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Mass Production and Concern for Design

Published onApr 22, 2021
Mass Production and Concern for Design

I have striven toward manufacturing with a minimum of waste, both of materials and of human effort, and then toward distribution at a minimum of profit, depending for total profit upon the volume of distribution.… ([33], 19) A man ought to be able to live on a scale commensurate with the service that he renders. ([33], 11)

Henry Ford, 1915

There is a natural relationship in manufactured products between the properties of the materials that are used, the machines and processes that will be employed, and the form of the product that will result. Moreover, each of these elements must be in a constant state of change if it is to maintain dynamic equilibrium with the others. At the same time, each is not only struggling for survival against variants of its own kind but is also under challenge from other areas that seek to displace it. In a technological society that is open to change, there is, therefore, an inescapable pressure upon the manufacturer to reduce the quantity and quality of the materials and the human and synthetic energy that are being consumed without reducing the value of the product that results—in other words, to do more with less.

The net result of such competition is that, as the manufacturer’s margin of profit begins to shrink, he is obliged to expand the volume of production in compensation. In order to be sure of a market for this increase he must appeal to a broader buying public, not only in terms of price but also in equal value and improved beauty. The concept of modern mass production and industrial design begins at this point.

The practice of industrial design must anticipate every eventuality in the development of products or product systems that can be manufactured and distributed economically in order to meet the physical needs as well as the psychological desires of human beings. Rather than being tied to the one-on-one relationship that is characteristic of traditional handicrafts, industrial design is based on the concept of one on many—that is, one person or team of persons takes on the challenge of conceiving, developing, and manufacturing a product that will be acceptable to a great number of people, usually unknown to the makers. The investment cost of starting up a manufacturing enterprise and sustaining it to final production and sale is so great that those who are willing to take the risk must take every precaution that their product will be as economical to purchase and as pleasing to behold as it is efficient, convenient, and safe to use.

The first dramatic signs of mass production began to appear before World War I when it became evident that automobiles were being designed for more modern production methods. Besides reducing the time needed for manufacture, these new methods opened the way for new forms. In 1914, at the fourteenth annual automobile show at the Grand Central Palace in New York, it was acknowledged that “streamlines in their fullness are here.” [169] Before this time, automobile bodies had been hand-fabricated by carriage-making practices or, where sheet metal was used, by shaping each piece with traditional sheet-metal tools that were only capable of rolling, folding, seaming, and beading planar surfaces. Crowned surfaces could only be obtained by laborious hand pounding and fitting to a wooden form. However, the development of heavy presses that could stretch flat steel into three-dimensional shapes made the streamlined form possible. “Long sweeping lines,” it was stated at the time, “are pressed into the steel under great pressure, and there is no hammering out at any point in order to develop the curves. Consequently, the steel is of uniform thickness and strength at all points. All joints are electrically welded at the doors so that the finished body is actually composed of a single piece of sheet steel without seams.” [171]

In 1908 Ford began manufacture of the Model T on the premise that the automobile of the future should be affordable to the masses. The first Model T sold for $850—the same price as the two-passenger, two-cylinder, four-horsepower Fordmobile of 1903. By 1915, when the Ford assembly line was shown to the public for the first time at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, Ford had shifted his manufacturing methods to automatic machines and moving production lines. He was able to demonstrate convincingly that his new methods would bring prices down to a level that would put the automobile within the reach of everyone.

The principle of an automobile assembled from components manufactured elsewhere, which lies at the heart of mass production, had been pioneered by Ransom E. Olds as early as 1899. However, the process was refined in 1913–1914 at the Ford Motor plant at Highland Park, Michigan, as a twentieth-century extension of the well-established practices of standardization of parts and specialization of labor. Dramatic proof of its effectiveness was the reduction in the final assembly time of the Model T from 121/2 to 1/2 hours per car. The new principles, as outlined by Bruce Nevin, included the following:

• There was planned, orderly, continuous progression of the product being manufactured through the factory. (Automobile production lines still move along the assembly line at a speed of something like three miles an hour, with every aspect from mining the ore to consumption of the final product geared to this inexorable speed.)

• The mechanics remained at their place of work as the product moved past them. They were trained in the task to be performed and provided with specialized tools. Accessory parts that they would need were delivered directly to their workplace.

• All of the operations were analyzed so that the mechanics could do their work with a minimum of fatigue within the shortest period of time. The parts that they were responsible for were designed, with every possible deviation recognized and neutralized, so that they could be efficiently and accurately installed.

• The mass-production system was designed to operate 24 hours a day in order to make full use of the manufacturing facility.

Ford’s mass-production methods guaranteed the then-unheard-of wage of $5 for an eight-hour day, instead of less than that for the customary nine-hour day (this enabled Ford to run three shifts of workers a day instead of two, thus increasing the productive capacity of his plant by nearly 50 percent). This wage policy incited riots among workers for whom Ford had no jobs to offer as well as workers at other factories. It raised a storm of protest from other manufacturers, who complained that it was utopian and contrary to experience. However, Ford stood firmly on the position that by paying his workers higher wages for fewer hours of work he was making better use of his facilities and was bringing the product within the reach of his own workers. (Its original selling price was less than $1,000, but with mass-production methods the price of a Model T had dropped to less than $300 by 1914.) Ford rejected any criticism that he was exploiting his workers. Rather, he believed that he had democraticized industry, and warned that unless industry managed to keep wages high and prices low and provide its workers with shorter hours it would limit the number of possible customers. It was obvious to Ford that if workers were given more disposable income and more free time, they would become more mobile, and that they would aspire to own their own homes and seek to outfit them with all of those manufactured conveniences that support a higher standard of living.

This replica of the brick shed in Detroit in which Henry Ford built his first automobile stands in Greenfield Village at Dearborn, Michigan. Courtesy of Ford Archives, Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.


Henry Ford successfully operated his first automobile—the Quadri-cycle, a two-cylinder, four-horsepower vehicle for two persons—on the streets of Detroit in 1896. Courtesy of Ford Archives, Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.


The 1913 brass-radiator Model T was the epitome of the “Tin Lizzie.” By 1913 it was being stripped down and analyzed for mass production. Courtesy of Ford Archives, Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.


The final assembly line for the Model T in 1914 at Highland Park brought the assembled body down a ramp to be joined to the chassis. This was the final stage after the many subassembly lines inside the plant had produced the engine, the gas tank, the dash-board, and other components. Courtesy of Ford Archives, Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.


Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford’s lifelong friend, praised the manufacturing philosophy of the Ford Company:

When we use machines instead of humans and have a single apparatus to do the work of 250 men, then employees will enjoy real benefits.… The time is passing when human beings will be used as motors. We are today putting brains into machinery, and are replacing by machinery the energies of thousands of humans with only a few men to see to it that the apparatus keeps working.… Improved machinery … would necessitate men working fewer hours, and at the same time would enable them to accomplish much more.… Machinery is the salvation of the American manufacturer. [170]

Although Henry Ford has been criticized for a lack of concern with aesthetic values, he was acutely aware of the impact his automobile had upon the public and the affection with which they tolerated its idiosyncrasies. By 1915 more than half a million “Tin Lizzies” had been built and sold, and the gaunt, look-alike car had entered American folklore. Over the years of its production, from 1908 to 1926 (when a more stylish Chevrolet forced Ford to abandon its manufacture), the Model T gradually lost its awkwardness as it evolved into the type form that has made it a treasured artifact of the era. More than 15 million Model T’s were sold over the years—a record surpassed only recently, by the Volkswagen “Beetle.”

It was inevitable that other industries would adopt the Ford Motor Company’s manufacturing methods and that, as the volume of products increased proportionately, competition would oblige them to take consumers’ taste preferences into account. At first, manufacturers designed a product to suit their own tastes or assigned the responsibility to employees who showed some sympathy for style or aesthetic value or to modelmakers and pattern carvers who were familiar with prevailing fashions. In time, however, there emerged independent designers, usually specializing in one product area, who sold their services alternately to competing manufacturers. Prior to this period, most design patents had been in the areas of the decorative and industrial arts. Now more and more were being issued for the casings or forms of manufactured products—what may be classed as industrial design.

The manufacturing establishment was also becoming aware of the value of corporate identities and trademarks in establishing and maintaining public allegiance. Henry Ford conscientiously renewed the script form of his name that had been in use since 1895. The famous mark of the Victor Talking Machine Company was designed and filed for protection by Eldridge Johnson, who had purchased the rights to manufacture what he called the Gramo-o-phone from Emile Berliner, before the company itself was named. The Coca-Cola Company, already in possession of a distinctive trademark conceived by Frank Mason, redesigned its bottle so that it too would serve as a point of public recognition. And Charles Eastman, already in possession of the coined word Kodak for his company, named the $1 “Brownie” camera after Palmer Cox’s busy little elves, who may be taken as cartoon ancestors to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown and Snoopy, who are busily peddling manufactured products to children today.

The principle of “trading up” is often criticized as a trap set by manufacturers for consumers. The fact is that it is a normal human desire to seek to better one’s position in life out of a deep-seated desire for security. New York Public Library.


Henry Ford’s trademark, first used in 1895, was in the bold Spencerian script that was popular at the time. It was distinctive enough to be admitted to the principle trademark register of the patent office, as well as to ward off imitators. Ford Motor Company.


The famous Victor trademark showing a fox terrier listening intently to “His Master’s Voice” was designed by Francis Barraud, an English artist. The original painting depicted Edison’s cylinder machine. After the Edison company turned it down, Barraud sold the idea in 1899 to the Gram-a-phone company and painted in its Berliner disk machine. U.S. Patent 84,890, May 26, 1900.


Although the Victor trademark was instantly popular, the company acquired other versions, such as this one, in order to cover what it considered to be a reasonable range of alternatives. U.S. Patent, 40,224, March 19, 1903.


A second trademark filed by the Victor Company. The application made a careful point about the importance of the rose. U.S. Patent 40,225, March 19, 1903.


The distinctive “hobble-skirt” Coca-Cola bottle, introduced in 1916. Author’s collection.


The Eastman Kodak Brownie camera capitalized on the popularity among children of Palmer Cox’s amusing elves as well as suggesting the name of its designer, Frank BrownellCourtesy of Eastman Kodak Company.


It is not an exaggeration to point out that the main body of mechanical and electrical devices, appliances, and machines that form the backbone of American technological convenience came into being between 1875 and 1915. Their shapes were explored and revised in a vigorous variety of designs until they achieved more stable typeforms. The period since then has been, except for isolated examples, essentially one of consolidation and refinement to meet changing human requirements or to take advantage of new materials and manufacturing technologies.

The manufacturers of utilitarian products were plagued by the same problem of design piracy that afflicted the decorative and industrial arts. Some felt that originality in design did not pay because it was too difficult to get adequate protection for an innovative concept. The marketing advantage seemed to lie with those who borrowed successful ideas without risking investment in untested ones. This disturbed both American and foreign manufacturers. The U.S. State Department was being bombarded with complaints from other countries that the designs of their manufacturers were being pirated wholesale, and American manufacturers were counterclaiming that their designs were being stolen by companies that collected the best in American design and reproduced them for sale in Europe. For the United States, loss of honor and international humiliation were implied in the announcement that some European manufacturers would not exhibit in the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 for fear that their best ideas would be pirated by the Americans. As a result, a general demand developed for better design patents or for regulations that would give “exclusiveness of manufacture and sale to the originator of a design in dress fabrics or accessories, decorative fabrics, the distinguishing form of a machine, or any form which constitutes merchandise value.” [168] In 1913 the Commissioner of Patents, Edward B. Moore, came out publicly in favor of a modification of existing regulations to protect property in “industrial design.” [167] (This is the earliest known public use of the term industrial design as a generic description referring to the distinguishing form of products that have marketable value. It appears that the term was used nonspecifically for many years before it was preempted as a verbal banner for the new profession.)

In 1914 a bill for protection against design piracy was introduced in Congress by Representative Oldfield of Arkansas. This bill, which was supported by the National Registration League and the Federation of Trade Progress of the United States, recognized that under existing conditions decorative design elements were specified as being embodied in a particular product and that existing laws did not provide protection when they were applied to other products. It promised to provide a truly flexible system of design protection that would prohibit such activities. In the testimony that was given during the hearings, a Kentucky manufacturer of cooking stoves complained that his products were being duplicated and sold by nine southern factories. In rebuttal, stove repairmen maintained that the manufacturer only wanted to maintain a monopoly on parts for replacement and repair. The Gorham Company volunteered the testimony that one of its own products, a silver almond dish that was originally sold at $13.50, had been copied in a lighter gauge of metal for sale at $10.50, thereby reducing annual sales of the original from 12,000 to 8,000 units. The primary issues in the testimony were claims that design piracy tended to cheapen goods brought onto the market, that it penalized designers, and that it destroyed the will of manufacturers to invest in or produce their own designs.

Nevertheless, many manufacturers and merchandisers continued to insist that they had not only the right but also an obligation to their clients to copy European design ideas. To justify their position they pointed out that the complacent American art and design community had been taken by surprise by the vitality of the impertinent art forms of the 1913 Armory Show at New York. They insisted that the tide of expression continued to flow westward across the Atlantic, bearing images not only from the familiar past but also from the challenging future. As the United States began to prepare psychologically to enter World War I, a general concern was expressed that the war would interrupt the flow of taste and talent from abroad. Manufacturers and merchandisers resented any disruption of the source of their ideas. An editorial in the New York Times acknowledged the following: “For over fifty years these trades have obtained their talent from abroad. Foreign designers by the hundreds have sought employment and have found it in our factories.… While it could secure designers from abroad, industry was indifferent to the development of the powers of our native artists.” The art trades themselves had “with scant patriotism lauded ‘foreign designs’ and emphasized the fact that their patterns were ‘imported.’” [176] It was considered smart business to let other countries train designers and then to import them to serve American industry. Many American industries still hold to this philosophy.

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