CONSULTANT DESIGN: a retrospective view

Industrial Design has evolved from its historic meaning of product aesthetics to a deeper, more complex concern for man and his environment.

 

by Arthur J. Pulos 

 

www.IDWS.ca

Sometime before 1920, Joseph Sinel put the words “Industrial Design” on his letterhead and thereby announced that he was ready to do product design for American industry. In 1927, Norman Bel Geddes established the profession of Industrial Design, that is to say, he claimed to be the “first designer of national reputation to surround himself with a staff of specialists and offer Industrial Design services.” Raymond Loewy believes that “the beginning of Industrial Design as a legitimate profession” was his contract with the Hupp Motor Company because “for the first time a large corporation accepted the idea of outside advice on the development of its products.”

In point of fact, none of these gentlemen invented Industrial Design nor was it created by Walter Dorwin Teague who turned from a successful career in advertising illustration to product design in 1926. One of his first clients was the Eastman Kodak Company and this alliance, which lasted from 1927 until his death in 1960, was highlighted by the phenomenal success of the Baby Brownie camera produced in Plastic in 1934 to sell for $1. Henry Dreyfuss was only 25 years old when he founded his practice of Industrial Design in 1928 following a career in the design of costumes and scenery for the theater. One of his earliest successes resulted from an assignment from Sears Roebuck to design a washing machine.

These gentlemen did not invent Industrial Design; nor was it created by Lurelle Guild, Egmont Arens, John Vassos, Ray Patten, Harold Van Doren, Russell Wright, Donald Deskey or Peter Muller-Munk, all of whom began to practice Industrial Design in the 1920’s. Rather. Industrial Design came into being in the United States as a result of the unique demand a twentieth century Machine Age for individuals qualified by intellect and and sensitivity to give form to the humanistic elements of mass-produced objects. It sought to fill the vacuum left by the inability of the craftsmen to anticipate every demand which would be imposed on a mass-produced product by an expanded technology and a preoccupation with consumer appeal and satisfaction. These Industrial Designers and many others like them were the result of this phenomenon not its originators.

The first signs of Industrial Design made an appearance at the onset of the Industrial Revolution as a necessary concomitant to the standardization of parts and the subdivision of labor. However, it was not until the twentieth century that mass production was perfected to the point where the input of the conceiver of the product could be finally separated from the output of its producers. In an oblique way, its greatest impetus came front World War I, the first war to be fought essentially by machines. The success of mass produced ammunition, rifles, machine Guns, tanks, airplanes, dirigibles and aerial bombs was only partially softened by mass-produced medical supplies, ambulances and tailor-made cigarettes. At first, the awesome capacity of an industrial economy geared for quantity production generated fears that man might himself be dominated by the machine. However, the national fever which swept the country after the war soon diverted this industrial capacity to the manufacture of products to serve the common man. His purchasing power crept steadily upwards. Electricity, a means of ready energy, had become available to everyone. With a capacity sufficient to drive a train or trolley or to grind meat or wash clothes, it promised to conquer domestic and industrial drudgery and almost did. The broom, the washboard, and the coffee mill all fell before an onslaught of electrified products. The acceptance of the machine as an instrument of production necessary to the needs of democracy made the common object beautiful and desirable. Products for everyday use acquired a new dignity and promised economic profit at the same time. Media promotion magazines national magazines and radio advertising stimulated mass sales and provided a steady demand for the talents of designer’s and offered them a sense of participation in a dynamic economy.

The cultural break which occurred when the First World War interrupted the flow of art products and talent from Europe to America had aroused some of our cultural leaders to the urgency for developing our own designers. In 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York organized a series of annual ex­hibitions of American industrial art motivated by a desire to demonstrate the value of its collections to designers and manufacturers. At first, it exhibited only such products as had been inspired by its col­lections. However, slowly it began to recognize the work of independent American designers to the point of adding advertising art to its exhibit including work by Walter Dorwin Teague.

Neither the Metropolitan Museum nor the Ameri­can design community were prepared, however, for the shock of the refusal by the then Secretary of State Herbert Hoover of an invitation to the United States to participate in the Paris International Exposition of Design and Decorative Arts in 1925. His reluc­tance was based on the sincere and not improbable conviction that the United States could not comply with the Exposition’s rule that “all exhibits must be modern and of original design.” The United States was one of the only three civilized nations which did not participate; the others being Germany which was not invited, and China which was in political chaos at the time.

The Paris Exposition offered very little in the way of mass-produced products. It did, however, champion successfully a new spirit in design, namely that the products of the twentieth century owed nothing to historic style and, further, that their chief inspiration should come from geometric form and the machine. The effect on the American design community was immediate and powerful. Paris became the center of the design world. A number of American designers (among who were Donald Deskey and Russell Wright) went to Paris to see the Exposition and
came back to begin the practice of Industrial Design. Within a year, Walter Dorwin Teague and Raymond Loewy abandoned illustration for Industrial Design.

The Secretary of Commerce of the United States reacting to the cultural impact of the show appointed a commission of over 100 manufacturers to visit and report on the Paris exposition. Their report is important because in it industry publicly recognized that it had an obligation to our economy to support American designers and a contemporary idiom. In spite of the fact that the report and its lesson have forgotten by our decorative arts and furnishings, it might be interesting to repeat it here as a plaintive echo. The commissions recognized: “First, that the modern movement in applied art is designed to Playa large part in the near future in many important fields, of productions throughout the western world;

“Second, that the nation which most successfully nationalizes the movement and brings its expressions into terms acceptable and appropriate to modern liv­ing conditions and modern taste will possess a dis­tinct advantage both to domestic and foreign trade; “Third, that the movement will undoubtedly reach our own shores in the near future and unless we are to be entirely dependent at this junction upon foreign talent, manufacturers, designers and school activi­ties should take careful note of its course abroad and endeavor to initiate a parallel effort of our own upon lines calculated to appeal to the American consumer.”

Immediately after the Paris Exposition, the Ameri­can Association of Museums imported and circulated a collection of objects from the Exposition on the premise that it was not intended to stimulate a de­mand for the European products themselves, nor to encourage the copying of European creations, but rather to stimulate the development of a parallel movement in the United States. Its sponsors hoped that we would be encouraged to build on our own traditions and seek expression of the artistic current of the day and to bring out new forms appropriate to the living conditions of the twentieth century. The success of these shows was due in part to the fact that the products were not exhibited as isolated objects d’art—contemporary curios against an his­toric background—but rather as elements in an en­vironment which was done entirely in the new spirit

New York department stores were quick to recog­nize the market value of public interest in the new Art Moderne style and, in very short order, each of the major department stores held its own exhibition of products in new style. Franklin Simon hired Norman Bel Geddes to develop a new approach to its window displays utilizing dramatic lighting. When the win­dows were unveiled the crush of viewers was so great that extra police had to be assigned to keep traffic moving. Within three months, every Fifth Avenue store had changed its displays into the new style.

An exchange of letters between James Rennie and Norman Bel Geddes (printed in The Neu, York Times in 1928) demonstrates the influence which this new style and its promise of a new world had on designers and artists. Rennie’s letter called attention to the “fact that Norman Bel Geddes has left the theater flat and is now designing window displays, automo­biles, scales and various other odds and ends which have no relation to dramatic art. Mr. Bel Geddes’ explanation of this is that industrial objects offer broader opportunities than the theater in its present general condition.” It closed with the expressed hope that Bel Geddes might be spanked editorially.

Bel Geddes responded: “We live in an age of industry and business. It is a fact. There is nothing wrong with it.  Any wrong is in the point of view of those who are unsuccessful in dealing with it.  It is as absurd to condemn an artist of today for applying his ability to insustry as it is to condemn Phidias, Giotto or Michaelangelo for applying theirs toward religion.

“It is more important that I should be working at something that interests one, that is of the present, such as the automobile, the airplane, the steamship, the railway car, architecture and furniture, than it is for me to keep working in the theater merely because I have spent 15 years doing so.”

Norman Bel Geddes, perhaps, caught the excitement and challenge of working for industry better than any other designer of the twenties and thirties. As a result, his studios served as a magnet for many other designers, including Henry Dreyfuss and Russell Wright in the early 1920’s. Later it drew Garth Huxtable, William Paxton, Peter Schladermundt, Rudolph Koepf and, after World War II, Eliot Noyes.

These former associates agree in principle that Bel Geddes was “as close to a genius as this profession had produced.”  His predictive capacity was uncanny. In an article for the Ladies Home Journal in 1931, he predicted curtain wall construction, vertical takeoff airplanes, photoelectric cells to open doors, air-conditioning, airplanes encircling the globe, a new fuel of vastly improved power and infinitesimal bulk, exploration of the sea bottom and interplanetary space. His book, Horizons, is a classic.

It would be illogical to ignore the fact that most Industrial Designers of the 1930’s were caught up by this same spirit of progress and adventure. Dramatic sales successes were scored again and again by redesigned products. The Great Depression itself gave impetus to the efforts of designers when it was discovered that sales volume could be maintained by making a product an item of fashion subject to evanescent taste. The designers promoted annual model changes in products encouraging public aspiration for a higher standard of living. In quick order, Art Moderne gave way to the Skyscraper Style, this, in turn, was replaced by streamlining. So, it has been ever since, one cosmetic influence replacing another. It is unfortunate that, for some designers, responsibility ends at this level and that they have just become a promotional arm of the sales force of industry.

Other designers introduced into their products a concern for the consumer’s well-being which went much deeper than arbitrary Styling. They have proved that through design analysis products can be evolved which are less expensive to produce, require fewer parts in manufacture, incorporate new materials and processes with attendant savings in cost and service, and produce objects which are more functional than their earlier counterparts.

The range of practice of Industrial Design today is so broad as to make unrealistic the use of the phrase “Industrial Design” in its historic sense of product aesthetics. Yet, the glamour of the name remains with its promise of dramatic changes in product expression accompanied by equally dramatic increases in sales. In point of fact, the practice of Industrial Design has drifted so far from its origins in hardware and mass production that it is reasonable to speculate that the qualifying adjective “industrial” will disappear from the title leaving the professional in this field of service to be known simply as a designer. This would provide an umbrella title covering the activity of so-called Industrial Designers.

This designer then, as we might term him, serves our economy at the interface between man and his environment. He is free to work for public agencies and government as well as for private enterprise and industry. In fact, he may often serve as a necessary bridge between these protagonists of our democratic society. His educational breadth provides him with an understanding of physical science and technological process, a sympathy for social science and the humanities coupled with creativity and aesthetic sensitivity.

At the present time, independent design offices undertake assignments varying over the entire man made environment. These may range from space planning to product planning, from sales and promotional programs to institutional studies, from research to application, from exhibits and trade fairs to graphics, packaging and hard goods.

Donald McFarland, head of the West Coast office of Latham, Tyler and Jensen, predicted last fall at the annual meeting of the IDSA that, in another 10 years, the independent Industrial Design offices would give way to corporate design staffs. While one cannot disagree with the notion that corporate design is becoming a stronger influence in company planning and operation, it is also evident that a need will persist for independent designers.

Corporate design groups will continue to rely, at least for design insurance reasons, on the broader experience and less directed judgment of outside consultants. It is very difficult for an inside group, committed as it normally is to the problems of meeting a continual and pressing demand for products to sell, to set aside either time or intellectual capacity for longer or broader range product development.

          The word “consultant,” in a strict sense, refers to the singular and highly personal activity of an individual retained for his direct counseling. In every case, he is a person of high intelligence, perceptive to developing trends, with thorough and commanding respect and experience in his chosen field. His value to a client is, at least in part, due to the fact that he is free of the narrower frame of reference and internecine rivalries within a company. His special status places him close to top management where he may freely offer counsel even if it is at variance with established opinion. Free to cross disciplines, he may introduce broader environmental influences.

It is no accident that many of the pioneers of this profession have developed a pure consultant relationship with a client and have become valued and trusted confidants of its top management. In this capacity, the consultant operates with a very small staff (if any at all) and very much out of his hat rather than his portfolio. He tends to meet with management, often as a part of a larger consulting group, on an annual, semiannual or quarterly basis. His primary function is to help shape long term product policy.

More often the consultant operates on a short term basis meeting with in-plant personnel working on current products. These people may be designers—if the company carries its own—or else engineering and marketing, personnel. He serves primarily to help tune a product or product line to market conditions. Such meetings are usually held monthly or weekly or even more often in the press of deadlines. At this level, the consultant may help his client develop a design staff and determine Industrial Design practices for him.

The most frequent type of outside design service is concerned with the use of independent designers to supplement in-company design staffs. They provide a satellite design service rather than serving as consultants since they seldom have anything to do with product policy or direction. Rather, their primary value is to supply additional design help to the company as it is needed. Such an arrangement helps keep the company staff lean and thus avoids the problem of long range commitments and responsibilities. Further, the independent designer working on such a basis has an opportunity to flesh out his own regular work and may aspire to achieve a relationship with his client company on a higher plane.

Most if not all Industrial Designers are motivated by a persistent effort to bring aesthetic virtue and scientific value into harmony in mass-produced objects. They believe that it is logical to expect that efficiency and elegance may be tuned to serve man’s common needs. It is disturbing on one hand to recognize that the profession has not seen fit to establish even minimal standards for practice and that many members of this forty-year old profession consider any efforts in this direction as a threat to this freedom to shift practice at will. At the same time, this is evidence of the dynamic virility which characterizes the practice of design. The essence of Industrial Design is distilled from its ability to extract from an industrial economy those new products which are expressive of human need.

“The Changing Face of America

Industrial Design Magazine

I.D. Magazine

June 1966

 

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