Twentieth Century Limited

Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design In America 1925-1939

Jeffrey L. Meikle
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Twentieth Century Limited
    Book Description:

    In the late 1920's "streamlined" became the term businessmen used to describe new models that were easier to produce as well as those that met with less sales resistance than older products. Illustrating this concept with streamlined objects from soup cans to the Chrysler building, Jeffrey Meikle's classic book,Twentieth Century Limited, celebrates the birth of the industrial design profession from 1925-1939. This second edition includes a new preface and improved photographic reproduction.Commercial artists who answered the call of business -- Walter Dorwin Teague, Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss, and Raymond Loewy the best known among them -- were pioneers who envisioned a coherent machine-age environment in which life would be clean, efficient, and harmonious. Working with new materials -- chrome, stainless steel, Bakelite plastic -- they created a streamlined expressionist style which reflected the desire of the Depression-era public for a frictionless, static society.Appliances such as Loewy's Coldspot refrigerator "set a new standard" (according to the advertisements), and its usefulness extended to the way it improved the middle-class consumer's taste for sleek new products.Profusely illustrated with 150 photographs,Twentieth Century Limitedpays tribute to the industrial designers and the way they transformed American culture; a generation after its initial publication, this book remains the best introduction to the subject. The new edition will fascinate anyone interested in art, architecture, technology, and American culture of the 1930's.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0471-8
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
    (pp. vi-ix)
    (pp. x-xii)
    (pp. xiii-2)
    (pp. 3-6)

    Cultural historians have come to understand the Depression of the nineteen-thirties as a time when American intellectuals and artists looked to their national past for orientation in the midst of traumatic change.¹ Historical novels filled the bestseller lists. Muralists decorated public buildings with frontier scenes. The WPA promoted regionalism by funding local histories and guidebooks. And in documenting the plight of sharecroppers and dirt farmers in hard times, photographers recalled the endurance of America’s pioneers. But the common men and women of the Depression, unlike intellectuals, looked to the future for resolution of their problems.

    An episode in John Steinbeck’s...

  7. ONE A Consumer Society and Its Discontents
    (pp. 7-18)

    Much recent social history assumes the operation of a technological imperative. According to this view, social change follows technological innovation. To Siegfried Giedion, the assembly line seemed “a symbol of the period between the two world wars.”¹ Other historians have credited the automobile with stimulating prosperity in the twenties and, as its market reached saturation, with triggering the Depression of the thirties. The auto’s economic role was no doubt crucial, but the ready availability of many other new manufactured products helped to transform the nation into a consumer society in the twenties. Although traditional virtues of thrift and hard work...

  8. TWO Machine Aesthetics
    (pp. 19-38)

    Most artists who migrated to industrial design from advertising, stage design, and commercial illustration did so by 1929. Five years earlier few observers would have thought Americans capable of designing mass production items in a style consciously reflecting modernity and technological progress. In fact, American design seemed in a state of decline. Nothing demonstrated this better than the nation’s official refusal to exhibit at the Paris exposition of 1925 on the ground that American craftsmen and manufacturers produced only “reproductions, imitations and counterfeits of ancient styles.”¹ The term “industrial design” first appeared in 1919, but its meaning bore little resemblance...

  9. THREE The New Industrial Designers
    (pp. 39-67)

    Industrial design was born of a lucky conjunction of a saturated market, which forced manufacturers to distinguish their products from others, and a new machine style, which provided motifs easily applied by designers and recognized by a sensitized public as “modern.” Without an economic impetus, modernistic design would have remained a preoccupation of the elite. And without the aesthetic provocation of the Paris exposition, designers would have lacked a common focus for their appeal to the public. Dictated as before by eclectic whim, product designs would have lacked the coherence of a common style. The public indeed desired novelty, but...

  10. FOUR Selling Industrial Design
    (pp. 68-83)

    Industrial designers have always considered their profession a “depression baby.”¹ Even though advertising agents and department store executives took product styling seriously two years before the crash, it did not concern most manufacturers until after full economic collapse. They turned to radical solutions because they had nothing to lose; to the optimistic or the desperate it seemed a panacea. Within a few years industrial design became a fad among manufacturers. In 1933 an executive whose profits doubled after Joseph Sinel restyled a hearing aid declared that a “redesign movement” would solve the nation’s economic problems. Thousands of toolmakers and die-makers...

  11. FIVE Industrialized Design
    (pp. 84-99)

    Under the aegis of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Richard F. Bach held his thirteenth Contemporary American Industrial Art Exposition late in 1934. Although Bach had pioneered the concept of industrial design, he lagged behind in popularizing its fruits. He exhibited mainly interiors with household furnishings designed for the occasion by architects of the New York modernistic school. But one interior differed radically from others. Raymond Loewy and stage designer Lee Simonson collaborated on a mock-up of an industrial designer’s office (figure 54). In planning it, they “chose the severest of lines and depended on the materials” alone “for attractiveness”...

  12. SIX Everything from a Match to a City
    (pp. 100-133)

    Mass-produced consumer goods remained central to industrial design, but most designers branched into other areas. Their work generated trademarks, sales brochures, retail displays, and packaging. But their other activities bore no direct relation to product design. Transportation companies—railroads, bus lines, steamship lines, and even the new airlines—sought to attract travelers with comfortable modern interiors and exteriors expressive of machine-age speed. Railroad design in particular extended beyond superficial application of paint to the styling of locomotive and car shapes. Airplanes and ships, whose forms depended vitally on function, did not lend themselves to such treatment.

    Other purveyors of services...

  13. SEVEN The Practical Ultimate
    (pp. 134-152)

    Even idealistic industrial designers admitted that the profession existed to make products attractive to the public, or to that segment able to buy them. By definition designers had to appeal to the masses. A designer’s aesthetic seriousness thus depended on his assessment of public taste. Conversely, the quality of taste consumers could express depended on available goods. By 1948 Siegfried Giedion found that industrial design equalled Hollywood in “the shaping of public taste.” Reliance on the merchandiser as a “dictator of taste” was “a source of danger and bondage.”¹

    By the end of the thirties many designers became as manipulative...

  14. EIGHT From Depression to Expression
    (pp. 153-188)

    Visitors to the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago thought they glimpsed the future they would confront once the heat of accelerating technologies had burned off Depression fog. Although many exhibits looked back at the changes made since Chicago had emerged as a frontier settlement, more looked forward to the future. Wonders like the photoelectric cell promised a life of ease, and assembly lines displayed by Firestone and General Motors testified to industry’s undiminished technological clout. The architecture itself, stretched around a lagoon and along Lake Michigan, awed most visitors. Conceived by the architects who had recently provided New...

  15. NINE A Microcosm of the Machine-Age World
    (pp. 189-210)

    War in Europe seemed certain when the New York World’s Fair opened in the spring of 1939, dedicated to “building the world of tomorrow.” Exhibitors and fair-goers alike sought momentary escape in considering, as they had planned, the world of the future. The Century of Progress Exposition had marked the culmination of the modernistic style of New York architects; now the fair of 1939 embodied in its streamlined buildings and exhibits the methods and visions of industrial designers. Teague, who served with six architects on the Board of Design, turned the fair’s commercial promoters from an original intention to celebrate...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 211-232)
    (pp. 233-238)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 239-249)