Among the objects currently displayed in the Cantor Art Center’s exhibition cases are Henry Dreyfuss’s 1953 glossy black telephone model for Bell Telephone Laboratories and Charles and Ray Eames’s 1960s orange fiberglass chair with a desk arm for Herman Miller. Quotations from the designers hover above them, recalling the difficult balance between corporate work and design freedom. “We believed that once all business embraced the notion of design as a function of management, all of us would be employed to produce beautiful products,” graphic designer Saul Bass once said in a 1986 interview. “But it didn’t turn out the way we thought. Sure enough, Big Business embraced design, and promptly turned it into a commodity.”
That uncertainty about selling out is central to Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, 1950–1975, an exhibition of objects, prototypes, sketches, and manuscripts currently on view at the Stanford University museum. Behind each sleek innovation — whether Eliot Noyes’s 1961 Selectric Typewriter for IBM or Garth Huxtable’s 1950 sketch of a Millers Falls drill that could double as a space gun — is a compromise between a company’s needs and a designer’s creativity.
“The exhibition examines the relationship between the designers of these objects and the corporations that had commissioned them to create the objects,” Wim de Wit, curator of the show and adjunct curator of architecture and design at the Cantor Arts Center, told Hyperallergic. “It asks the visitors to think about what it meant to be a designer — who thought of him- or herself as an artist with deep knowledge about what was good and bad design — and to be told by a corporate manager that a certain design could not be mass-produced, as it was too modern and was therefore considered unsaleable.”
It’s a familiar conundrum for anyone who combines a creative profession with a business career, yet it was especially present in the post–World War II United States, where industrial, architectural, and graphic designers were hired at a rapid rate to build distinct corporate identities and take advantage of the emerging global market. “When people speak about midcentury modern design, they will first of all think of, for example, the fiberglass chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames or the molded plastic chairs by Verner Panton, chairs that were mass-produced by such corporate entities as Knoll and Herman Miller,” de Wit said.
After researching in the archives of the International Design Conference (IDCA), an annual event that was organized every summer between 1951 and 2004 at the Aspen Institute, de Wit became interested in that era. “Through careful reading of the proceedings and other papers of these conferences, I realized that during the first 20 to 25 years, the designers expressed great ambivalence about their corporate work,” de Wit explained. “They liked the money that came with that work, but they were also very afraid of being accused of selling out to commerce.”
Several of the wall quotes come from the IDCA, including one from inventor Bernard S. Benson, who noted in a 1961 speech that the “dilemma of the designer these days is ‘How can I have my cake and eat it?’ Though he may not want to admit it, he is really saying to himself ‘Do I want to be honest but broke, or do I want to prostitute myself and be loaded?’” Those concerns certainly haven’t vanished, although they no longer dominate the public discourse on industrial design. They represent a complex negotiation that’s easy to forget when viewing the final midcentury modern products, which feel so determined in their design decisions, from firmly bent chrome to sturdy, molded plastic. Still, it’s there in each shape, color, and feature, a hidden history that Creativity on the Line brings to light.
Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, 1950–1975 continues at the Cantor Arts Center (Stanford University, 328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford, California) through August 21.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.