The U.S. Post Office seems to be on its last legs, and we may soon be remembering the days of mail boxes stuffed with catalogs and other junk mail with a sense of nostalgia. In the meantime, however, the Post Office has issued a handsome set of stamps honoring “Pioneers of American Industrial Design.” Pioneers is the right word. Although the architect Peter Behrens designed household appliances for a major German electrical company in the early 1900s, and the Bauhaus tinkered with handmade furniture and teapots in the 1920s, the United States in the first half of the 20th century is where industrial designers went mainstream. They put their stamp on telephones, refrigerators, typewriters, cars, and a variety of mass-produced goods. We are used to famous fashion designers branding otherwise undistinguished products, but these designers were different: They combined bold aesthetics with real engineering know-how.
Walter Dorwin Teague
The big three of American industrial design were Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss. Teague, the oldest (1883-1960), opened his design studio in 1926. One of his early product designs was the Kodak Brownie camera (left), which sold for $1. The streamlining effect is not decoration but reinforces the aluminum body and keeps the black lacquer from cracking. Teague was also responsible for the exceptional Marmon 16 automobile, Texaco’s star logo and its archetypal line of service stations, and the interiors of several Boeing passenger jets.
The French-born Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) arrived in America after World War I, as discharged Capitaine Loewy. He worked as a fashion illustrator, but soon channeled his considerable visual talent into product design. This chromium plated pencil sharpener (left) is hardly representative of the scope of his work. He designed the Coldspot refrigerator for Sears, copiers for Gestetner, and cigarette packaging for Lucky Strike. There was nothing he did not turn his hand to: a Pennsylvania Railroad streamlined locomotive, the Studebaker Commander, the Farmall tractor for International Harvester, the Alouette helicopter. Loewy was flamboyant, but also firmly grounded in the realities of the marketplace. “Industrial design, as I know it, ‘delivers the goods,’ ” he explained. “It is a serious profession which combines good taste, technical knowledge, and common sense.”
Although Henry Dreyfuss (1904-72) started as a theater-set designer, he was much less of a stylist than either Teague or Loewy. Dreyfuss introduced such innovations as the Hoover upright vacuum cleaner and the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera. His classic design for a telephone handset (left) was manufactured by Bell Telephone in 1937—and was so hard to improve it lasted into the 1950s. The sculpted design is good because, among other things, it is pleasant to hold. Dreyfuss championed ergonomics—designing equipment to fit the human body—and applied it to a variety of machines, such as fork-lift trucks, tractors, office copiers, and typewriters.
Norman Bel Geddes
Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) likewise started in the theater, and designed sets for Cecil B. DeMille, costumes for Max Reinhardt, and directed an ice show for Sonja Henie. But when it came to product design, he was a visionary. “Design is not primarily a matter of drawing,” he used to say, “but a matter of thinking.” He designed the Chrysler Airflow automobile and the curvy Electrolux refrigerator. The commemorative stamp (left) features a goofy plastic case he designed for the Emerson Co.’s portable radio which, with its red-and-white striped grille, was known as the Patriot. In 1944, when IBM built its first electro-mechanical computer, the Mark I, it turned to Bel Geddes to design the housing. One of his most influential designs was the extremely popular Futurama exhibit for the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The city-of-tomorrow looked like science fiction but mostly turned out as he foresaw.
IBM was the only American corporation of that period to make a wholehearted commitment to design in all its operations and products (much as Apple would do later). To oversee design in the company, Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s founder and president, engaged Eliot Noyes as a consultant. Noyes (1910-77), who studied architecture at Harvard and had worked for Bel Geddes, hired graphic designer Paul Rand, who devised IBM’s famous logo, as well as Charles Eames. He encouraged Big Blue to commission architects such as Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer. Noyes himself was responsible for designing IBM laboratories, as well as several typewriters, including the Executive Electric and the great Selectric (left), which used an interchangeable travelling “golfball” instead of a movable carriage and traditional type bars. The Selectric defined typewriting until the advent of the personal computer, and many still consider the IBM keyboard the acme of typing technology.
Before there was Martha Stewart and Ikea, there was Russel Wright (1904-76). Wright was not an industrial designer in the mold of Loewy and Noyes, but his influence on the American home was greater. He designed furniture, dinnerware and flatware (left) and introduced mainstream America to simple modern design. His colorful line of dinnerware,American Modern, manufactured between 1939 and 1959 bySteubenville Pottery, was exceptionally popular. He also designed a line of melamine resin plastic plates. According to his contemporary, designer George Nelson, Wright was responsible for moving popular taste in the direction of modernism in the 1930s.
George Nelson (1908-86) is not included among the furniture and product designers whose work graces the Post Office’s commemorative issue, but he should be. Nelson was trained as an architect at Yale, but worked mainly as an architectural journalist until being hired by the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller as director of design. During his tenure, the company produced some of the most iconic modern furniture of the period by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, and Nelson himself, who designed interesting furniture, lamps, and clocks (left).
Courtesy Design Within Reach.
Charles and Ray Eames
The practical life of much product design is, by definition, limited; there is not much call for streamlined locomotives, Kodak Brownies, or Selectric typewriters today. On the other hand, sitting furniture is always useful, and none more so than the molded plastic Eames side chair (left). Designed in 1948 and still in production, Eames chairs grace many a Richard Rogers and Norman Foster interior. The work of the husband and wife team of Charles (1907-78) and Ray (1912-88) Eames remains in many ways the most durable trace of the great epoch of American industrial design. They were not as prolific as some of their contemporaries, and their exhibitions (many for IBM) were ephemeral, but their films survive, and their iconic furniture, such as molded plywood chairs, task chairs, and the exceptional leather lounge chair and ottoman, remain as popular as ever. There is something both intelligent and cheerful about an artless Eames design. The pair got their own series of stamps in 2008; the graphic designer was Derry Noyes, Eliot Noyes’s daughter.