There’s a great exhibit at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington; “Raymond Loewy; Designs for a Consumer Culture.” It’s full of visual interest (it’d be a poor excuse for a design exhibit if it were not) but it also does a superb job of explaining the role of industrial design in shaping consumer culture.
In a nutshell, after the industrialization of US society, after the emergence of mass production, the creation of Sears Roebuck and national retailers, and following the early development of consumer advertising, industrial design became a true force in creating consumer products. It is hard to imagine a time when that very concept–consumer products–did not exist. But coming from a make-your-own and barter economy, manufactured goods (like early iceboxes, radios, locomotives) were built for maximizing production capability and pure functionality. And they sure looked like it: boxy, sharp edged and sometimes dangerous. The idea of selling comfort, ease of use, or style was truly novel.
Raymond Loewy is arguably the father of American industrial design (although his contemporaries and competitors, Henry Dreyfuss, Walter Dorwin Teague and Norman bel Geddes would justifiably argue the point). After training as an engineer, Loewy emigrated from France at a young age and enjoyed a very successful ten year career as an advertising illustrator. He astutely noticed the possibilities of extending a sense of style, aspiration, and comfort to the world of product design and, basically, re-invented himself. He became, unarguably, the most famous industrial designer in the world.
Historian Jeffrey Meikle says that contemporary press about Loewy “deified him” as a “skilled technician who with a few pen strokes could restore a corporations economic health.” Covers of Time and Life magazine attest to this glorification of Loewy (Time headline: “He Streamlines the Sales Curve”) , not to mention the Michael Graves and Karim Rashid-like design credits on his work by clients such as Studebaker, furniture companies, and Formica Corporation.
When I was in design school, Loewy was out of favor, being derided as a mere stylist who had a prediliction for streamlining the most mundane of objects (a pencil sharpener, a toaster) so that it looked capable of unmanned space flight. But my freshman design student son told me that he is now being taught that that “form vs. function argument” is way past passe and that emerging design research happily marries the benefits of two. Apparently recent findings illustrate that beautiful products are actually easier to use. Why? Because they inspire positive emotions which lead to curiosity, which lead to patience with figuring out function. Ugly products inspire the opposite emotions : anger and impatience, which shut down the very brain processes which enable discovery, logic, and rational exploration.
Here are some of the highlights of the Loewy designs on exhibit:
Prototype of the 1934 streamlined pencil sharpener pictured above
- Loewy’s office dispatched many of the consumer logos we know today, and many remain remarkably unchanged: Canada Dry, Sealtest, Shell, Formica, Nabisco, OCedar, International Harvester, USPS, and Newsweek.
- A 1946 Hallicrafter TV with an electro-magnetic CRT. I would never have appreciated this one item if not for the presence, during our visit, of a young designer who lovingly restores vintage consumer electronics he salvages from the Wellesley town dump. Upon entering the exhibit, Jeff ran right over to the TV, exclaiming, “I’ve never seen a Hallicrafter!”
- This product cracked me up: the Masterbilt Products Autosmoker Pres-A-Lite, designed to “promote the safe simultaneous practice of two of the most universal and popular activities in America–driving a car and smoking”. Made of Bakelite and mounted on the steering column, it offered a one touch dispensing of a lighted cigarette!
- Loewy’s 1941 design of Lucky Strike package remains virtually identical to the modern-day version. Loewy’s major innovation was displaying the distinctive bulls-eye logo on both sides of the box, so that the brand would continue to advertise itself no matter how the customer discarded the package. It is hard to imagine a modern-day designer extolling the litter-glitter aspects of his or her design. But it is also hard to imagine a package design lasting nearly 70 years.