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Design Review

Raymond Loewy made the mid-century modern

Email|Print| Text size + By Greg Cook
Globe Correspondent / January 25, 2008

LEXINGTON - In "Diamonds Are Forever," the 1956 James Bond novel, CIA man turned private detective Felix Leiter sings the praises of his custom Studebaker to his pal 007: "Designed by that Frenchman, Raymond Loewy. Best designer in the world." Leiter and Bond were author Ian Fleming's fictions, but Loewy was quite real - even if Leiter's description of him was a bit of an exaggeration.

The exhibit "Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture" at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington shows that in addition to making Studebakers super-spy cool, Loewy's firm helped fashion snappy mid-century modern Frigidaire and Sears refrigerators, Lord & Taylor and Macy's shops, and Greyhound buses. They designed Coca-Cola packaging, the interior of the supersonic Concorde jetliner, NASA's Skylab space station, and in 1962 the blue and white exterior graphics for Air Force One. But Loewy is perhaps most identified with the streamlined look, inspired by the teardrop shape of airplanes, that became all the rage during the Great Depression.

Loewy (1893-1986) was born in France, immigrated to New York in 1919, and found success as an advertising illustrator before he became, in the late 1920s, one of the pioneers of the field of industrial design. These men were generally consultants who dreamed up the look and shape of things and left it to manufacturers' engineers to figure out how to make the stuff work. Loewy argued that good design could improve anything, even, say, dentists' chairs. "Why not suffer in comfort?" he quipped.

Industrial design blossomed with the rise of mass produc tion, the electrification of homes (to power the mass-produced devices), and planned obsolescence, an idea that originated when US auto makers adopted regular - and mainly superficial - design changes to seed consumer demand in the 1920s as they reached market saturation with their vehicles. Seeing the tactic's success, and hoping to turn around declining sales during the Depression, other industries also adopted the frequently new-and-improved formula.

Loewy and his team were expert at making things appear seductively fresh and of the moment. A 1930 art deco "Westinghouse skyscraper clock radio" is a sleek, stately 5-foot-tall square mahogany pillar in the shape of a skyscraper, with a clock face at the top and a hidden radio speaker and dials. Form doesn't follow function, but instead masks the mechanics under a dream of progress and futuristic machine luxury.

In 1934, Loewy's firm began a long association with the Pennsylvania Railroad through a high-profile commission to style what would become its GG-1 electric locomotive. The result, represented here by a small model, was a double-ended engine with a smooth streamlined shell and cat-whisker stripes that start at the nose of the engine and streak across the sides like speed lines. Loewy's firm subsequently designed a bullet-shaped shell for the railroad's existing K4 steam locomotives (shown here in a before-and-after photo). The streamlined cladding added weight to the engine and made it more difficult to access for maintenance, but it looked dang cool.

Loewy's firm streamlined everything from gas stations to pencil sharpeners, giving them all a sexy industrial tomorrowland sheen. His team aimed for beautiful, advanced, functional, efficient designs, but nothing so avant-garde that it might scare off customers. The paramount goal was always making money, for clients and for themselves. The public ate it up. In 1949, Time magazine put him on its cover above the slogan: "He streamlines the sales curve."

"Designs for a Consumer Culture" was organized by the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware and draws almost exclusively on its collection for the approximately 125 items featured. The show presents a Loewy-designed camera, electric razor, sewing machine, radios, television, and chrome-and-glass jukebox. Still, the show feels slim on objects and heavy on photos, illustrations, and documents.

The exhibit takes little notice that Loewy was ultimately an artistically inclined salesman who, as the catalog explains, "personally did relatively few of the many thousands of design projects associated with his name." And the show is often vague about the role of Loewy's company. It was responsible for major corporate logos (the crossed-X Exxon logo adopted in 1972) but frequently just made modest modifications to existing icons (slimming down Greyhound's dog logo; fiddling with the type and changing the background color of Lucky Strike's bull's-eye packaging).

That said, the designs of Loewy and his staff (which at times numbered some 250 employees) remain stylish. Check out the cups, bowls, saucers, and pitchers that they fashioned for the German firm Rosenthal and its American subsidiary Lucent in the 1950s - rounded dishes as breathtakingly simple, sensual, and smooth as river stones.

Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture

At: National Heritage Museum, Lexington, through March 23. 781-861-6559, nationalheritagemuseum.org

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