Art Deco & Industrial Design: The Industrial Designer

The profession known as industrial design emerged during the Great Depression of the 1930s (Meikle p.105). Many of the early industrial designers started out in the advertising business and dealt a lot with stage and set designs for theaters. An industrial designer is neither just an artist, nor simply an engineer, nor a market researcher but rather a combination of all three (Sparke p. 94). What did these industrial designers do? As Fortune magazine of 1934 explained: “Now it was the turn of the washing machines, furnaces, switchboards, and locomotives. Who was to design them?” (Spark p. 96) And the answer to that question is the industrial designer. The industrial designer was now in charge of coming up with all different kinds of machines for the new modern era. The problem with this was that the designers struggled to find a machine aesthetic both intellectually defensible and commercially viable (Meikle p. 113). They wanted to create a style that was an honest expression of the technology of this new modern life. The style they developed was called streamlining. Streamlining was based on the new science of aerodynamics and borrowed from the emerging technology of aviation where it was both functional and organic (Meikle p. 113). Streamlining allowed a vehicle to travel much faster by eliminating the wind resistance.

Some of the industrial designers that were very prominent at the time were Walter Dorwin Teague, Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss and Henry Ford. Henry Ford is one of the first industrial designers. The automobile was the most significant technology of the 20th century, transforming the way almost all people lived, worked, and identified themselves (Meikle p. 102). Henry Ford’s mass production using the assembly line helped the automobile become so popular. The Model T transformed popular fantasy into universal reality (Meikle p. 102). By 1928, there were more than 20 million automobiles registered, one for every six people (Meikle p. 102). This changed the world forever. Another industrial designer was Walter Dorwin Teague first worked as an advertising agent before he designed industrial products. Many of his designs were informed by a desire for simplicity and unity as well as a belief in the ability to design to improve the quality of life by promoting an awareness of taste and discrimination (Raizman p. 215). One of Teague’s most well known developments are the redesigning of several cameras for Kodak. Norman Bel Geddes was very influential with the streamlining of the automobile. He came up with several prototypes for a streamlined automobile but unfortunately they were never put into production. He did however serve as a consultant to the Chrysler Corporation for the 1934 Airflow, which adapted a more unified approach to the construction of the grill, hood, and windshield (Raizman p. 216). The Airflow contributed to a streamlining fad among the public and convinced GM and Ford to use it throughout their automotive lines (Meikle p. 118). Streamlining also started having an impact on the railroads, such as with the Zephyr. Raymond Loewry first worked in illustration, window dressing, and advertising before he founded his own industrial design firm in 1929 (Gorman p. 155). His office designed trains, Greyhound buses, Coke bottles, International Harvestor farm machines, the Skylab, and many other products for the world’s largest companies over the next 50 years (Gorman p. 155). His desire was to naturally give the pubic the most advanced product that research can develop and technology to produce (Gorman p. 155). He also served as the in-house “art director” for Westinghouse radio cabinets from 1929 to 1931 before becoming an independent consultant and designing car bodies for Hupmobile (Meikle p. 109-110). One of his major contributions was the Coldspot refrigerator. Lowery emphasized its verticality by using long, slender hinges and running three parallel ribs up the middle from bottom to top (Meikle p. 110). Another industrial designer of the time was Henry Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss started out as a set designer working with Geddes. Sears, Roebuck hired Dreyfuss to design a washing machine with the supplier’s engineers (Meikle p. 109). His washing machine was named Toperator and showed a careful blend of functional and psychological considerations. Dreyfuss was very concerned with the functional fit of a product to the person using it. All of these industrial designers became public heroes, filling the pages of popular magazines, which even described what they even had for breakfast (Sparke p. 98). They soon became symbols of the modern age, pointing to the future at a time when economic situation was less than optimistic (Sparke p. 98).

Without the invention of industrial designers where do you think we would be today? Who would have made those products that the industrial designers made? How large of an impact do you think industrial designers has had on the world today?