Industrial Age: Mid-Century Designers, Designing For People —intro lecture 5 from my Interaction Design History course

When designers designed across disciplines and brought learnings from one discipline to another

Photo by Omer Dvori on Unsplash

After WWII the U.S. enters a time of incredible innovation and expansion in design. Thousands of GIs return from the war and start families. They take advantage of the GI bill to further their education and they come back to the workforce. There is a lot of money flowing and companies take advantage of that. They hire agencies of all kinds and also build design teams in-house.

Designers like Bradbury Thompson, Ladislav Sutnar, Will Burtin, Lester Beall — all lead efforts in corporations and their work included information design, graphic design, environmental design and product design. Industrial designers are tasked with the growth of the industry creating products for efficiency in the home — for those growing numbers of housewives who have returned to the home after their war efforts. Advertising hits it’s peak in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the rise of the Art Director-Copywriter partnership and that advertising fuels consumer desire for more and better designed products.

The aesthetic of design is influenced by the immersion of immigrant designers who came over before the war, many who studied or taught at the Bauhaus or were influenced by the international style as it spread to Swiss and Czech designers and eventually to the Americans.

This is an era of NON-Specialization. Most designers did a variety of things — but what was in common was the need to solve a problem — whether for a consumer or for the client.

Industrial Designer, Henry Dreyfuss begins to study people in order to design better projects. His methods become the precursor to contemporary ethnography, although in a less prescriptive, repeatable fashion. He was still a product of the “genius designer hit by inspiration” philosophy.

Dreyfuss’s work — Design for People — and his later work — the Measure of Man were ground breaking in the field and began the first formal integration of the concept of human factors into the design process — beyond the military.

A few of the other designers I want to highlight include The Eames — specifically Ray Eames, Cipe Pineles, Chuck Harrison, Ladislav Sutnar and Karl Gerstner.

Let’s talk about Ray Eames:

If you watch the movies about the Eames creative process and the interview with the Eames from the 1950’s with Arlene Francis you will note how the host comments about Ray Eames’ contributions as if she is only a supporting role for Charles’ work rather than recognizing and commending her for her equal collaboration in their creative and design processes. This interview is definitely a product of the times where there were more delineated stereotyped roles for men and women, despite the fact that they worked together collaboratively. Another overlooked fact was that Ray Eames worked instead of being a homemaker as expected of women of the time.

Ray was born in Sacramento California in 1912 and studied art with Hans Hoffman at the Art Student League in Manhattan in the 1930’s and dance with Martha Graham. She considered herself both a painter and a sculptor — interested in structure, form, color and collage. In 1940, after the death of her mother, she attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she met architect and head of the design department, Charles Eames. They were married in 1941 and returned to California, moving to LA.

Working with Charles, she also developed the graphic design pieces used to promote their design practice and she was the cover designer for more than 20 issues of the Arts and Architecture journal during the 1940s.

Ray and Charles’ skills were complementary and covered a breadth of disciplines — furniture, graphic design, textiles, film, architecture and objects like furniture and toys. Ray’s early work, as a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group of the lat 1930’s, explored sculptural and spatial structures, abstract forms, geometry and color. Many of the kinds of things the modernist artists of the time were exploring.

The Eames looked at their life as a creative process and brought this thinking and attitude into the work they did. They worked as partners from 1941 until 1978 (the year of Charles’s death), creating, in collaboration with those who worked in their office, a wide range of furniture and other products, including toys.

Ray developed the prototypes and processes of bending and shaping plywood into biomorphic curves for various expressive sculptures. This work became the inspiration for their most famous creations — the bent plywood chair. While Charles brought the technical skills to the table, it was Ray who brought the life and expression and out-of-the-box thinking to their work.

They also became known for designing exhibitions and co-directing over 175 short films (some of which related to architectural topics), slide shows, and multimedia presentations. Their films were often a way to model a concept for better understanding — watch The Powers of Ten to see an example of this in terms of the concept of Scale. Ray was responsible for the data visualization translations into easily digestible information as well as art directing and designing the sets.

They shared a fascination with structure, a commitment to “getting the most from the least” (a principle of the modern movement in architecture).

Cipe Pineles:

Cipe Pineles (b. 1910) studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In 1933 she began working for Mehemed Fehmy Agha, the art director of Vanity Fair and Vogue. Influenced by his progressive principles of editorial design, she eventually became art director for Glamour. Although she specifically worked for a fashion magazine, she practiced design journalism not decoration. It was her long tenure with Condé Nast publications that made her eligible and then admitted as the first woman to the New York Art Directors Club.

During World War II she worked in Paris with her husband William Golden. After the war, she became art director for Seventeen magazine. In 1950 she was named art director of Charm, specifically targeted to women who work. She then moved on to become art director of Mademoiselle. After Golden’s death she worked as an independent consultant and eventually married Will Burtin.

She was a consultant, designer and teacher at Parsons School of Art for many years. In 1975 she became the first woman to be elected to the Art Directors Hall of Fame. Her work for Seventeen was significant in that she was innovative in the use of painters as editorial illustrators, among them Jacob Lawrence, Robert Gwaltney, Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, Andy Warhol, Ed Reinhardt, Richard Lindner and Jerome Snyder.

Charles “Chuck” Harrison

Chuck Harrison was one of the most prolific industrial designers working of the 20th century. He was also one of only a few Black industrial designers, and like others mentioned before, he worked on consumer products and household goods. He was the first black executive at Sears, Roebuck and Company ever hired at their headquarters in Chicago.

Born in 1931, Harrison studied at the City College of San Francisco and then received a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After he graduated, he served in the army as a cartographer and then afterwards came back to school to study Industrial Design, in a program specifically created for him. He began his career in 1956 with his mentor, designer Henry Glass, at Henry P. Glass Associates in Chicago. In 1958, he was working at Robert Podall Designers where he designed the iconic View-Master toy, which was a worldwide success.

Hired by Sears in 1961, by the time he retired in 1993, he led the worldwide design team and had designed over 750 products for the company.

Ladislav Sutnar:

Ladislav Sutnar (b. 1897) , known as a pioneer in information design, he studied at The Academy of Applied Arts in Prague and began his career as a painter. He became interested in design and was strongly influenced by the philosophies of the Bauhaus. Successful in Czechoslovakia, he was art editor for one of Prague’s largest publishing houses and Director of the State School of Graphic Arts. In addition he had designed several major exhibitions including work at the 1929 Barcelona exhibition.

In 1939 he came to the US to work on the Czechoslovakia Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair. While in the US the Nazi’s invaded his homeland and he was unable to return. He remained in New York and soon became the Art Director for Sweets Catalogues Services, a role he held for 19 years. His work for Sweets popularized the use of the grid for organizing complex information. In 1951 he formed his own company and did typographic design for McGraw Hill, advertising design for Printex Corporation and was art director of Theatre Arts magazine. In addition to his thriving design career he continued his role as a teacher by authoring three books: Design for Point of SalePackage Design and Visual Design in Action , all definitive textbooks on their subject.

In the video Sutnar on Sutnar, Stephen Heller discusses Sutnar’s approach to design — especially catalog design and presentation of information — and calls it a precursor that exhibits the same philosophy for how we design contemporary information and web design systems today.

Karl Gerstner:

Born on the 2nd of July, 1930 in Basel, Switzer­land Ger­st­ner stud­ied design at All­ge­meine Gewerb­schule in Basel under Emil Ruder. As a young man, Gerstner completed an apprenticeship as a typographer. He set up his own graphic design studio in 1949, and by 1963 he had part­nered with Markus Kut­ter, a writer and edi­tor, to form the agency Gerstner + Kutter which then became GGK with the addi­tion of archi­tect Paul Gredinger.

I mention him in this class related to Interaction Design because he was one of the first designers to truly exploit grids to cre­ate unmatched com­plex­ and flexible variations, Gerstner’s body of work is innovative and ahead of it’s time

Gerstner’s best-known work includes his book Programme Entwerfen, published in 1963 — contains four essays, where he explains the basic principles of his design method. The book provides a universal system for developing individual solutions, anticipating technological developments at the very beginning of the computer age much in the way we think about grid systems used for responsive web designs today.

For this week, I asked my students to watch the videos on the Eames and Sutnar and to read a chapter from Dreyfus’s book Designing for People and a section from Ellen Lupton’s book Beautiful People where she talks about Dreyfus’s work and the evolution of a whole lineage of designers up to contemporary times considering the body in their work.

The Eames Creative Process (YouTube)
America Meets Ray and Charles Eames (YouTube)
The Powers of Ten (YouTube)
Learning from the Powers of Ten by Erin Malone—Boxes and Arrows, 2002
Sutnar on Sutnar (YouTube)

Note: All these lectures were delivered via video with related slide decks of images. Following the intro, students had a series of readings and videos to watch related to the topics covered in the lecture or the overall time frame. They were then given a set of prompts to stimulate their thinking and writings which ended up in a class blog.

Industrial Age
Industrial Age: Between the Wars, intro lecture 4
Industrial Revolution & Manifestos, intro lecture3

In the Beginning
Read intro lecture 2 — In the Beginning Part 2
Read intro lecture 1 — In the Beginning Part 1

Setting the Stage
See the visual syllabus and how I approached putting this class together