Industrial design is all around us. One finds especially good work at Target stores and in products from Apple.
80 years ago, industrial design was not even a profession. When a factory made a product, someone in the office, perhaps with drafting skills, drew up the product. It was not until into the 20th century that men and women began to create a new industry, a new profession: the full-time, independent industrial designer.
And no man did more to create that field, or to shape our visual universe, than the great Raymond Loewy (1893-1986). Look around you – the Shell Oil logo, the design of Air Force One (at Jackie Kennedy’s request), the Studebaker Avanti (the fastest US production car at the time it came out), and many products of everyday life were designed by Loewy.
He came to the US from France, and at first was not well-received. He was fired from Macy’s for building store show windows that were unorthodox. Then he went door-to-door to manufacturing companies, telling him in his ridiculed French accent that he could redesign their products so they would be both more beautiful and more functional. A Chicago company, Gestetner, which made duplicating machines – forerunners of modern copiers – took him up on his offer, and soon thereafter Sears had him redesign Coldspot refrigerators. By the late 1930s he was designing everything from locomotives (including the famous GG1 electric locomotive) to dining car table settings. He, along with other early pioneers like Henry Dreyfuss, also formed the Industrial Design Society of America, which is still going strong.
The Raymond Loewy story is a classic tale of innovation, of one man or at most a very few people creating a whole new industry, a new way of doing things.
I expect I will review numerous design books in the future, but it would be hard to start with anyone better than Loewy. Industrial Design (Overlook Press, 2007) is a great, thorough, colorful review of his work and Never Leave Well Enough Alone (reprinted by Johns Hopkins, 2002) is his own story. If you want to learn about the man and consider his art, I would suggest starting with Industrial Design, one of my favorite books. If you become enamored of Loewy and his life, as I have, then you can read Never Leave Well Enough Alone and beyond.