March 1, 2009
The Children of Raymond Loewy
A curious lineage exists between the dapper Frenchman and today’s contemporary stars.
There are two kinds of industrial designers. There are those who knowingly or unknowingly try as best as they can to follow in the footsteps of Raymond Loewy, the most dapper French designer of them all, with his sports cars and his pencil moustache, his foulard and his charming way of claiming credit where credit was not necessarily due. He arrived in the United States a couple of years after Coca-Cola started producing the most famous container the world would ever see, yet he managed to associate himself with that classic Coke bottle even in the pages of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was the man who streamlined the sales curve, the man who arrived penniless in New York after World War I and built a career based on sheer force of personality. It was Loewy who hired a public-relations consultant with a brief to get him on the cover of Time magazine.
And there is the other kind of industrial designer, perhaps best personified by Dieter Rams, for whom the discipline is a kind of moral crusade. Unlike William Morris, Rams believes in the potential of industrial production. But otherwise, Morris and Rams have a sense of moral purpose, even outrage, in common. As a precocious teenager, Morris refused to set foot inside the Crystal Palace at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, so convinced was he that he would find nothing inside but machine-made junk. Rams is the man who used to walk in the woods around his home with a sack to collect the garbage—visual pollution in his delicate eyes—that he found on the way and take it back to the dump. He was the man whose office at Braun was the Switzerland of the design world, a study in neutrality, in which the only color came from the bright-orange pack of cigarettes permanently in his hands. A man for whom less is better.
Both Loewy and Rams are storytellers, which raises the possibility that for all their apparent differences, they are in fact doing something similar—using design as a kind of language or as a means of encapsulating a worldview, and giving its material objects meaning. Different meanings, but still meanings. Loewy was brilliant at presenting himself as the personification of glamour. He built a replica of his studio in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He posed, lolling on the footplate of one of “his” streamlined locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He turned the Gestetner duplicating machine from an office standby into the iMac of its day, an essential prop for image-conscious businesses eager to establish their credentials as forward-looking types.
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Loewy and General Motors’ Harley Earl embodied the view of consumption developed by Earnest Elmo Calkins, the man who created the contemporary advertising industry. Calkins and the American marketing pioneers in the 1930s had been determined to persuade the world to consume its way out of the Depression. “Goods fall into two classes, those which we use, such as motor cars, and safety razors, and those which we use up, such as tooth paste, or soda biscuits,” Calkins wrote in 1932. “Consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.” And while we may have convinced ourselves that we are a generation too sophisticated to fall for built-in obsolescence, the truth is that we have never been so deluged with stuff that is calculated to seduce us into aquiring it. And in a world in which every government is now desperate to persuade its citizens to start borrowing and spending, it’s not hard to see how, for all the talk of investing in green-collar jobs, design is again going to be called on to carry out a similar task: to persuade us to buy things we don’t necessarily need.
There is a line of Loewy’s children defining a certain territory in the contemporary design world. Philippe Starck is, of course, his most conspicuous descendant. Not only is he as French as Loewy was, he also believes that he has something important to give the world: his signature. After 25 years, Starck is still an enfant terrible, still playing the same tricks with anthropomorphic styling, surrealistic jumps of scale, and a winning way with names. Expecting us to walk into an electronics store and ask for a radio named Moa Moa is cruelty on a level with Frank Zappa naming one of his children Moon Unit. Then Starck begat Stefano Giovannoni, and Giovannoni begat Karim Rashid, and Rashid begat Fabio Novembre, designers who can be understood as their own greatest creation.
There is another narrative to design: designers who see what they do as a form of social mission. Britain’s first serious design consultancy called itself the Design Research Unit, as if it were a branch of the government rather than a commercial organization. Something similar shaped the thinking of Arthur Drexler’s collecting policies at the Museum of Modern Art. Drexler, who acquired the museum’s helicopter, refused to buy more than a handful of mechanical appliances during his tenure, claiming that “too often their design is determined by commercial factors, irrelevant, or even harmful to aesthetic quality.” It’s the view that the styling-driven approach of Loewy and his followers doesn’t quite cut it, and that the real stuff of design can be found in the European tradition of Behrens, Rams, or Jasper Morrison. But that seems to somehow miss the point. If industrial design is a means for understanding the material world, then Drexler took a remarkably limited view.
It’s possible that we now see the two traditions coalescing in the single personality of Jonathan Ive and his work for Apple. Ive uses the language of logic, reason, and restraint developed by Rams, and he puts it to work in smart electronics, most consciously in a knowing tribute to the elder designer’s Braun calculator, which was slipped into the calculator interface of the first-generation iPhone. But at the same time, Apple has taken us back to the idea of built-in obsolescence in a way that would gladden Calkins’s heart. Every 18 months, there is a better, sharper, smarter, new Mac that makes the last one, and all the costly peripherals that came with it, redundant.
In essence, both traditions use design to tell us the narratives that we use to understand the objects that shape our daily lives. They engineer desire. They’re calculatingly designed to achieve an emotional response. Objects can be beautiful, witty, ingenious, and sophisticated, but also crude, banal, and malevolent. The designer tries to use design to make objects that are cheap to mass-produce look valuable, to make them look masculine or feminine, to make them look rugged, or up-to-date—quite beyond their functional alibi. That is what design has always done in one way or another. What has really changed is our relationship to our possessions. They are losing their ability to grow old with us. Polycarbonate looks great fresh out of the box, but as soon as it starts to interact with human skin, it begins to blemish. When my cell phone has spent a month or two in my pocket, it looks as if it has developed psoriasis.
But my first Nikon SLR aged with dignity. As the black paint began to chip, it revealed little glimpses of the brass body beneath, like denim fading to the texture of cashmere. I still have my father’s portable typewriter; the keys are rusted together, the ribbon is tattered, and it will never compose another letter. But I can’t bring myself to part with it. It lasted him half a lifetime. I change laptops every 18 months, and I don’t see any danger of my daughter ever keeping one of them on her top shelf.
Essays on Good Design
The Children of Raymond Loewy
By Deyan Sudjic
Within the Product of No Product
By John Hockenberry
The Real Driver
By Niels Diffrient
Product Panic: 2009
By Bruce Sterling
Rekindling the Book
By Karrie Jacobs