Friday, June 12, 2015

Raymond Loewy

"Good design keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended."

Did you ever have one of those moments, perhaps while stuck at an airport, when your mind is wandering and indolent, when you look at something common, be it a bottle or a pack of cigarettes, and suddenly find yourself appreciating its design nuance?

If no, then don't tell me.

This is one of those occasions where pictures really are worth a thousand words.  To wit, I offer the following:

PRR K4 steam locomotive, circa 1930's

NYC Transit Authority R40 subway car

International Harvester Metro duty van

Lincoln Continental, 1946

Sunbeam Alpine, 1956

IH Farmall tractor

Studebaker Avanti, 1963

You know.

You know this one, too.

Greyhound Scenicruiser

USPS logo

Exxon/Mobil logo

USCG logo

Air Force One livery

What all of these colors and shapes have in common is that they, and many, many, many more, were the product of the imagination and creativity of a Frenchman whose work would span two continents, seventy years, and influence the way in which we look at the world.

Raymond Loewy was born in 1893 and, after distinguishing himself in battle in the French army duringWWI, earning a promotion to captain, and being wounded and awarded the Croix de guerre, he moved to the United States at the war's conclusion to become...a window dresser for Macy's, [also Saks, and a handful of other New York City department stores].  Not exactly what one would necessarily expect from a war hero but, then again, maybe it is, given what Loewy was able to do with that experience.

In 1929, while the world was reeling from the initial stage of the economic depression, the Gestetner company, makers of a state-of-the-art document copier, held an open contest for a new design for their premier product in order to make it appear less industrial and more, well, arty.  Loewy won the contest and, with it, the attention of the industrial design world.

I know it looks dated, but we were still using these when I was a new teacher in 1977.

For the next five years, Loewy designed household appliances for Westinghouse and Sears-Roebuck and cars for the Hupp Motor Company.  Even in mundane items, his designs brought modernism to the most common and weary of household fixtures and automobiles.

A pre-Loewy Hupmobile and...

... post-Loewy

His true breakthrough came with his long-standing relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad, for whom he designed the shroud that streamlined their steam engine and brought panache to the interior quarters of their most popular line, the Chicago-to-New York Broadway Limited.

Eventually, Loewy was able to open design studios in both New York and London and maintain a presence in his native France.   This brought a certain European cache to his work, something that was popular in the post-WWII world, and was especially prized by the designers and engineers at the Studebaker automobile company.

While virtually unknown today except by car historians and/or gear heads, Studebaker was determined to avoid the large, heavy, and fin-decorated gaudiness of other Detroit-based cars and offer something that was different, yet accessible.  Also, trunk space was to be highlighted.  In response, Loewy and his team re-designed the Starlight and Commander models and, in the early sixties, created one of the most unique and desirable cars ever when they produced the Avanti [pictured above].

Also, no fins.

A complete list of Loewy's design accomplishments may be found online, of course, along with appreciations of his influence on our world view.  He has been remembered as "the man who designed everything" and "the man who made the 20th century".  Remarkable, isn't it, that he is not better known?

Loewy would retire at the age of 87, move to Monte Carlo, and spend the remaining six years of his life in as French a manner as possible.  A foundation that promotes industrial art annually presents an award that is considered the coup de grace in design and is named, naturally, for Loewy.

Even if not a Loewy design, a study of his work and art makes one look at common items with a much fuller appreciation, as many of our everyday items are products of a considerable amount of care and no small amount of creativity.