than in industrial-design products (hardware and machinery, domestic appliances and conveniences, communication instruments, business and industrial equipment, and vehicles for land, sea, and air). Neither he nor the other outspoken advocates of the industrial arts had noted that mass-produced utilitarian products had a unique identity that was deserving of attention on its own. Only one lonely voice in the Magazine of Art tried to point out that, since the machine was here to stay, it would be wise to study the peculiar requirements of design for machines.

The American manufacturers and merchandisers were not moved by all these attempts to establish a viable basis for American design in the industrial arts. No sooner had the armistice been signed than advertisements began to appear from merchandisers promoting the fact that their stocks of imported products had been replenished. Industry ignored the exhibitions that were being held to show what American designers could do.

In the summer of 1919, when an exhibition of French industrial arts directed at buyers was held at Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, the Art Alliance used the event to appeal that unless America acted promptly hope for American design education would be lost and to announce a three-year program for better “industrial design in merchandise designed in America and made in America by Americans” [177]—all to no avail. Only one conclusion could be drawn: that the industrial-arts industries in the United States, despite the excellent work of the Arts and Crafts community and the pressure from educators, would (for a time, at least) prefer to use designs that could be endlessly adapted from imported examples.

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