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    Modern American Design


By Alex Brown




By 1900 American industry had become at least as powerful as the European nations although, because it was geographically and politically isolated few in Europe were aware that this was the case. However, in 1917 when America entered the First World War on the side of the British and French against the Germans it became clear to many that the United States was now a world class industrial power. Its ability to produce and supply war material to its forces in europe and help the allies win the war put it at least on the same industrial and economic level as britain, france and germany.


twenty years later america would have surpassed the europeans to become the world's foremost industrial and military power and have developed a clear-cut american design style and image.




It had been shown in the great International exhibitions since 1851, that the Americans were extremely inventive and original in their design of products and the organization of their their manufacturing systems. The 'American system' as it was know was the basis of real mass production techniques. The classic example of this was the mass production of the Model T Ford automobile in 1908 which finally overcame the handicraft approach to building cars and set the standards for organizing factory production everywhere and for all types of products.


The design problem, (if it can be called that), was that while American products were convenient, practical and relatively cheap, American design was still a pale reflection of European tastes. It had not as yet developed its own unique character. While European design shifted towards the Modern through the Arts and Crafts, Werkbund and Weimar School of Arts (later Bauhaus), the Americans were taking a different and much more practical route towards the same end.


European artists and designers had sought Modern design through the ideas and philosophical concepts such as 'truth', 'morality', logic and 'functionalism', etc, etc., but they had always seen themselves as separate from industry and trade - which were regarded as socially inferior occupations. Art and design were regarded as 'intellectual' activities which had a high social status. The American attitude to industry was quite different and much more positive.




At the end of the First World War in 1918 a new wave of immigrants poured into America. In this case however there were also many professionally-educated immigrants from Europe. Amongst these were John Vassos, an illustrator from Greece, Raymond Loewy an engineer from France and an Australian graphic designer Joseph Sinel. Expertise from immigrants such as these combined with Americans such as Walter Dorwin Teague and Norman Bel Geddes - both advertising artists, Henry Dreyfuss and Russell Wright - both theatre set designers would result in the formation of the American industrial design profession.


It is significant amongst these men who would create industrial design, only one - Raymond Loewy - was an engineer. This indicates that the origins of the design profession in the States was very different from that of Europe where the pioneers of the design profession were architects, furniture designers,  artists and intellectuals.


What one could call the 'MEDIA - SALES - MARKETING' end of the spectrum would dominate the American design professions.




Many of these domestic products had become time-saving  necessities for the new domestic lifestyle of the American people. 


Another aspect of the American situation was that for the Americans, the stimulus to Modern design was not a highly theoretical or intellectual one as it was in Europe. It came directly out of the conditions of American consumer products industry which was much more highly developed than Europe, fiercely competitive and much more driven by sales, marketing and advertizing. The relation between these areas and industry was much stronger in the United States.


So too the power of marketing and advertizing to promote sales had been well understood and developed in America since the late 19th century. It affected all aspects of industry including design. More so than in Europe, sales and consumer tastes drove industry and design.




One particular event provoked American manufacturers to seek out design professionals to help them style their products and in the process form the Industrial Design profession. That was the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts which took place in Paris.


American manufacturers found that they were excluded from the exhibition because one of the rules stated that all exhibits must be ORIGINAL. American consumer products while they were practical, convenient and at least technically original were IN STYLING TERMS usually based on existing and somewhat outdated European design styles. Thus for an exhibition of  'Modern Decorative Arts' they would be out of place. This event posed a threat to American exports and ultimately to the economy itself. For this reason manufacturers and government institutions sought positive action to re-style their products for a Modern (and exportable) market image. The American drive for Modern styling thus came about for the most practical reasons: sales. 




In fact the exhibits displayed at the Paris Expo were not really 'Modern'. They were a fairly conservative version of  the ART DECO style. (The name 'art deco' itself comes from the title of this 1925 exhibition - ARTs DECOratif). Art Deco was an 'almost Modern' style in the sense that it was non-historical, had smooth surfaces and used geometric and linear forms. However, unlike the radical Modern of the Bauhaus - economic and functional with its pure cubic shapes, dominated by the right-angle, white colours and almost complete lack of decoration - Art Deco was essentially decorative - using a variety of rich colours and materials. This style was  an attempt to be 'modern' without losing the decorative tradition. It was a refusal to 'go the whole way' towards the severe forms of the Modern Movement. Ultimately it was a transitional movement.


It was this style, however that American designers who visited the Exhibition brought back to the United States as an example of the best of Modern Design. It became very influential and formed the basis of the classic American STREAMLINE MODERNE of the 1930s and was used to style a vast range of products from cars, locomotives, ocean liners, refrigerators, interiors, radios, etc.


Looking for an appropriate modern image, American designers saw in the aerodynamic streamlining of vehicles with their chrome trims or 'speed bands' a key image of the age. They applied it to almost everything  - even things which DID NOT MOVE, like buildings. It was all a matter of image and styling for the market.


This glittering, chromium, streamlined and Art Deco-inspired styling would influence American product design well into the 1950s, particularly in car design.




Further sources have to be mentioned in the growth of the American Industrial Design profession:


a)       Advertizing artists:


By the 1920s, advertizing agencies who produced the illustrations of products for companies were being asked to enhance the image of those products. In effect they were being asked to re-design the product that they illustrated. The key issue as usual being to increase sales. The graphic artists who carried out this work formed another layer of the expanding industrial design profession


b)       Theatre set designers


Aware of changing tastes and styles, department stores set up their own exhibitions of Modern (ie. Art Deco) design. To do this they would call in the services of theatre set designers who were able to create an image of modernity for interiors, furniture and domestic products. 


c)       The Museums


American museums had always seen their role not only as displaying historical objects, but also those of the modern era. More than this, they had taken up a position of PROMOTING GOOD DESIGN in American industry. This was particularly the case with the influential Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York who put on 'Industrial Art' exhibitions. Such displays influenced both potential clients and designers in favour of Modern Design.




By 1927 Industrial Design as it was called was clearly established in the United States. By that time, the big corporations which dominated American industry had hired designers to style their products. Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Lowey were hired to style (or re-style) cars. Walter Dorwin Teague was styling Eastman Kodak and General Electric products. General Motors, the biggest of the car companies had begun to hire its own stylists.


The motivation for American companies was NOT to achieve an Art - Industry synthesis for rational production as the Werkbund in Germany, but strictly to STIMULATE SALES. In that sense, American Product design can be seen as a superficial exercise in styling - simply 'wallpapering on' a new image every year. However, it can also be seen as being much more responsive to consumer interests and fashions. European design of the time was much more elitist (snobbish?).




Much more so than in Europe, the American home was equipped with all sorts of time and energy-saving products. The radio had taken over the living room, the refrigerator had taken over the kitchen and, most importantly, the car had redefined the American way of life. The AMERICAN DREAM was taking shape.


Virtually every manufacturer now accepted the fact that the appearance of a product was vital to its survival in a very competitive market. It was very much this competitive environment in American industry which forced the pace of industrial design activity. Even the Stock Market Crash of 1929 which brought with it a major recession in the American economy did not stop the growth in importance of the profession. On the contrary, it became more important as manufacturers - struggling to survive - tried to stimulate sales by good styling. 




American industry introduced a concept called 'PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE'. In the car industry this meant that new designs would be brought out every year. This would stimulate the consumers to buy cars every year - trading in their old models and therefore ensuring continued production at the factory. In effect the car was engineered to become obsolete and  DESIGNED TO FAIL after a certain period.


By the psychology of their advertizing, continuous re-styling of the models and planned obsolescence engineering techniques, the big car companies ensured continual sales turnover. The effect of this on car styling was:


a)          To require designers to come up with new styling ideas every year leading to a somewhat superficial and gimmicky quality in the design of some models.


b)         There was a lack of integration between different parts of the American car since the 'visual part' the bodywork had to be regularly redesigned without affecting the engineering or mechanical aspects.


The Europeans and later the Japanese took a much more integrated and rigorous approach to the design of their models and by the late 50s and the 60s were producing radical innovations in car design which could not be matched by the Americans. Their cars would remain somewhat inefficient by European and Japanese terms not simply in terms of size but in terms of utilization of space, (compact design), ergonomics, fuel economics and aerodynamics.


This would result in a series of major crises for the American car industry as they lost large sections of their home market to more economic foreign models especially during the petrol price increases of the 1970s and the growing ecology movement.  




The first generation of American industrial designers who practiced in the 1930s esatblished a series of products and images which have become standard throughout the world and which had a major influence on future product design. As suggested above, American designers were more CONSUMER ORIENTED than their European collegues who tended to take a more abstract and rationalist approach to design. Some examples of the leading American designers and the products are given below:


a)       Raymond Loewy


Arrived in the USA from France in 1919 and in 1927 set up his own design studio, Raymond Loewy Associates which became the biggest industrial design firm in the world. Lowey's design for the 'Coldspot' refrigerator of 1935 (for the Sears Roebuck company) gave a dramatic demonstration of the impact of design on sales. Earlier refrigerators had been monumental in appearance, set on high curved legs and had the cooling unit exposed. Lowey encased the whole in a plain white-enamelled steel box with a flush door with chrome hardware. The interior was carefully designed to accomodate containers of different sizes and shapes, automatic defroster, ice-cube trays, etc. The model set a new trend in refrigerator design and annual sales soared from 15,000 to 275,000 within five years.  Lowey's design remains the basic model for present day refrigerator design. Lowey went on to do car design and interiors and other products for many major companies.


b)       Henry Dreyfuss


Dreyfuss was one of the big three American industrial designers. Starting out as a theatre set designer, he set up his own design office in 1929. His work for the Bell telephone company in 1937 produced the basic and world standard design for the telephone handset. His approach was somewhat different to other designers. He demanded the most thorough  ergonomic and engineering research before the design was finally produced. The telephone he designed was easy to operate, and the simplicity of the moulding made cleaningand servicing easier. Because of the success of this design Bell aksed Dreyfuss to work as designer on all their products.


c)       Norman Bel Geddes


Bel Geddes began as a stage designer but in 1927 took up industrial design and his first project was to design car bodies for the Graham Paige car company. Bel Geddes designs were aesthetically pleasing but too radical for the company, which did not use them. However, his designs predicted many of the styling features which were to come later. He worked for the Chrystler car company and the Electrolux domestic products company. In his designs for futuristic aeroplanes and cars.


Bel Geddes showed that he was an idealist and a visionary.





d)       Harvey Earl


In 1927 Harvey Earl became director of the Art and Colour section of General Motors Corporation, the largest car and industrial company in the world. In 1937, he became director of Styling. In this position his personal tastes influenced the design not only of cars and trucks but also of many other machines (fans, refrigerators, radios, etc).


Earl's contribution to what is now regarded as 'modern' design was enormous. In the 1950s he claimed to have personal responsibility for the styling of 31 million cars. His period of design at General Motors saw the development of the most extravagant American styling for cars. Lots of Chrome, streamlining, tail fins, wrap-around windscreens and so on. Influenced by Science fiction, aeroplane design and the shape of racing cars, Earl brought to car design a world of fantasy and pleasure which dominated the industry well into the 1970s.


e)       Walter Dorwin Teague


Teague set up his design office in 1926 after studying art and working for an advertizing agency. His first important client was Eastman Kodak who commissioned him to design cameras and packaging for a popular range of cameras. Teague believed that consumers should get maximum pleasure out of the products they owned and his multi-coloured cameras with chrome-plated trims did just this. The camera became a popular consumer product.


Teague's other work for office machines and industrial machinery showed that he was able to reduce a complicated clutter of gears, levers and bolts to a clean unified form that not only looked better but made the equipment easier to use.




American design had developed along its own path towards Modern design. Driven more by consumer and popular taste, it brought to product design a sense of pleasure, flamboyance and luxury lacking in European models. It dealt not only with the functional issues of the product but also with the dreams and aspirations of the consumer - that underlying desire for the 'good life' - which modern products represented.


Fantasy became democratized and available to all in the evocative images of American product design.




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