Raymond Loewy: Speed Whiskers on Toothbrushes?
Graphis, February 1998
His aerodynamic designs did not sell well. The wind tunnel of streamlining was full of hot air.
He was fifty years my senior. In hindsight, Raymond Loewy would probably have welcomed a chance to talk to an art student from his native land — even someone as clueless as I was — but I became tongue-tied when he came to my cubicle where I was laboring over drawings for the upcoming 1964 New York World’s Fair.
I had come to the United States on a student visa and landed an internship in the exhibit design department of his office, in a bullpen the size of a city block where all you could see for miles were men in suspenders and shirt sleeves leaning over huge drafting boards.
I had read Loewy’s book, Never Leave Well Enough Alone, but now, face to face with this debonair little Frenchman, I didn’t know what to make of him. The sedate smile, the manicured hands, the middle-age spread — he looked so much older than his ideas. We only shared a passing glance. Loewy wasn’t particularly interested in what I was doing anyway (The World’s Fair was the responsibility of his partner, William Snaith, who had studied architecture in Paris and who was supervising all the projects of the busy interior design division of which exhibit design but a small part).
No, what had attracted Loewy to this far corner of his empire was a gentleman who happened to work in the cubicle next to mine. Quiet, unassuming, hard-working, my neighbor had but one specialty: drawing soaps. He was the illustrator assigned to the Dove account.
This maverick could render the texture, the weight, and the consistency of soaps. He could make them look satiny, velvety, creamy, powdery, rich, or astringent, you name it. He drew soaps shaped like pebbles, flowers, or fruits. Soaps designed to fit snuggly in your hand, slither between your fingers, and skid into the wash basin. For morning to night, this anonymous craftsman would turn out pastel after pastel, spreading them all over his desk and floor until his area was littered with these strange and delicate blossoms.
At the end of the day, Loewy would visit, silently review the work, and leave after having signed a handful of drawings. The remainders were casually thrown away. Without the master’s autograph, they were worthless. To this day I am loyal to Dove soap – this downy fossil from the 1960s – its smooth contour, luscious texture, and curved wedge a reminder of an aesthetic that is no more: that of the American Dream with its postwar exuberance and allure of the plentiful. Today holding the perfumed and buoyant object in my hand gives me a chance to ponder the mystery of Loewy’s career.
Faster than a speeding bullet
“There is no curve as beautiful as a raising sales graph,” Raymond Loewy used to tell his clients. And curves he gave them. Parabolic arcs, sinuous profiles, fluid shapes, airflow patterns, whoosh lines. The products he designed were gracefully streamlined, as if to minimize the resistance to some powerful drag. From trains to cars, from iceboxes to kitchen ranges, and from vacuum cleaners to pencil sharpeners, every object bearing his signature was made to look as if it had passed a wind-tunnel test.
And in a way, it had. In the late 1920s and 1930s, when Loewy was defining his design philosophy, the resistance of manufacturers and consumers to Moderne style was just as mighty an obstacle to progress as the resistance of air to motion. French Art deco, forerunner of the streamlining movement, was still considered an oddity in the United States, where folks preferred the sturdy look of Arts & Crafts to the cool sleekness of what was then called Arts Décoratifs. The genius of Loewy was to recast Art deco into something Americans could understand – into a Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet genre.
Years later, in 1943, when briefing a group of designers, Loewy defined streamlining in terms that still resonate today. “Weight is the enemy,” he said. “Whatever saves weight saves cost. A car must look fast, whether in motion or stationary. I want it to look as if it was leaping forward: I want built-in motion.” He was fascinated with velocity – from speeding cars to quick judgment calls. “It’s the first impression that counts,” he used to say. “either it clocks or it doesn’t.
At the New York World’s fair of 1939-1940, Loewy’s career took off with his Chrysler “Rockport of the Future” show, an exhibit that simulated a passenger rocket being fired from a huge gun for a one-hour, New York-to-London ride. From that moment on, his futuristic design solutions (most of them sporting a symbolic motif of a rocket nose) ignited the imagination of the gawking public, winning instant recognition on the market — his products described in press release after press release as literally flying off the shelves with sales figures soaring in their wake. Although streamlining helped launch Loewy’s career, his aerodynamic designs were not the commercial success everyone thought they were.
As it turned out, the wind tunnel of streamlining was full of hot air. A case in point the Hupmobile, a smart-looking sedan Loewy designed in 1934, which he cited over and over as an example of the positive impact of streamlining on commerce – failing of course to mention that the Hupp Automobile Company went belly up in 1940. And what about his claim that his clients were business partners? If they were, why did he switch his allegiance in 1939 from Sears to its competitor Frigidaire, less that three years after designing the much celebrated Sears Coldspot refrigerator? Who wants to be the bearer of bad news when American optimism is at sake? Certainly not Loewy.
During the boom years that followed World War II, Loewy rode the wave of prosperity, not only building his own business, but also becoming the spokesperson for a new generation of design professionals whose job was to make sure that every kitchen, den, and garage in America was stocked up with the latest offerings of the thriving peacetime industry.
“We all know about Raymond Loewy,” commented Henry Dreyfuss at a meeting of the Society of Industrial Designers in the mid-1950s, “but let’s not forget that he is the best advertisement this profession has.“ When Loewy boasted about the commercial success of the Studebaker, one of his most prestigious projects, no one called him on it. Although the spare, elegant, European-looking car did manage to buoy the image of the South Bend, Indiana car maker, it never uplifted the company’s abysmal financial picture.
Eventually the struggling company dropped Loewy and went back to manufacturing tried-and-true, king-size, chrome-happy gas guzzlers. Still, what’s hard cash compared with the irresistible feel of success? Loewy shared with his clients invigorating self-confidence, and in doing so he gave the impression of spreading the wealth around. Lacking their own publicity machine, manufacturers loved the free exposure they got when their products appeared in connection with one of Loewy’s public-relation stunts.
A Monte-Carlo croupier
Unlike the other members of that first generation of industrial designers – Henry Dreyfuss, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Norman Bel Geddes – Loewy was an eccentric and picturesque character who always had an after-dinner success story to tell. The press loved to entertain readers with colorful descriptions of his penthouse “glittering with thousands of flecks of gold-colored plastic thread woven into chairs, sofa, and carpet.” Of his custom-designed car with “a few flamboyant frills: a plastic tail-fin, a tiny gold grilled air scoop above the emblem on the hood… porthole windows and other eyecatchers to start pedestrians’ tongues awagging.” And of his appearance, “dapper and dynamic,” “exotic and cologned,” “his face reposed, gentle, sad, and as inscrutable as that of a Monte-Carlo croupier.”
Even his second wife, Viola Ericson, found him “much too flashy” the first time she met him. Evert Endt, a Zürich School of graphic Arts graduate who joined the Loewy organization in the early 1960s, explained that “the hedonism that informs Loewy’s work was reflected in his lifestyle. He attached a great importance to appearances. There was an element of showmanship about him, and a self-centeredness that was not without charisma.”
Stephen Bailey, in a 1990 article debunking the Loewy’s legend, suggested that Loewy’s most important contribution is to the history of publicity, not the history of design. “It was a confident act,” he writes. “Loewy knew how to work the system… the audience was never bored.”
Loewy designed himself with the same care he designed consumer goods. According to Viola Ericson, he “prepared his presentations and negotiations meticulously, going into training in advance of important meetings with a special diet and extra exercise. He hated being caught off-guard.”
Elisabeth Reese, his public relation advisor for 28 years, remembers someone once asking Loewy why he had permitted certain details on his 1950 Studebaker. Unprepared and unrehearsed, Loewy pondered dramatically before answering with his heavy French accent, “Because I like it this way.”
In October 1949, Loewy appeared on the cover of Time magazine. It was the first time a product designer received so much national media attention. It was also the last time. Reflecting on the reasons why no graphics or industrial designer since has ever been able to galvanize the imagination of the public in quite the same way, Tibor Kalman – one of the few designers who actually courts controversy – believes that “the issue isn’t self-promotion but power. To convince clients of your ideas, you need to have a high profile. Loewy was probably a better communicator than he was a designer. He understood that what moves people isn’t the look of a thing but the ideas behind it.”
Elisabeth Reese says that her former boss lacked the “hand,” but that he had the “eye.” Marc Gobé, a French expatriate with a prosperous design practice in New York, believes that his famous fellow countryman was the communication superstar of that time – the Bill Gates of the postwar era. “His design organization was functioning like a think-tank. He offered his clients something that was completely novel at the time: not design per se but design solutions.”
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the politically-correct design crowds of the Museum of Modern Art also believed that Loewy wasn’t a designer – they thought that he was a stylist at best. Established in 1932, MoMA’s department of Architecture and Industrial design, influenced by European designers like Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, le Corbusier, and Alvar Alto, took a stand against Loewy’s brand of styling. In a pamphlet that spelled out for the public the main tenets of Good Design, streamlining was singled out as the villain.
“Streamlining is not good design,” wrote the author Edgar Kaufmann Jr. “Its theme is the magic of speed, expressed by teardrop shapes, fairings, and a curious ornament of parallel lines – sometimes called speed whiskers. The continued misuse of these devices has spoiled them for most designers.”
In a 1951 article in Architectural Forum, editor-in-chief Peter Blake, an architect who had been assistant curator at MoMA, called Loewy a “phony… with a fundamental insecurity of taste. [He] lives in the special aura of a grade-B movie and the box-office is doing okay.”
Blake’s remark echoes a comment made by Snaith who once praised the “unerring vulgar taste” of his business partner, meaning his unaccany ability to know in advance what would sell. “Loewy was not a product designer,” Blake explains today. “He was only a packaging designer – someone who puts a wrapper around things to sell them. He was a mere salesman – and a pompous ass at that.”
Philip Johnson, who, like Blake and the International Style purists, thought that Loewy was only important to himself, found the ultimate put-down for the man everyone called “Mister Loewy.” He referred to him as “Raymond.” To the punctilious Frenchman who avoided using American slang and was threatened by plainspoken middle western jargon, it was the most distasteful insult.
Princess phones and poodles
By the time I walked into Loewy’s office at 425 Park Avenue in 1963, MoMA had gotten to him. He had hired designers who knew not to put speed whiskers on toothbrushes and whoosh lines on boxes of cookies. My boss was James Fulton, who later joined Loewy’s Paris office, the Compagnie de L’Esthétique Industrielle (CEI), an independently-run entity responsible for designing the Elna Lotus sewing machine, now in the permanent collection at MoMA. The Raymond Loewy/William Snaith office in New York, under James Fulton’s watch, had become a somewhat respectable institution, and even Blake had to admit that they were doing “pretty good design.”
Pretty good design – with frightening results. If the décor of the Loewy/Snaith reception area in the 1960s was any indication, I’d rather take streamlining anytime. The room was blinding white, like a set out of the film 2001, The Space Odyssey. In front of an alabaster partition, a painfully demure, bleached-blond young woman, dressed in black, sat stock-still at a mile-long, white desk. She was allowed no pad and no pencil next to her white Princess telephone. The color of her nails and lipstick matched the single red rose that languished in a fluted crystal vase at the far end of her desk. But the showpiece of the room was the thick, wall-to-wall shag carpet, as pristine as the coat of Mrs. Loewy’s freshly bathed poodles.
The room was a parody of MoMA style – Good Design’s equivalent of the Lava Lamp.
So, yes, Loewy had no taste. He had, nevertheless, something else. Raymond had panache. When invited to London in 1980 to accept an award from the Royal Society of the Arts, the now-retired 87-year old designer gave one of his well-rehearsed addresses. However, as soon as he walked on the stage, he realized that there was nowhere for him to place his papers and notes as he spoke. According to eyewitnesses, “without hesitation he let each piece of paper fall gracefully from his hand into the audience as he was finished with it. This created the most positive response and immediately won everyone’s sympathy. It was completely in character for Loewy to immediately recognize the simplest solution to a problem.”
I want to remember streamlining as just that: as a piece of paper fluttering down into the pitch black hole of our oblivion.
1/9 - Raymond Loewy stands on his locomotive design for the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1938
2/9 - A chromed pencil sharpener shaped like a rocket, 1933
3/9 - Design for the 1951 Studebaker champion
4/9 - Aerodynamique casserole for the Creuset, 1958
5/9 - Refrigerator designed in 1958 for Frigidaire
6/9 - One of the soap bars for Dove, circa 1964
7/9 - The logo was printed on both sides of the pack to be readable at all times, 1940
8/9 - The redesigned of the shell logo was the result of a long evolution, circa 1962
9/9 - This soda dispenser, 1947, is one of the many accessories Loewy designed for Coca-Cola