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From “Cleanlining” to Accountability

Published onApr 22, 2021
From “Cleanlining” to Accountability

We see that we are not building big or little gadgets—we are building an environment. And we designers have to work also with the scientists, engineers, technologists, sociologists and economists who have part in this reconstruction. Can we get enough of this new world strongly and fairly built in time?

Walter Dorwin Teague, 1940 [95]

The public’s interest in design was stimulated in the mid-1930s when the government authorized a Federal Art Project to establish an Index of American Design. The idea was proposed by Ruth Reeves, a textile designer and painter, to the New York Public Library and then carried to Washington for endorsement. With the noted American historian Constance Rourke as national editor and Ruth Reeves as the first national coordinator, the project ran from late 1935 until the United States entered World War II, covering some 35 states and employing an average of 300 artists at a time. It produced over 17,000 carefully detailed illustrations of American decorative and industrial arts as well as vernacular products dating from the earliest days of the colonies until the end of the nineteenth century. Although the project’s immediate purpose was to provide employment for commercial artists during the Depression, its end value was to record and thereby honor the indigenous arts and industries of the Americans. This important survey of the objects of everyday life served to dignify them as well as to preserve them. Constance Rourke saw an even deeper value in the collection (which is now owned by the National Gallery): “If the materials of the Index can be widely seen they should offer an education of the eye, particularly for young people, which may result in the development of taste and a genuine consciousness of our rich national heritage.” ([45], I, xxvii)

The widespread interest in industrial design was forcing major schools and colleges to consider adding it as a subject. The primary question was how this was to be accomplished within a rigid, self-serving academic system. The new discipline was neither rational enough to be acceptable to engineering schools nor noble enough to be welcomed by architecture. Furthermore, well-established art schools—particularly those with strong arts and crafts programs, such as the University of Cincinnati or Cooper Union—either were too busy to take in the young orphan profession or else had already expanded their class assignments to include the design of manufactured products in overlapping areas, such as radio cabinets, lighting fixtures, or tableware. However, there was a prevalent belief that the arts and crafts schools lacked the vision that would enable them to submit to the existing capabilities of industries or to subscribe their work to the daily needs of any particular segment of the buying public. Once again, it appears, the stimulus to break with established habit had to come from abroad—this time not from France, but from an unexpected source in Germany.

When Walter Gropius was invited to establish a school at Weimar in 1919, he accepted only on the condition that he be allowed to carry out the idea of his predecessor, Henri Van de Velde, that the fine and applied arts be combined in an academic experiment to demonstrate their fundamental unity. This bold venture attracted a distinguished faculty from all over Europe and students of all ages, incomes, and political persuasions.

Gropius’s particular goal for Das Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar was to establish a “consulting art center for industry and the trades” that would break down the barriers between artists and craftsmen by means of an innovative preliminary course of six months by which he hoped to cleanse the students of their previous training, release their intuition and sensitivity, and encourage them to experiment with old and new materials. ([8], 12) This course’s methodology was a “learning by doing” experience that was more than casually related to training in the crafts. To some observers, in fact, the course was little more than an extension of the English and Viennese Arts and Crafts movements without, as Gropius pointed out in defense, their affection for romanticism or their commitment to “I’art pour I’art.” ([8], 21)

The Index of American Design represented the work of over a thousand illustrators and produced over 22,000 plates covering the arts and crafts and everyday products of the Americans. This photograph shows a Works Progress Administration artist at work. National Archives.

By 1923, as the exuberant behavior of those involved with the free mixture of the arts in the Bauhaus began to wear thin its welcome in Weimar, Gropius found it prudent to accept an invitation to move the entire school to Dessau. As the move was being made, the programs modified, and the faculty reassigned or replaced, it became evident that the philosophic emphasis of the school was shifting from Expressionism and the fine arts toward the conflict between rationalism and formalism in design. Its previous preoccupation with handicraft methods as a prelude to design for machine production was now to be concentrated, as Gropius remembered some ten years later, on averting “man’s enslavement by the machine by giving its product a content of significance and reality.” [212] Gropius saw rationalism as only a purifying force and not a cardinal principle, and warned that formalism was merely a fashion in modern art. Nevertheless, a mannered Bauhaus character began to appear by which products were styled to give an illusion of industrially made things whose geometric form and visibly mechanistic construction were their ornament. In this context it is interesting to remember that, some 50 years earlier, machine methods were used to manufacture products that appeared to have been made by hand. And now the Bauhaus workshops were using handicraft methods to produce objects that pretended to have been made by machines. Reyner Banham quotes Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s criticism of Wilhelm Wagenfeldt for having changed cylindrical milk jugs into drop-shaped ones: “… how can you betray the Bauhaus like this? We have always fought for simple basic shapes, cylinder, cube, cone and now you are making a soft form which is dead against all we have been after.” ([5], 282)

By the time that the new building was finished and the Bauhaus was in full operation again, Walter Gropius realized that it had carried with it from Weimar the germs of its own dissolution. On one hand he regretted the formalism of the Bauhaus style as a “confession of failure and a return to the very stagnation, that devitalizing inertia, to combat which [he] had called it into being;” on the other hand he deplored what he called “spurious phrases like ‘functionalism’ (die neue Sachlichkeit) and ‘fitness for purpose equals beauty’” championed by the socialists in the Bauhaus. [212] As a result Gropius gave up the directorship of the school to Hannes Meyer, a Swiss communist, stating that its intellectual objectives had been attained, and returned to Berlin to devote his time to architecture. With him went Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, leaving the school entirely in control of the socialists.

Hannes Meyer was obsessed by the extreme practicality of functionalism and instituted severe academic rules. His favor toward communist students so offended the authorities that in 1930 he was forced to resign. His place was taken by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Berlin architect who was the director of the Deutscher Werkbund. Mies promptly closed the school for a month and then reopened it, without the communists, as a school only for those interested in pure architecture. The school was finally closed permanently by the National Socialist government in 1933. The political side of the Bauhaus story takes a somewhat different tack. It suggests that the original breakup of the Bauhaus was less a matter of conflict with the National Socialists than it was an ideological disagreement between the presumed formalism of Walter Gropius and his adherents and the functionalism of Hannes Meyer and his fellow-travelers. When the formalists abandoned Dessau, Meyer took over until the Nazis ran him and his group off to Moscow. Mies’s one year as director of the Bauhaus after it was moved to Berlin was merely a postscript to the history of this important shrine of design education.

Over barely a decade the Bauhaus had been seeded at Weimar by the best design minds of Europe, had been brought to full bloom at Dessau, then had withered in the conflict between formalism and functionalism and finally been uprooted and trampled in the political upheavals. However, the dynamism of its principles and the plight of its adherents captured the imagination and sympathetic attention of the Western countries, and many of its most illustrious faculty members and students found a home in the United States.

Anni and Josef Albers, who had been with the Bauhaus from the first days at Dessau, were the first to come. With the closing of the school in Berlin they emigrated to take a position at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer moved to London until 1937, when both came to the United States, Gropius to head and Breuer to teach in the school of architecture at Harvard University, and Hin Bredendieck came over to teach at the New Bauhaus in Chicago when it was established.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who had gone to England with Gropius, came to the United States in 1937 on Gropius’s recommendation to head the New Bauhaus in Chicago, which was to be funded by that city’s Art and Industries Association. It was hoped that the New Bauhaus would embody the original Bauhaus’s principles and traditions of integrating art, science, and technics. Despite a successful first year, the school was forced to close because its sponsors were unable to raise the additional funds that were necessary By the following summer, however, the school was reborn under the name of the School of Design. Herbert Bayer came to the United States in 1938 to work with Walter and Ise Gropius on the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective exhibition “Bauhaus, 1919–1928.” This exhibition, directed by curator of architecture and industrial design John McAndrew, stimulated considerable contention among critics as to whether the Bauhaus was dead or whether it was indeed being reborn in the United States.

Gillo Dorfles has evaluated the transplantation of the Bauhaus group to the United States as not “destined to transform suddenly the quality of American industrial design and bring it closer to European taste and procedures.” Wrote Dorfles:

The United States, with its highly advanced industrialization and important contributions already made to modern architecture and industrial design, was not greatly affected by the Utopian zeal of the German artists. In the years between the two world wars America had already seen the large-scale development of styling; considerable attention had been given to the external appearance of products. Large design-consulting studios for industry already existed in the United States and appliances, airplanes and automobiles designed by these studios anticipated in their extensive styling and mechanical perfection the products that were to appear in Europe after World War II. [208]

The fact is that the Bauhaus expatriates, despite the sympathetic attention that was paid to them by a select audience, did not find their way into American industry. However, they were eminently successful in bringing a fresh approach to the foundation courses of American design schools.

E. M. Benson had proposed in a perceptive 1934 essay in the American Magazine of Art that the United States should establish a school that would pick up the cause of design for industry where the Bauhaus had been forced to leave it. Benson recommended that an American Bauhaus be established that would follow a parallel academic path by dedicating the first year of the design student’s education to the theory and practices of materials and manufactures. After that, said Benson, the students should be required to branch off into a specialized field. He also insisted that the executive board of the school should include sociologists and manufacturers. In his interest in adding a sociological component to the designer’s education Benson reflected the Bauhaus principle that technology should be made subservient to personal and societal values. Benson’s article was accompanied by a photograph of the Bauhaus at Dessau and by illustrations of plans prepared by Frederick J. Kiesler, an innovative architect and designer who had emigrated from Austria some years earlier, for such an “Institute of Art and Industrial Design.”

In 1935 the Works Progress Administration expanded its interest in design to include design education by providing a grant for the establishment of just such a school in New York—to be called the Design Laboratory—for students who could not afford private schools for training in design and fine arts. Gilbert Rohde was appointed director of the school, and Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss, and other designers were on the board. Rohde claimed that the curriculum was patterned after the Bauhaus in Germany yet modified somewhat to coordinate training in aesthetics and product design with studies in machine fabrication and merchandising. A cut in WPA appropriations forced the Design Laboratory to close within a year as a federally supported educational institution. (The school managed to continue for a short time on its own on a charter from the New York State Board of Regents, with a new name, the Laboratory School of Industrial Design.) The abandonment of the first and only example of federal interest in the education of industrial designers left the United States the only major country whose national government does not support industrial design, either in education or as an activity related to the development of trade and industry.

Gilbert Rohde. Architectural Forum, January 1936.

After decades of abortive attempts to establish academic programs for training industrial designers, resistance disappeared quickly in the 1930s when several institutions of higher learning introduced curricula in industrial design under the tutelage of respected designers. Their intent was not only to teach the fundamental skills of the new profession but also to establish a foundation of knowledge that would analyze human needs, consider alternatives, and recommend appropriate solutions. The first degree-granting program in industrial design was established in 1935 at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. Donald Dohner, who had earlier taught design at Carnegie, was succeeded by Peter Muller-Munk, Robert Lepper, and Alexander Kostellow. New programs were also started at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (by Donald Dohner, with Gordon Lippincott and later Alexander Kostellow), at New York University (under Donald Deskey), and at Columbia University (under Frederick Kiesler). The Universities of Syracuse, Cincinnati, and Illinois, the Art Schools in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Dayton, and Milwaukee, and the Rhode Island School of Design evolved industrial design programs from established courses in the applied arts. At one time or another virtually all of the first generation of industrial designers organized and taught courses in industrial design or else served on the advisory board of one school or another. Thus these men, who were themselves not formally educated in the field, drew from their experience the knowledge and wisdom to establish a practical base for industrial design education in the United States.

The Design Laboratory’s metal workshop provided design students with an opportunity to become familiar with modern materials—in this case, aluminum. American Magazine of Art, October 1936.

In an article published in 1938 in the magazine PM, Grace Alexandra Young noted that Europeans could not understand the assurance with which Americans plunged into jobs without years of study and apprenticeship. Europeans, she observed, preferred to organize schools and write books before they began to practice, whereas Americans preferred to do things first and then to “form an organized philosophy from the results.” (203, 26) As if in confirmation of Aristotle’s dictum that art runs ahead of its theory, the American way seemed to put practice before academic theory. If it had been otherwise the United States might still be dependent upon Europe for design. Instead, once given an opportunity, the Americans pressed for the introduction of design into virtually every industry without dependence upon prior theory. They shed the burden of the past and quickly learned how to make their way across the no-man’s-land of commerce and industry without waiting for academic approbation or philosophic forbearance. Thus, they broke through on one front after another to take advantage of every chance to serve public expectations. All of this is in harmony with the unique ability of the Americans to react to the threat or opportunity of the moment, sustained by their instinctive faith in technology and its promise for the future. Americans believe in the ability of a free people to select the good from the bad and to tolerate social controls only when they become demonstrably necessary. They have no taste for autocratic rule from a cultural, social, economic, or political aristocracy. Though they may be impulsive and even brash at times, there is an inherent drive at work that presses the whole toward human rather than mechanical values.

In its creative vigor, American industrial design was often impatient with industry’s cautious movement toward the better environment that was promised by a rapidly advancing technology. Many designers used their free-wheeling talents to conceive and propose to the public advanced concepts that drew attention to new possibilities and generated a public restlessness and a desire to move forward more quickly in the future. The automobile manufacturers used designers’ “dream cars” to attract attention at auto shows. The general public was so flattered by such appeals to its aspirations that “dream” products and houses and kitchens of “tomorrow” became part of a “blue-sky” design ethic that offered a tantalizing glimpse of the future without a firm commitment that it would be delivered. It was generally expected that trade shows and expositions would include futuristic ideas. Even when farfetched such designs were, at the very least, entertaining and exciting; when they were closer to reality they managed to pull a product forward and upward by clearing the way for change.

Industrial design as a truly modern generalist profession had found an important place for itself among art, engineering, and business, though it had not as yet established a firm academic base. As the profession’s glamor attracted a host of less qualified opportunists, its glittering reputation began to tarnish. Apocryphal stories began to be circulated about exorbitant fees and runaway royalties for designs that did not always come up to their promises. An awakening conscience about the integrity of manufacturers and the impact of their products on the economic and physical environment placed blame on designers for artificially limiting the effective life spans of some products and violating the trust of the public. Some of the preeminent designers of the time found it necessary to warn against the notion that design was a universal panacea for industrial ills and to disclaim exaggerated stories of success. Henry Dreyfuss emphasized his conviction that the spectacular and the sensational had no place in most products and suggested that designers should consider themselves accountable to consumers. As a result, conscientious and experienced designers came to the conclusion that they must organize to monitor their own behavior and to set themselves apart from less responsible usurpers of the unprotected title of industrial designer.

In 1938 one group of designers met in Chicago at the instigation of Lawrence Whiting, head of the American Furniture Mart, Alfred Auerbach, editor of Retailing Daily, and Richard F. Bach of the Metropolitan Museum to form the American Designers Institute (ADI), with John Vassos as president, and to subscribe to a code of ethics written to protect their clients and the public. There were some 45 founding members, most of them connected in one way or another with the home furnishings field. Later, after President Edward Wormley of the Chicago chapter and other designers rebelled against the transparent paternalism of non-designer members from marketing and industry, the organization was rechartered in New York State and its name was changed to the Industrial Designers Institute (IDI) in order to attract a broader group of professional designers and to deemphasize its association with craftsmen. The IDI also absorbed the Chicago Society of Industrial Designers, of which Dave Chapman had been a founder.

The second major organization, the Society of Industrial Designers (SID), was established in 1944 in New York City after the courts ruled in a 1941 Unincorporated Business Tax suit versus Walter Dorwin Teague (who was supported by other prominent industrial designers) that Teague’s primary activity was providing a service to the public and that, therefore, he was not liable for the tax. This has been taken since then as prima facie evidence that industrial designers are professionals. The fifteen founding SID members were all practicing industrial designers: Egmont Arens, Donald Deskey, Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, Lurelle Guild, Raymond Loewy, Ray Patten, Joseph Platt, John Gordon Rideout, George Sakier, Jo Sinel, Brooks Stevens, Walter Dorwin Teague, Harold Van Doren, and Russel Wright. In 1955 the SID changed its name to the American Society of Industrial Designers (ASID). In 1965 the IDI and the ASID merged with the younger Industrial Designers Education Association (IDEA) into a single professional voice for Industrial Design in the United States, the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA).

The successful establishment of the industrial design profession in the United States was the natural result of a general acceptance of the principle that progress and happiness are best ensured when better products are manufactured at a cost that is within the reach of everyone. Many designers shared Norman Bel Geddes’s convictions that “design in machines … shall improve working conditions by eliminating drudgery” and “design in all objects of daily use shall make them economical, durable, convenient, congenial to every one.” ([37], 5)

The industrial designer was aware that every mass-produced product was in a constant state of evolution as it sought to keep up with changing personal and societal patterns of living as well as the inexorable advance of technology. He was certainly concerned about the meaning and value of his design recommendations to the consuming public and their effect on the reputation and economic condition of his client. And he was familiar with the so-called canons of machine art that were championed by cultural philosophers: geometry because of the mathematical behavior of mechanical devices, precision because of the need for absolute control of production technology, simplicity because of the inexorable pressure to refine the product at the same time as its performance is improved, and economy as the struggle to bring the cost of a product down to the level that constitutes its broadest market. These elements had deeper implications for the industrial designer than they appeared to have for the industrial stylist and the aesthetician. Geometry (or, better still, the trilogy of forms that Walter Gropius praised as the housekeeping of the mind—the square, the circle, and the triangle) implied a simplistic obeisance to these shapes without acknowledgment that, as in nature, the form of a product must be an expression of the inner nature and outward function of the product. To the uninitiated, precision implies sharp edges, smooth surfaces, and perfect fit, without the consideration that products conceived for mass production must allow tolerances and clearances that are essential for effective production and for expansion and contraction in manufacture and use. Simplicity to the industrial designer implies that forms must allow for easy and convenient assembly and maintenance and that reveals, setbacks, and textures must be employed to absorb assembly variation and wear. And economy that reduces the manufacturing cost of the product must do so at no risk to the consumer’s best interest.

At this point a schism began to develop between the stylists and the designers. The more articulate stylists of the period called for a “style of reason” that would appeal to intelligence rather than romanticism. ([35], 31) Paradoxically, they were preoccupied with the visualization of reason rather than its actuality—with the creation of forms that appeared to have been made by machines. According to Percy Seitlin, “the industrial designer tackles his problem from the inside out. His design is based on function.… He is concerned with evolving a product that is honest, beautiful and of improved usefulness. The industrial stylist, on the other hand, is little concerned with the inside but very interested in the outside. He is a designer of shells and packages. His work is frequently more sensitive than the industrial designer’s whose means are more subtle by comparison.” [197]

Corporate hierarchies created another problem: Whereas more independent consulting offices insisted that they offered a complete design service for their clients, it was apparent that in-house designers were constrained by their position in the corporate table of organization. For the most part, they were assigned to either the marketing staff (where they were usually expected to serve the market forecast) or the engineering staff (where they were usually subject to the production and performance program). However, in some cases, as at General Motors in 1937, industrial styling was elevated to staff level. In recognition of the importance of styling, GM made its chief stylist Harley Earl a vice-president in 1938.

The middle road between styling and design is best represented by companies like Sears, Roebuck, which (after it employed John Hauser in 1935 to replace Jack Morgan, who had resigned to go into private practice) expanded its design activity to a full department of industrial design. Under Hauser the department ranged freely between design and styling in its effort to establish and control both the formal and functional values of the products that this great merchandising organization commissioned from manufacturers.

At the most challenging level of professional practice, perhaps, industrial designers began to reach beyond the narrower problems of solving either formal or functional assignments to the innovative development of products or product families that opened new marketing areas for manufacturers and offered new products and services to the consumer. Some of the most successful ventures in this area were achieved by industrial designers acting as designer-craftsmen to produce the prototype of a new product and then to adapt it to production in close collaboration with a manufacturer. W. Archibald Welden, Donald Deskey, Russel Wright, Gilbert Rohde, and (somewhat later) Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, George Nelson, and Don Wallance are representative of this entrepreneurial approach to product development.

After the Kantack company closed in 1933 because the Depression had lessened the demand for architectural and gift metalwares, W. Archibald Welden was employed as an independent designer by the Revere Copper and Brass Company to develop a series of cooking wares. His exhaustive research and his meticulous concern for functional and manufacturing detail resulted in a line of stainless steel and copper products that is still being manufactured. Over the years this Revere Ware has achieved the status of an American typeform. Often imitated and even copied outright, it remains the leading line of cooking wares and is still being shown in advanced designs for the “kitchen of tomorrow.”

In the late 1930s Donald Deskey, disturbed by the wild grain texture that resulted when Douglas fir logs were peeled to make the plywood that he wished to use as paneling on his sport cabin, developed a striated texture that he called “Weld-Tex.” The process consisted of taming the surface of plywood with a random-width but straight-cut pattern of grooves. The new texture gained instant popularity, and after Deskey sold the rights to the texture to the United States Plywood Company it was used for well over a decade as a modern finishing material.

Russel Wright may have been the most versatile entrepreneurial designer of the 1930s. Early in the decade he had developed and introduced to market a line of “spun” aluminum giftwares at moderate prices. Before this, Edison Laboratories had commissioned him to develop a chrome-plated cocktail shaker. By contrast in 1932 he designed a handmade armchair in organic forms out of prima vera wood and ponyskin for his own use. In 1935 previous experience (with the Wurlitzer and Capehart companies) with pianos, radios, and jukeboxes brought him an assignment to develop a line of straightforward furniture made of solid, bleached maple that he called “blonde.” With its soft rounded “cushion” edges it projected a simple handcrafted look that struck a note between the Swedish and Early American furniture styles. The final line of some 50 pieces was manufactured and successfully introduced in 1935 by the Conant-Ball Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In 1938 Wright and his wife Mary tackled a new material by developing a line of ceramic dinner-ware that combined their interpretation of the fluid forms of streamlining with a fresh approach to functional design in soft colors and textured glazes. They invested their own funds in producing the original models in plaster and the molds from which the pieces could be manufactured. When they could not find a manufacturer that was willing to take a chance on their designs, they located a pottery in Steubenville, Ohio, that had been closed as bankrupt and convinced the authorities to reopen the plant to manufacture their wares. The American Modern line, as it was named, was introduced in 1939 and included in the Museum of Modern Arts Annual Exhibition of Useful Products Under $10 in January 1940. Deliveries did not begin until the fall of 1940 because of manufacturing difficulties. From that time until 1961, when production was stopped, the line earned over $1 million in royalties for the Wrights, and today American Modern is a collector’s item.

Coincidentally, Russel Wright organized a nationwide consortium of over 100 outstanding industrial designers and artist-craftsmen in an ambitious project called The American Way. Its objective was the development of a broad line of machine-made and hand-crafted products, in styles ranging from the sophisticated to the “country-made,” that would promote design in industry as well as in craft production. It was a noble idea intended to stimulate an inherently American style of products that could be manufactured and sold at prices within the means of the average American family. Wright put everything he had into the project, writing royalty agreements with 72 manufacturers and sales contracts with 22 major stores across the country. The line of American Way products was launched in 1940 in an exhibition at Macy’s department store. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave the opening address, making note that the venture was a patriotic gesture as well as a cultural one. However, the dark clouds of war rising over Europe had already begun to divert attention from such ventures, and when the United States entered the war a year later the project was abandoned before it could gain practical headway. Its failure was the greatest disappointment of Wright’s life, and he never regained his momentum.

This rendering of the original Revere Ware saucepan, designed by W. Archibald Welden, shows the simple, distinctive form that has made it an American classic. Revere Copper and Brass Co.

The expanded Revere line of cookware, which combined the heat conductivity of copper with the cleanliness of stainless steel. Revere Copper and Brass Co.

This “blonde” maple line of furniture, known as “American Modern,” was designed by Russel Wright and manufactured by Conant Ball in 1935. Russel Wright.

Armchair in prima vera and ponyskin, developed by Russel Wright for his own use. Selected in 1939 by the Museum of Modern Art for its tenth anniversary show, “Art in Our Time.” Organic forms and natural materials contrasted with mechanistic furniture by Mies, Corbusier, and Breuer in the same exhibition. Russel Wright.

Mary and Russel Wright Courtesy of House and Garden; copyright 1933 (renewed 1961) by Condé Nast Publications, Inc.

Despite these examples of the broadening base of activities in design, it was difficult for American industrial designers to offset the opinion held by some that they were simply merchants of product aesthetics. After all, with few exceptions, the first generation of designers had come from the illusionary worlds of the theater, display, and advertising and had established a foothold in the economy by showmanship and dramatic success in showing industry how to sell its products through appearance. Technologists were obliged to accept designers as a necessary evil, and aestheticians reluctantly acknowledged their presumption to culture. Russell Lynes referred to the industrial designer as the best man at the wedding of art and industry, yet to him it was essentially a marriage of convenience. Only the public was fascinated by these new champions of its physical and cultural well-being. Only the public! Only the public had recognized that American industrial designers had found a form of expression that was all their own and of their own time.

The American Modern earthenware line, designed by Mary and Russel Wright in 1938, introduced the coupe shape and speckled glazes. Consumers took to the new line as a symbol of progress, and it became a runaway success. Russel Wright.

These products were displayed in the American Way exhibit at Macy’s in 1940. The ‘American Way” was Russel Wright’s dream of a consortium between industry and the best American artisans and industrial designers that would demonstrate that the United States had an indigenous design culture. The war destroyed that dream. American Magazine of Art, November 1940.

For better or worse, the marriage of art and industry had been consummated. While other countries were digging defenses, building armaments, and training men to kill, the Americans were blissfully transforming a swamp in Flushing and an island in San Francisco Bay into sites for twin world’s fairs that were to be “a futile but magnificent gesture in the name of peace and prosperity.” ([61], 272)

In a virile decade the Americans had disassociated themselves from abject servility to European aesthetics. Their pride and their faith in the future were evident in the bold modernism of the New York fair’s structures. Thousands walked the soaring ramp into the Perisphere to get a bird’s-eye view of a world to come in the Democracity designed by Henry Dreyfuss. Then, they stood in line for hours to visit Norman Bel Geddes’s General Motors exhibit, the Futurama, which had been expanded from his much-publicized Metropolis concept for the Shell Oil Company. As people emerged from Futurama they found themselves in a full-scale intersection of tomorrow for central Manhattan that is still to be realized. Industrial designers had a field day at the fair. Walter Dorwin Teague was not only one of the eight directors, but also designed exhibits for Eastman Kodak, Ford, and U.S. Steel. Other exhibits were designed by Donald Deskey, Russel Wright, Gilbert Rohde, George Sakier, and William Lescaze. Then, as the lights began to go out in one country after another, the American fairs began to seem like escapist exercises in futility. American designers, having established their value as agents of prosperity, began to redirect their interest—this time as servants of a nation in peril.

Just before Pearl Harbor brought this period to a close, the curtain of the future of American design was raised for a moment when the Museum of Modern Art announced the opening of twin competitions. The purpose of the first was to select a group of designers “capable of creating a useful and beautiful environment for today’s living, in terms of furniture, fabrics and lighting.” In addition, the museum agreed to make arrangements with manufacturers and merchandisers in order to make certain that the products selected would reach the typical American middle-income family. The objective of the second competition was to “discover designers of imagination and ability in the other Americas, and to bring … out suggestions on … the making of furniture for contemporary American requirements.” ([96], 27) The organizer of the competitions was Eliot Noyes (1910–1977), who had recently completed his studies in architecture under Walter Gropius at Harvard and was now director of the new department of industrial design at the museum. The jury, consisting of Alvar Aalto, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Catherine H. Bauer, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., and Edward D. Stone, awarded the principal prizes to Charles Eames (1907–1978) and Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) for a combination of chairs and storage pieces. Their solution for furniture was an upholstered shell of molded layers of veneer that echoed methods that were being developed for other mass-produced products, and their case furniture advanced the concepts of standardization, interchangeable parts, and functional adaptation. In September 1941 the products of the competition were exhibited at the museum under the title “Organic Design in Home Furnishings.” Noyes defined organic as follows: . . harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material and purpose. Within this definition there can be no vain ornamentation or superfluity, but the part of beauty is none the less great—in ideal choice of material, in visual refinement, and in the rational elegance of things intended for use.” ([70], inside cover)

Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., credited Charles Eames as having attempted to carry the Bauhaus principles into deeper technology, but noted that his designs, like those of the Bauhaus, were to find their acceptance not in the average home but rather in contractual service. He also recognized the impact on the United States of Scandinavian design. “Nevertheless,” Kaufmann wrote, “in the Thirties, it seemed to many of us that the period’s design vitality was centered in America rather than in Europe, perhaps for the first time.” ([147], 142)

Air view of the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940, showing the theme structures, the Trylon and Perisphere conceived by Wallace K. Harrison and J. Andre Foyilhoux. In the foreground are the General Motors and Ford buildings. Architectural Record, August 1940.

The Perisphere included a miniature city”Democracity”—designed by Henry Dreyfuss as a “symbol of a perfectly integrated metropolis pulsing with life and rhythm and music.” Architectural Record, November 1938.

Futurama, a vision of 1960, was an extension of Norman Bel Geddes’s Metropolis, the model “city of tomorrow” that was the center of a 1937 advertisement for the Shell Oil Company. It included expressways and an indoor sports arena. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

The General Motors complex at the New York World’s Fair (architect: Albert Kahn) included Bel Geddes’s Futurama and a symbolic Manhattan intersection of tomorrow (shown at top). General Motors Corp.

Norman Bel Geddes in the Futurama’s “Highways and Horizons” exhibit. The model of the Notre Dame cathedral was included for scale. The exhibit was intended to illustrate that “the world, far from being finished, is hardly begun yet.” Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

Children in the Futurama. Viewers circled the exhibit in moving seats as though they were viewing it from the air. Cars moved along the expressways to lend realism. However, the smog (called traffic haze then, and taken as sign of progress) was missing. Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library, University of Texas, Austin.

Charles Eames (left) and Eero Saarinen in 1941, when their furniture was being selected for the “Organic Design” award at the Museum of Modern Art. Organic Design in Home Furnishings (MOMA catalog).

Although conceived to be built with laminated plywood, Eames and Saarinen’s award-winning chair proved too expensive to produce. However, after World War II, when plastic made production possible, this design inspired many others. Organic Design in Home Furnishings (MOMA catalog).


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