Behind the Postage: Pioneers of American Industrial Design

Behind the Postage: Pioneers of American Industrial Design

Anna Hoffman
Jan 13, 2011

As a design nerd, I am agog with excitement about the USPS's upcoming stamps commemorating the pioneers of American Industrial Design. But the stamps are not without controversy: some design critics wondering why only one woman is represented, and I take issue with the selection of designers. Let's take a quick look at the designers the Postal Service chose to feature and what most of them have in common, and then you can decide whether it is a fair representation.

The new stamps (which will be available in May) honor the designers who really developed the profession of industrial design, particularly during the 1930s in America. During the Great Depression, of course, sales of consumer goods were way down. This is where industrial designers came in. They took everyday goods like pencil sharpeners and gave them a new, sleek, modern-looking style makeover that made them so appealing to consumers that people actually bought them. This new style was called Streamlining, and it came to define the American Art Deco aesthetic.

The Streamlining style was based on aerodynamics, which had shown that a teardrop-shaped body could move forward with the least resistance. It was relevant to the new and exciting modes of transportation that so much defined that era — trans-Atlantic oceanliners, new-fangled passenger airplanes and, of course, the almighty automobile, whose impact on American culture was already apparent a generation before the '50s "car culture." The laws of aerodynamics showed that for moving objects to meet the least resistance they should not only have that teardrop shape but should also have as simple an exterior as possible, with smooth lines and no extraneous protrusions.

The industrial designers of the '30s took the idea of streamlining and applied it to everyday things, even things that weren't supposed to move at all, like refrigerators (is your refrigerator running?). The designers took familiar objects and made over the outsides, rarely if ever changing the inner workings of the thing, just cosmetically changing them into alluring and modern-looking goods. They 'streamlined' objects by making them smooth and visually simple, without extraneous details. Often, they even added 'speed lines' onto the smooth body in imitation of the automobile styling that was popular. These cosmetic changes stimulated consumer desire and people ended up buying things, even in the depths of the Great Depression.

Most of the designers celebrated by this series of stamps were practitioners of this Depression-era Streamlining style:

Raymond Loewy was one of the greats of streamlining. His pencil sharpener from 1935 was almost a literal interpretation of aerodynamics, with a straightforward teardrop shape and a totally smooth exterior. Loewy was hired by various famous brands to redesign their products during this era. Perhaps his most successful redesign was the Coldspot Refrigerator for Sears, which transformed the icebox from something that looked like an old-fashioned highboy chest to a sleek, modern appliance for an electric kitchen. Sears sales exploded from 60,000 to 275,000 units in the two years after Loewy's 1934 redesign.

Along with Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss was one of the most important designers of the era. His goal was to improve the user experience of objects, so he and his engineers studied the proportions of the human body so they could make their products 'fit' people better. Like Loewy, Dreyfuss worked for several different brands, redesigning things like the Hoover vacuum, the 20th-Century Limited train, and the Bell telephone. For Bell, he simplified the body of the telephone and gave it a smooth plastic outer shell. It was also his idea to coil the telephone cord into a spiral so it would stretch without leaving yards of wire sitting next to the phone (genius!). He refined his own design several times after his initial redesign, making the phone more and more legible and easy to use.

Some of Walter Dorwin Teague's most famous designs were cameras for Eastman Kodak and those iconic gas stations for Texaco (see above). Teague's Kodak cameras were designed to appeal to style-conscious female customers. Teague designed cameras in all sorts of different colors, and on many of them included 'speed line' decoration like the ones he put on his Texaco gas stations. Of course a camera has no need for speed lines! But by associating the object with fast cars and forward motion, Teague turned cameras into a necessary and fashionable accessory of modern life.

Peter Müller-Munk's "Normandie" pitcher mimicked the singular form of the Normandie, the fastest and most famous oceanliner of the era. The interior of the ship itself was designed and decorated by the highest-end French designers, who worked in expensive gilded laquer, crystal and exotic wood veneers. On board, passengers like Salvador Dali and Josephine Baker paid exorbitant sums for a berth. By contrast, Müller-Munk's pitcher was made of chromium-plated brass, so it was inexpensive and mass-producible. It was a way for the average consumer to have access to the iconic glamor and speed of the Normandie.

In 1936 Frederick Hurton Rhead created Fiestaware, a colorful line of mix-and-match dinnerware that helped redefine the domestic tablescape and became an American bestseller. Rhead was trained in fine pottery, but developed Fiesta ware for industrial production. He styled the vessels in the Streamline style, with smooth, rounded forms and stepped concentric circles.

Russel Wright's American Modern tableware was, like Fiesta ware, colorful, intended for mixing and matching, and incredibly popular for decades. Wright was a proponent of casual modern living. He felt that the table was the heart of the family home, and created informal tableware that could be used by the whole family. The stylish simplicity of his work made modernism accessible.

In 1930, the Herman Miller company was dying, its historical reproductions not selling. Desperate, they hired a young designer named Gilbert Rohde, who had been inspired to become a designer after a trip to France and Germany, where he saw European Art Deco and Modernist style. The European-influenced modern furniture he designed for Herman Miller turned the company around, and helped disseminate Modern and Art Deco style in the US. His clock is the very image of modern visual simplicity.

Donald Deskey was one of the great interior designers of American Art Deco, famous for designing the interior of Radio City Music Hall in the early '30s. He also designed gorgeous Art Deco furniture for clients like Muriel Vanderbilt. In the '50s he began designing logos, many of which remained consistent and familiar for many decades, such as Tide, Jif peanut butter, Crest and others.

Some of my favorite designs of the era came from Norman Bel Geddes, who started his career as a stage and lighting designer. He is most famous for designing General Motors' "Futurama," an exhibition at the 1939 World's Fair that predicted how the world would look in 1960, according to GM (LOTS of cars and 12-lane highways). Bel Geddes was a dreamer, and designed all sorts of automobiles and airliners that were never realized. He typically applied his design skills to technology, including his Patriot radio, whose styling was not only slick and automobile-inspired, but also clearly evokes the stars and stripes.

Dave Chapman was a prolific industrial designer who worked for Montgomery Ward before starting his own large firm. Chapman designed all different kinds of household products, like vacuum cleaners and stand mixers. The object selected by the USPS is his sewing machine from 1947, whose simple outer shell and chrome grille clearly evoke the automobile style of the streamline era.

Eliot Noyes is considered one of the unsung design heroes of the 20th century. As a curator at MoMA, he helped launch the careers of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. In his own practice, he established internal design departments at major corporations, formally making the case for good design as part of corporate communications. He was the one who hired graphic designer Paul Rand to design his famous logos for Westinghouse and IBM. It was also for IBM that Noyes designed the Selectric typewriter in 1961, which captured 75% of the market by 1965. Ironically, though, Noyes was not a big fan of Streamlining, which he felt was to some extent an immoral means of stoking consumers' desire for something they did not need.

Finally we have Greta Von Nessen, the lone woman of the pack. Von Nessen was the daughter of a Swedish architect and the wife of Walter Von Nessen, a well-regarded designer who specialized in innovative lighting and modern decorative objects. After Walter's death, Greta took over his studio and produced new designs, including the Anywhere lamp in 1951, which could sit on a tabletop or be hung from a wall (hence the name). Like Noyes, I'm not sure Von Nessen belongs in this cohort, since she came a bit later, and since she certainly doesn't fall within the Streamlining aesthetic or practice.

For me, the inclusion of Noyes and Von Nessen is a little confusing, since the emphasis of these stamps is clearly on the Streamlining movement of the 1930s. There were other Streamlining designers that could have been included, like Harold Van Doren and John Gordon Rideout, as well as any of the female designers who were anonymous members of the influential design teams at car companies like GM and Ford.

Although I'm always pleased to see the design canon shaken up by including women and minorities in design history, in this case the inclusion of Von Nessen feels almost perfunctory. Why include a woman who doesn't really fit the category being honored when there are other women who do? I am shocked that we don't see a stamp for Florence Knoll, who took some of the most innovative Modernist design prototypes and mass-produced them, or for Eva Zeisel, who helped turn ceramics into a mass industry.

I can only hope that a "Women of Industrial Design" series is on its way for 2012! What do you think, much ado about nothing or a patent injustice?

And more importantly, which is your favorite stamp?


The stamps will be available through the USPS in May 2011
Images: All stamp images via designrelated.com and the USPS; Depression photo via ssa.gov; A.M. Cassandre's poster for the Normandie via Wikipedia; Teague's Texaco station via luckymojo; Loewy's Coldspot fridge via raymondloewy.org; Russel Wright's American Modern tableware via the National Post.

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