Raymond Loewy earned the nickname “father of streamlining” for his influential career in industrial design, shaping sleek icons of 20th-century America such as the Lucky Strike cigarette packet and the Art Deco shell of the PRR S1 steam locomotive. Before his death in 1986, he worked on everything from the 1950s Greyhound bus to the interior of NASA’s 1970s Skylab space station. Despite this prolific legacy, the highly commercial nature of his design and his favoring of elegance over abstraction put his work at odds with some other modernist designers. It’s only recently that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has focused on collecting his work, most recently with the acquisition of two drawings: one of his 1962 design for John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One livery, the other a 1963 Studebaker station wagon.
“I think as far as MoMA’s concerned, they’ve always had a slightly ambivalent relationship to Loewy, who was clearly such a global presence with just a huge, huge impact on many areas on design, but at the same time, I think, someone who was associated with a kind of American streamlining that was the anthesis to what Philip Johnson in particular was promoting,” Juliet Kinchin, curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, told Hyperallergic. “So there’s not as much representation in the collection as there should be.”
Johnson, with Alfred H. Barr Jr., guided MoMA’s early modernist design interests. The two works recently acquired by MoMA, as well as other Loewy design objects in their collections, were recently on view in an installation that closed February 15. They included the graceful 1965 “Elna Lotus Sewing Machine,” the 1947 “Communications Receiver (model S-40A)” radio with color-coded controls, and the foldable 1950 “Lawn Chef Portable Grill.” Each design communicates its purpose with a careful balance of proportions.
“He made it quite clear that no designer works alone, and he was really the front of a huge operation worldwide, but I think it’s definitely his vision galvanizing all these different agencies and companies that really shaped these projects,” Kinchin said.
She added that there are plans to develop online resources related to Loewy. MoMA has also been collaborating with researchers in Moscow to gather information on Loewy’s design work in the USSR, where, in spite of the Cold War broiling, he consulted with the Soviet government.
“I think there’s a certain topicality about his links with the Soviet Union, and how it’s often through the art and design that we keep vital contacts going, even when political dialogue becomes discourse,” Kinchin said.
The two drawings acquired by MoMA are about as patriotic as it gets, although Loewy was born in Paris, and moved to the United States after World War I. The “Wagonaire” station wagon for the Indiana-based automaker Studebaker has a retractable roof and silvery style similar to his Greyhound bus. The livery design for President Kennedy’s Air Force One marks the Boeing 707 with “United States of America” in the Caslon typeface, similar to the header on the Declaration of Independence, and wraps the tips of its body in red, white, and blue. Branding in US politics is huge across parties — just look at the current election race, where each candidate has a logo and a graphic theme — but Loewy was among the first to deeply consider the design of a presidency.
“I think with growing research and changing attitudes to the modernist canon of design, there’s no way we could ignore his profound impact on the whole field of industrial design, transportation, information design, and branding,” Kinchin said. “These are the things that make our lives tick on a daily basis.”
Design objects by Raymond Loewy were on view from November 21, 2015 to February 15, 2016 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd St, Midtown West, Manhattan).
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