Today, finally, a design style for modern America.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The late Victorian era was
rich in many things -- prose literature,
manufacturing, science. But it also had its pockets
of poverty. It produced little poetry that's
lasted. And Victorian design, in particular, was
heavy, ornate, and claustrophobic.
All the while, the Arts and Crafts Movement was
rising in reaction to all this. By the turn of the
twentieth century it'd spawned the new design
school of Art Noveau, with its back-to-nature
themes -- its graceful organic whirls and tendrils.
Then designers pared away the ornate trim. Art Deco
replaced vines with elegant, if inorganic, straight
lines. Finally, when cars, trains, and airplanes
began moving fast enough to incur air resistance,
found its way into popular design. The vertical
linearity of Art Deco fused with horizontal
streamlining, and we finally had a design style to
truly embody the word modern.
One person almost single-handedly created this
fusion. He was design consultant Raymond Loewy,
born in France in 1893. When WW-I interrupted
Loewy's design studies, he joined the artillery. He
won the Croix de Guerre in combat, but he had more
to say about how he had redesigned his own uniform.
After the war he joined his brother, a doctor, who
was called to New York to work with poison-gas
Loewy was stunned by New York. The immensity,
intensity, and lack of any design order offered a
clean slate for him to write upon. At first he did
freelance product design for Wanamaker's Store and
Condé Nast. Then he was given the task of
redesigning a mimeograph machine. When he was done,
something that looked like a piece of industrial
machinery had become Art Deco office furniture.
From that beginning, Loewy went on to create the
design style of modern America. Everyone used him.
He gave us the vertical lines of refrigerators we
use today. His streamlined diesel locomotive design
swept the American imagination. He designed the
1934 Hupmobile -- the streamlined
precursor of the Chrysler Airflow.
He began giving streamline motifs to everything
from clothing to pencil sharpeners. He helped to
shape the modern luxury cruise ship as well as the
city bus. We even find lingering elements of
Loewy's streamlined design in today's farm
Look at any of the many lists of Loewy designs, and
you'll realize that, without him, we wouldn't be
using the word postmodern. By 1960, he'd
defined modern America with such clarity and
finality that we had to go looking for something
Indeed, we've floundered for a half-century trying
to find something strong enough to follow that wild
design impetus. Late in life Loewy wrote that he'd
come here sixty years before and "immersed myself
in the American Vortex." Wonderful line. But then
we wonder: just how much vortex would there have
been without Loewy there, swirling the waters.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
P. Jodard, Raymond Loewy. London: Trefoil
Publications, Ltd., 1992.
R. Loewy, Never Leave Well Enough Alone.
New York: Simon and Schus-ter, 1950, 1951.
Raymond Loewy, un pionnier du design
américain. Paris: Centre George
Raymond Loewy: Pioneer of American Industrial
Design. (ed. Angela Schönberger) Munich:
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for her help and for the
original suggestion by a listener whose email and
whose name I have since lost.
After this program first aired, I heard from
several listeners who were dismayed that I did not
mention Loewy's most famous (and even beloved)
design, the 1950
Studebaker, with its futuristic
A 1938 Loewy locomotive design
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.