The Art of Fine Design

An American genius streamlined objects that became icons

Every year in high school, we took a test designed to show what profession we were best suited for. Year after year, my test results indicated that I should be a forest ranger—a career path that I found thoroughly baffling (forests were in short supply on the windy Texas plains where I lived) and that I have thus far refused to follow.

I wonder whether Raymond Loewy ever took one of those tests. And if he did, I wonder what line of work he was encouraged to enter. It certainly wasn't "industrial design," because that profession was practically unheard of until Loewy brought it into the spotlight during the Great Depression. 

In a 1950 article, Cosmopolitan magazine said of him, "Loewy has probably affected the daily life of more Americans than any other man of his time." It's no exaggeration: Along with his contemporaries Norman Bel Geddes, Russel Wright, and others, Loewy advanced a sleek, bright style that clothed everything from roadsters to toasters in smooth surfaces, cheery colors, and rounded shapes that shouted Modern! and New! and Now! These industrial designers sparked a revolution that immediately affected how stuff looked and how it was marketed. 

Here's an example. Before the advent of industrial design, a kitchen icebox looked like what it was: a graceless wooden box with a block of ice inside. Loewy and his colleagues wrapped this un-lovely object in snow-white enameled steel and gave it a new machine-age shape—but that was just the beginning. Annual design changes ensured that consumers had to keep buying the latest models or risk being stuck with tragically outdated refrigerators that would leave their au courant neighbors snickering. Guys like Loewy didn't invent American consumer culture, but they definitely shot it full of growth hormone, and for better or worse, we're still living with the results.

Loewy's name is forever associated with the concept of streamlining—aerodynamic design that reduces wind resistance and allows objects to move efficiently through the air or water. The concept produced some great-looking cars and trains and ocean liners, and the public liked the look so much that designers started making all kinds of things—even buildings—appear to be moving fast when standing still. Loewy may have pushed streamlining to the limit with his 1934 design for a chrome-plated pencil sharpener that looked as if it could carry your yellow No. 2 pencil to the moon in a nanosecond.

Streamlined or not, Loewy liked to say that his work embodied MAYA—"most advanced yet acceptable" design. From Studebaker cars to Ritz Cracker boxes, products that got a Loewy makeover projected an immensely appealing image, decidedly modern but not avant-garde, firmly rooted in their own time while offering a gently intriguing peek at the future. Many of them achieved near-iconic status. Like Air Force One, for instance: You know that snappy paint job and the elegant typeface spelling out "United States of America" on the fuselage? That's Loewy's work. And those 1930s movie scenes with sophisticated types lolling about in stainless-steel-and-imitation-leather chairs, sipping drinks in the club car of the Broadway Limited? Loewy probably influenced the design of everything from the locomotive that pulled the train to the cocktail shaker that sat on the bar.

Take a look around your house. That desk lamp, that bathtub, even that salad-dressing bottle: If you like the way these objects look, think kind thoughts about industrial designers such as Raymond Loewy. They pioneered the notion that careful thought, skill, and vision ought to be applied to the design of even the most mundane objects. That's a good thing, if you ask me.

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