After WWI, relatively unscathed from wartime turmoil, America emerged as the global authority on large industrial production. The abundant wartime factories were converted to meet the needs of civilian consumerism. In the decades to follow, industrial design would flourish as the field expanded, introducing great design leaders. This interest led to the formation of many organizations and exhibits that would elevate the public’s perception of industrial design to a higher art form. With the explosive output of goods using synthetic materials, the profitable tendency towards planned obsolescence thrived. Early adapters, like Donald Deskey and Henry Dreyfuss paved the way for powerhouse teams like Charles and Ray Eames who would follow suit with further applicable creations following WWII. America, ripe with optimism and prosperity, would welcome this newfound post-war functionality with open arms.
The 1930s saw widely adopted industrial design across many disciplines, further solidifying the field. MoMa established a department that would recognize architecture and design with exhibitions showcasing consumer products as art. Large corporations like Sears and Montgomery Ward recruited top design talent to build out design divisions focused on streamlining the aesthetic of their product offering. Around the same time, monumental buildings, such as Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center (led by industrial designer, Donald Deskey) went up in New York City. Automotive and Airline industries also seized the opportunity to capitalize on this booming trend. American Airlines and General Motors Enlisted the help of Henry Dreyfuss to create iconic futuristic applications. In the early 1940’s innovative industrial designers helped America win the war. Solutions like the Walkie-Talkie first appeared on the market from companies like Motorola (then Galvin Manufacturing). After a period of minimal spending consumers were eager to get their hands on these newly developed products. Various plastics, fiberglass, aluminum, chrome, and wood laminates were driving the design and art world. Charles and Ray Eames are famous as the pioneers who manufactured molded plywood using compound curves. Their talent was utilized by the military to create splints, stretchers, and airplane parts necessary for the wartime effort. They went on to create four decades worth of iconic furniture and architecture from their Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman (1956) to the celebrated Eames House in California (1949). Traditional fine artists would benefit from these new materials as well. Solid plastics, industrial paints and acrylics were used by many notable figures, from Charles Biederman and William De Kooning to Jackson Pollack and Richard Hamilton. Similar movements were shaping up in Europe and Japan. This global shift spoke to a broader transition in our cultural narrative. Today we’ve moved further away from the “star” industrial designer as a concept and more often see marketable products led by larger teams whose triumphs are realized at companies like Apple and Volkswagen.
Industrial design infiltrated every crevice of consumerism and art throughout the 20th century. Many of the materials and items invented during this time period are still fundamental to society today. The access we now have to design-centric objects allows for exponential growth in technology, ultimately leading to the destruction of many cultural barriers and norms. Essentially, the designers that helped shape the early movement planted the seed for today’s greater social and political change.
By Alexis Kanter
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