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Celebrating The Pioneers of American Industrial Design

Fri, 06/10/2011 - 8:58am
the U.S. Postal Service

The Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamp pane honors 12 of the nation’s most important and influential industrial designers — according to the United States Postal Service.

Encompassing everything from furniture and electric kitchen appliances to corporate office buildings and passenger trains, the work of these designers helped shape the look of everyday life in the 20th century.

Industrial design emerged as a profession in the U.S. in the 1920s but really took hold during the Depression. Faced with decreasing sales, manufacturers turned to industrial designers to give their products a modern look that would appeal to consumers.

Characterized by horizontal lines and rounded, wind-resistant shapes, the new, streamlined looks differed completely from the decorative extravagance of the 1920s. They evoked a sense of speed and efficiency and projected the image of progress and affluence the public desired.

Consumer interest in modern design continued to increase after World War II, when machines allowed corporations to mass produce vacuums, hair dryers, toasters, and other consumer goods at low cost. Industrial designers helped lower costs further by exploiting inexpensive new materials like plastic, vinyl, chrome, aluminum, and plywood, which responded well to advances in manufacturing such as the use of molds and stamping. Affordable prices and growing prosperity nationwide helped drive popular demand.

Even as streamlining gave way to new looks in the 1960s, the groundbreaking work of industrial designers continued to transform the look of homes and offices across the country. Today, industrial design remains an integral component of American manufacturing and business, as well as daily life.

Let’s celebrate the achievements of these pioneers by adorning our bills, postcards, and foreclosure notices with their influential industrial designs.

Eliot Noyes (1910-1977) 

Noyes bridged the gap between business and art, transforming the industrial design profession into more than just a commercial venture. Rather than continue the practice of changing a product’s design every year, Noyes persuaded his corporate clients to adopt long-lasting design principles instead.

He is best remembered for his long working relationship with IBM, for whom he designed the iconic 1961 “Selectric” typewriter.

His relationship with IBM began after World War II, when he designed the company’s 1947 Model A electric typewriter.

Dave Chapman (1909-1978)

Honored by the Industrial Designers Society of America for his “vigorous sponsorship and backing of design research and high standards of industrial design education,” Dave Chapman is probably most known for his innovative and award-winning designs for classroom furniture.

He also designed household appliances like refrigerators, hairdryers, radios, and electric heaters. Shown at the first exhibition of the American Society of Industrial Designers in 1947, Chapman’s streamlined sewing machines featured a chrome grille that evoked the sleek look of contemporary automobiles.

Chapman studied architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology (later known as the Illinois Institute of Technology).

Peter Müller-Munk (1904-1967)

Müller-Munk is best remembered for the “Normandie” pitcher. Introduced by the Revere Copper and Brass Company in 1935, the mass-produced pitcher was made of chromium-plated brass, an alternative to silverware that was affordable and easier to care for.

The pitcher’s simple curves, teardrop shape, and unornamented form embodied the streamlined style. Müller-Munk also designed the 1937 Waring blender, a now-classic combination of chrome and glass initially dubbed the “Miracle Mixer.”

Müller-Munk studied as a silversmith in Berlin before emigrating to the U.S. in 1926. He designed silver pieces for Tiffany & Co. in New York City then opened his own studio in 1929.

Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972)

Considered by many to be the first designer to apply ergonomics systematically to product design, Henry Dreyfuss considered the user to be the center and focus of his industrial design work.

During a career that lasted more than 40 years, he designed products that touched all corners of American life, from household appliances like clocks, sewing machines, and vacuum cleaners to tractors and even the comfortable interiors of trains and planes.

Dreyfuss also set the standard for telephone design in the U.S. His design for the 1937 Model 302 Bell telephone featured a new handset and base that improved the balance and appearance of the nation’s most popular telephone. His revolutionary design for the “Trimline” telephone was the first to combine the dial and handset.

Russel Wright (1904-1976) 

Specializing in household products, Russel Wright revolutionized the way we live at home. He designed at a time when growing numbers of Americans were shedding the prim conventions of the early 20th century in favor of simple and informal practicality.

During his career, Wright created affordable modern furniture and tableware characterized by minimal but elegant forms. Each stainless-steel piece of Highlight/Pinch flatware featured an organically shaped handle and no applied ornament.

Wright designed the flatware in 1950 to complement his many lines of tableware.

Greta von Nessen (1900-1974)

Greta von Nessen specialized solely in lighting, and none of her designs is better known than the “Anywhere” lamp.

Introduced in 1951, the lamp featured a tubular aluminum base and an adjustable shade made of enameled metal.

Inventive and versatile, the lamp was available in a variety of colors and could be used on a table, mounted on the wall, or suspended from the ceiling.

This and several other of von Nessen’s lamps have been featured in industrial design exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.

Gilbert Rohde (1894-1944)

Gilbert Rohde was one of the most influential and innovative furniture designers in the U.S.

His designs for Herman Miller in the 1930s and 1940s were based on simplicity and practicality and marked the beginning of modern design at the company. They included modular and sectional furniture made of wood, chrome, Bakelite, Plexiglass, and other new materials, as well as clocks such as the one shown on the stamp.

Rohde’s emphasis on compact, functional, and affordable pieces for both home and office anticipated consumer needs and became the model for furniture design after World War II.

Donald Deskey (1894-1989)

Donald Deskey is best known for the lavish art deco interiors he designed in 1932 for Radio City Music Hall in New York City. However, he was also one of America’s most innovative industrial designers.

A staunch advocate of modernism, Deskey exploited advances in mass production and other technological developments.

His groundbreaking designs for furniture and lighting, like the table lamp shown on the stamp, made bold use of chrome, cork, linoleum, wood veneer, aluminum, and other nontraditional materials.

A founding member of the American Society of Industrial Designers, Deskey was instrumental in winning public acceptance for modern design.

Raymond Loewy (1893-1986)

Raymond Loewy arguably did more to define the look of modern America than perhaps any other industrial designer.

He believed that products should be simple, functional, and appealing, and this vision came to permeate nearly every aspect of American life.

Loewy and his firm, which became the largest of its kind in the world, designed everything from trains and cars to household appliances, corporate logos, and even office tools like the pencil sharpener prototype shown on the stamp.

“I can say of myself,” he once said, “that I have made the mundane side of the 20th century more beautiful.”

Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958)

A founding member of the American Society of Industrial Designers, Bel Geddes was a noted champion of streamlining.

“Speed is the cry of our era,” he once said, “and greater speed one of the goals of tomorrow.”

The author of highly influential books on design and urban planning, Bel Geddes created visionary new looks for cars, trains, planes, buildings, even entire cities.

He also designed a wide range of practical items such as typewriters, stoves, household furnishings, and other everyday objects like vacuums and the portable radio.

Although not all of his designs were manufactured, they nevertheless helped shape the look of 20th-century America.

Bel Geddes worked in theater and illustration before developing a distinguished career as one of the leading and most innovative theatrical set designers on Broadway.

Walter Dorwin Teague (1883-1960)

Known as the “dean of industrial design,” Teague believed that good artistic design fit both form and function into a single aesthetic package.

During his career-long collaboration with Eastman Kodak Company, he designed several popular cameras, including the 1934 “Baby Brownie” (shown).

Made of black Bakelite, the camera's box-shaped body featured art deco details and a metal viewfinder that folded down when the camera was not in use.

Teague’s simple, artistic designs for other consumer goods, like household appliances and electric clocks, helped make him one of the most successful industrial designers in the U.S.

In 1927, Teague opened one of the first industrial design firms in the nation.

Drawing on his earlier training in advertising, he aimed to increase sales by improving the aesthetic appearance of products and subsequent appeal to the public.

Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880-1942)

Rhead helped pioneer the design of mass-produced ceramic tableware for the home.

He is best remembered for the sleek Fiesta line (shown) introduced by The Homer Laughlin China Company in 1936.

Moderately priced and available in five brightly colored and durable glazes, the wildly popular dinnerware introduced the concept of mixing and matching while also transforming the look of domestic interiors across America.

For Rhead, the line’s clean lines and bold colors best represented modern design. His other designs for Homer Laughlin included kitchen accessories and “Harlequin” tableware.

The eldest son of one of the leading pottery designers in the U.K., Rhead immigrated to the U.S. in June 1902, when the American art pottery movement was just beginning to develop.

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