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Midcentury Modern Design and the Anxiety of Selling Out

Behind each innovation of the period was a negotiation between a company’s needs and a designer’s creativity.

Charles Eames and Ray Eames, molded fiberglass chair with table arm for Herman Miller, Inc. (1960–61), fiberglass, fabric, metal, and plastic (courtesy LA County Museum of Art, gift of the employees of Herman Miller, Inc)

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.”

Garth Huxtable, design for Millers Falls drill, view from the side (1950), pencil and crayon on vellum mounted on board (gift of Ada Louise Huxtable and L. Garth Huxtable, courtesy Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust)

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.

Garth Huxtable, design for computer workstation for IBM, elevation (1956), crayon on tracing paper (gift of Ada Louise Huxtable and L. Garth Huxtable, courtesy Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust)
Artist unknown (Italy), Atomic Espresso maker for Brevetti Robbiati (1950s), aluminum, brass, plastic, and bakelite (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)
Marcello Nizzoli, Lettera 22 Portable Typewriter for Olivetti (1950), metal, plastic, and paint (courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Dung Ngo)
Lester Beall, “Style Book for Connecticut General Insurance” (1958), print on board and coated paper, spiral bound (courtesy Rochester Institute of Technology)
Henry Dreyfuss and James Conner, “The Swinger” Land Camera Model 20 for Polaroid (1965), ABS plastic, PVC, cellulose acetate butyrate, and steel (courtesy private collection)
Henry Dreyfuss, telephone model 500 for Bell Telephone Laboratories (1953), molded plastic, metal, rubber (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)
Ettore Sotsass and Perry A. King, Valentine Portable Typewriter and case for Olivetti (1969), ABS plastic, metal, and rubber (courtesy LA County Museum of Art, gift of Daniel Ostroff)

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.

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