The Atlantic Monthly | August 1927
Beauty the New Business Tool
"The appeal of efficiency alone is nearly ended. Beauty is the natural and logical next step"
by Earnest Elmo Calkins
ome years ago Thomas A. Edison went to Europe. In the course of his wanderings he came to that exquisite gothic jewel, the Chapel of Saint Hubert, which hangs so entrancingly on the castle wall of Amboise, and which everyone knows is the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. Here Mr. Edison gave out an interview to the gaping newspaper correspondents to the effect Leonardo was the outstanding mechanical genius of his time, inventing many useful devices and anticipating others. He did not mention that Leonardo was also an artist on the side, either because he did not know or because he did not consider it important. The newspapers commented on the ommission, and Collier's Weekly sent Julian Street to interview Mr. Edison's chum, Henry Ford, because what these two men say on any subject makes newspaper copy. The substance of Henry Ford's remarks was that he would not give five cents for all the art the world had produced. And the New Republic capped this naive observation with the comment that one needed but a glance at the Ford car to believe it.
Henry Ford is cited here merely as an illustration. His frank and blunt statement expressed the opinion held by most manufacturers at the beginning of the era of mass production and efficiency, though few were so honest. Art was something for museums. They endowed museums out of the money they made, and some of them even accumulated private collections. Those with a weakness for beauty were tempted to conceal it, lest they be suspected of unfitness to have a place in the practical, hard-headed, efficient world.
Back in the mauve decade, or the gay nineties, new inventions and discoveries were transforming our industrial system, but when a manufacturer produced a machine that worked he stopped. It never occurred to him to go on and make his device pleasant to look at as well as efficient. It must have been the persistent influence of the Puritan tradition that made manufacturers so suspicious of beauty and gave them such pathetic faith in mere ugliness. Beauty somehow seemed antagonistic to integrity. They managed in those days to reverse William Morris's dictum. They seldom found it necessary to make a thing beautiful in order to make it useful.
It was in those days that Henry Ford began making his famous car. It was
an honest piece of work, a motor car that functioned, at an unbelievably low cost, though it did violence to three senses, sight, hearing, and smell; but people in those days were unable to forget long enough their wonder that the thing should be to mind the intrusion of more ugliness into a world that was losing peace and silence and the beauty that inheres in old things. And so the Ford car was put out, and chugged along faithfully on all our roads. The public laughed at it and christened it 'Lizzie,' but bought it and used it in increasing numbers, and Mr. Ford rested secure in his belief that he had solved one of the major problems of human existence and that there was nothing more to be done.
There is no doubt that Mr. Ford was sincere in what he said about art. He believed that the homeliness of his car was one of its virtues. He correctly read the minds of his fellow citizens, who suspected that mere prettiness camouflaged the fact that sterner virtues were lacking. The Ford car was homely, but it did its work. And standing firmly on this belief Henry Ford broke all records of production, distribution, and sales in a country where such things are a religion.
About this time Mr. Ford was waited upon by the research expert retained by a publication to study the changing habits of people and their effect on markets for goods. The inauguration of such bureaus of investigation marked the beginning of a new era in business—the application of scientific methods of research to manufacture and distribution. The purpose of this bureau was to render a constructive service to business as a preliminary to selling advertising space in the publications to which the expert owed allegiance. He had just completed an exhaustive survey of the trends in the motor-car market and had gone to Detroit to lay his findings before Henry Ford. The survey comprised three important conclusions: the manufacture of motor cars would in the future be concentrated in the hands of fewer organizations; woman would be an increasingly important influence in the purchase of cars; beauty in line and color would be the determining factor in selling cars. Mr. Ford's comment was that none of this concerned the Ford Motor Company, and he continued serenely on his way, producing his marvelously efficient car in increasing numbers and selling his product without difficulty.
Meanwhile the making of motor cars passed into its second phase and came under the sway of the cult of beauty. Mechanical improvement had reached its perihelion; the lower-priced cars were becoming dangerously efficient, and it was necessary to do something to justify the price asked for the more costly ones. The big cars were made more sightly. And then we had large gorgeously appareled cars at high prices, and small ugly useful cars at low prices. The car with the long wheel base and the stream line became the symbol of wealth. The stubby car which continued to retain the graceless lines with which it was born was the symbol of homely worth and modest circumstance. Under its humble exterior there beat an honest motor. Then Walter Chrysler showed that it was possible to make a small car beautiful, and motor manufacturers realized that people did not demand big cars, but merely cars in which they could take pride, and the growing congestion of our streets made occasion for a shorter wheel base. Manufacturers began experimenting with small cars of better appearance.
Inspired by this tendency, the Chevrolet Company added design and color to mechanical efficiency, and then for the first time in the history of the motor car the output of the Ford Company was exceeded by a rival manufacturer. The Chevrolet Company produces more cars than Mr. Ford, and beauty has become a commercial talking point.
For some months the newspapers have been asking what Mr. Ford is going to do. The probability is, though this prophecy may be either confirmed or controverted by the facts before this paper appears in print, that Henry Ford is asking himself the question: Just what has beauty to do with the sale of a motor car?
For the business of making and selling things must add a new facet to its polyhedron. By the irony of circumtances the type which the manfacturer must now emulate is old Leonardo da Vinci himself, who combined to a rare degree the practical and the imaginative qualities, and whose chievements ranged from the wheelbarrrow and the double-spiral staircase at Blois to La Gioconda and the Last Supper.
Up to the beginning of the great industrial era of machine-made things, mass production, nation-wide distribution and advertising, most of the implements and furniture with which we performed the act of living were made by hand, and things made by hand unconsciously acquire a certain element of beauty.
Consider how satisfying are the shapes of some of these old things—a coach, for instance, or a spinet; a sickle or a ladle. The humblest utensils of our grandfathers are preserved in museums to-day, partly, of course, for the historic associations, but mainly because they have a certain charm. And gradually all that charm vanished. The hand worker who controlled every step of the thing he was making was replaced by a machine minder who had nothing to do with the design. The directing minds, absorbed in the new wonder of so many things made so easily, ignored the fact that it was just as easy for a machine to stamp or print a good pattern as a bad one, and by some perversity nearly always chose the bad one, and aggravated that fact by producing the bad design in incredible quantities. The public, tickled to get so many things so cheaply, accepted them without question, and thus, we had a depressing period when, in New York City, brownstone houses were built literally by the mile, and country houses were of two stories, mansard roof, and cupola, with cast-iron dogs and deer on the lawns, and furnished with horsehair sofas, flowered Brussels carpets, gilt-embossed wall paper, and ormolu clocks under glass bells on the mantelpieces above imitation fireplaces.
We passed from the hand to the machine, we enjoyed our era of the triumph of the machine, we acquired wealth, and with wealth education, travel, sophistication, a sense of beauty; and then we began to miss something in our cheap but ugly products. Efficiency was not enough. The machine did not satisfy the soul. Man could not live by bread alone. And thus it came about that beauty, or what one conceived as beauty, became a factor in the production and marketing of goods.
The first influence in this regeneration was perhaps the advertising artist. Advertising is a pioneering profession, earnestly concerned with keeping ahead, struggling always to find new mediums in which to express something that has not been expressed before. It seized upon the power of the artist to say things which could not be said in words, and thus a large group of men trained in artistic standards was brought to work in close conjunction with factories producing goods. The first step toward making the advertising attractive was to make the goods attractive. It was frequently necessary to introduce the article sold into the advertisement, or at least its package, and most products and packages were so ugly or so commonplace they spoiled the picture; and thus began that steady, unremitting pressure on the manufacturer to make his goods or his packages worthy of being placed in an artistic setting. Bales and boxes and cans and wrappers and labels and trade-marks were revised and redesigned, sometimes even to the extent of scrapping considerable goodwill that inhered in the old style, to keep up with a growing sense of taste in the consuming public. Such experiments were generally successful and encouraged others; the idea spread, and farseeing manufacturers carried it further.
The impact of beauty was manifest first in fashion goods and vanity products which owed their origin to French taste. They set up examples which the more astute manufacturers were quick to emulate. Future connoisseurs may collect the perfume bottles of the twentieth century as they now collect the snuffboxes of the eighteenth. A new art known as flaconnage de luxe has grown up around those delightful bits of glassware, mere containers of merchandise, but designed in sympathy with their contents. Gallé was the French pioneer in beautiful glasswork, but Lalique carried the art further, developing new effects by blowing the glass in metal moulds. To give rarity to certain designs, they were blown in clay moulds, which were afterward broken. The credit for utilizing the more artistic forms of glassmaking to enhance the beauty of the perfume package is due to Francois Coty, who originated many of his own designs, but is said to have received inspiration and advice from Lalique. Among the glass blowers producing the artistic perfume bottles that decorate the windows of the drug stores are the Cristalleries of Baccarat, of Nancy, and Viard. In this country the most successful work is the Steuben glassware of the Corning people, rarely beautiful, especially the iridescent effects ranging from opaque blue to almost transparent, reminding the observer of Phoenician and Cyprian examples in the Metropolitan Museum. The Baltimore house of Swindell Brothers is producing some interesting scent bottles, and of our American perfumers Richard Hudnut has experimented successfully with strictly American designs. Indeed, the creation of an American school is part of the artistic plan of several trades, such as furniture, silk, leather, and glass manufacture, following the leadership of John Slow in his endeavor to disassociate painting from the French tradition.
In applying art to machines we are on our own ground. Machines are native with us, and the effort to beautify them has created a new field of artistic endeavor, as witness the sky-scraper, the motor car, the phonograph and the radio.
Motor cars began to appear in color schemes suggested by the advertisements. The next step was to design motor cars in shapes suggested by artists, and soon manufacturers making cars in the upper price bracket had their own art directors and art departments, as complete and as influential on the product as the engineering department, steadily working to produce that conjunction of utility and beauty which was becoming necessary to make the car acceptable to the public.
Among our new playthings was the phonograph. For a long while it lingered in its ugly box with its blatant horn, and no one minded its hideousness in the strange new experience of listening to it. It did not occur to us that it was not necessary to affront the eye to please the ear. But the spur of competition compelled the manufacturers to add every improvement they could think of, and when mechanical improvements were exhausted they turned to aesthetic ones, with the result that the great horn disappeared inside, the case took on some semblance of form, designers and cabinetmakers were consulted and period and other designs produced, so that now the phonograph may easily be an addition to the furnishing and decoration of a room. The transformation of the radio took less time. While it is still so new that broadcasting stations have not yet been assigned permanent waves, its makers are as much concerned with giving it an acceptable physical appearance as with lengthening its reach. That is because it arrived in an age in which both manufacturer and consumer are aware that there is such a thing as good taste. We demand beauty with our utility, beauty with our amusement, beauty in the things with which we live. And so the radio has been promptly put in the hands of the designers, to make it, if possible, a thing of beauty and a joy forever even when silent or especially when silent.
Thus it might be said that good taste passed from the advertisement to the package, and from the package to the product, keeping pace with the growing appreciation of taste on the part of the public due to increased culture and sophistication. Immediately these better-designed goods and packages
demanded a better environment in which to be sold, and thus we have a revolution in the furnishing of shops and stores. The old-fashioned store was a stereotype—a long, narrow room with two windows and a door in front and in back, counters down the full length on both sides, with the goods arranged on shelves behind the counters. No matter what kind of goods was sold, the layout did not vary. Now and then an enterprising merchant painted the front of his shop bright red or bright yellow, but this was due more to a desire for conspicuousness than to an artistic urge. Today the store has given way to the shop, and in the smarter lines these shops are planned and decorated with all the skill and taste employed in designing a boudoir. The shop front, the tinting of the walls, the furniture, the arrangement of goods—everything has been transformed. The counter is gone; occasional tables take its place. Chairs are arranged for customers in such a way as to suggest the careless grace of a drawing-room. Everything is done to create a setting for the new style of goods. You see this in every industry. It might naturally be expected in the trades that cater to fashion, but even the Cunard Steamship Company has thought it worth while to build a temple dedicated to ocean travel in which to sell tickets for its steamship lines. When AEolian Hall was sold at auction the fact that it had just been awarded the Fifth Avenue Association's gold medal as the most attractive building erected in 1926 increased the price it fetched.
But conclusive proof of the extent to which belief in beauty has penetrated industry is the increasing number of factories of pleasing architecture and with landscaped grounds. The efficiency of beauty as a business force is agreeably confirmed by the belief of some executives that better work will be done in pleasant surroundings, and this belief is manifest not only in the factories but also in the offices, and it is a reasonable belief. George P. Rowell, the pioneer advertising agent, tells in his autobiography how he once lost a large account because he had been so extravagant as to put beneath the black walnut table which served him as a desk a square of jute carpet. The disgusted advertiser said that he had no confidence in an advertising agent who put on so much style. To-day the office has undergone as great a transformation as the retail shop. Tinted walls, sash curtains, period furniture, stained glass, all the fittings which give character to a private house and which even a private house did not possess thirty years ago, are now almost the rule rather than the exception in offices. We are even coming to believe that the sick in hospitals get well quicker if the walls are painted the right color. In other words, we are just on the threshold of creating a new world on top of our modern industrial efficiency, a world in which it is possible through the much criticized machines to replace the beauty that the machines originally displaced.
The application of design and color to useful things has been carried to what might seem extravagant length, except that the results have been satisfactory. The furnace once existed in gloomy seclusion in a cellar filled with dust, ashes, and cobwebs, and was visited only when it needed attention. The modern heater is shaped and painted so that it becomes an object of furniture only a little less attractive than the porcelain stove of German fairy tale, and the cellar is rescued and becomes one of the living, or at least useful, rooms of the house. Even the radiator, that bête noire of interior decorators, is appearing in better designs, and the builders of new apartment houses have found it profitable to include practicable wood-burning fireplaces.
The immaculate paleness of the hospital is disappearing from our kitchens, pantries, and bathrooms. The kitchen cabinet, that amazingly efficient unit with every utensil and ingredient placed at arm's length and arranged in order of greatest use like the keys of a typewriter, is being made in colors to harmonize with the gay tile linoleums of the floors and the figured and decorative ginghams of the window curtains. The bathroom, so long the exponent or index number of our civilization, is being lined with colored tiles which are after all, just as sanitary as the white ones and more restful to the eye, while the tubs and washbasins are exchanging their shapes of bare, cold, characterless efficiency for suggestions of Renaissance and other period designs to which color also adds its cheerful note. These rooms which were once the penetralia of our homes, necessary but ignored, are now show places.
A permanent exhibition of the Crane Company at Atlantic City testifies that open plumbing has become one of the fine arts, with its bathrooms in black and gold, with glass and porcelain wrought in cunning shapes, joining up with the arts of the potter and the glass blower. The evolution of the bathroom is typical. The change from the old tin boxed-in tubs and hand basins to efficiency and sanitation was a practical one. Open plumbing meant cleanlines and in our pride at our new-found intelligence we rather overstressed the sanitary aspect and produced, as usual, something useful but ugly. Then, manufacturers realized that there was new selling argument in beauty and every article of manufacture was being studied from this point of view, it was realized that the necesary furnishings of bathrooms were unusually susceptible of decoration, without sacrificing cleanliness, our first objective. Other trades fell in line. It is possible to obtain towels and soap whose colors match the prevailing tint of the bathroom, and patterned curtains of waterproof silks for windows or showers.
Perhaps the most thrilling manifestation is what has been done with light. Light simply demands consideration. It adds a beauty of its own to almost anything. Even the tallow candle burning in the night is a beautiful thing. Just as soon as we learned to soften the harsh realistic glare of electricity by means of colored glass, paper, and fabric, and to shape the standards of brackets into beautiful forms, we had new decorative material of infinite possibilities. The smallness of the wire that carries the current adds to the freedom and plasticity of artistic treatment. The unwieldy nature of gas pipes long delayed the redesigning of lighting fixtures, and gas for light flourished in the age of ugliness. Perhaps nothing more hideous than the old two-pronged ceiling fixture was ever designed.
One might say that, after all, the home and its furniture constituted the natural field for improvements such as these; but what do you think of this? One of the Eastern railroad companies, according to an editorial in the New
York Times, has just put into service twenty locomotives which are gay in green and gold, with maroon trimmings. One used to hear such expressions as the 'Pullman Palace Car School of interior decoration.' But now, not only do new cars show a consciousness at least east of a simpler and better taste than that of the generation in which railway cars were born, but the engine which pulls the train has begun to adorn itself to appeal to a more sensitive public.
An indication of the amenability of railroads to purely aesthetic arguments was the gratifying promptness with which the New York Central accepted the suggestion of the Bronx Parkway Commission about one of its bridges. The normal efficient railway viaduct is two steel I-beams resting on rectangular pieces of concrete. The commission pointed out that such a bridge would be a jarring note among the springing arches and sweeping lines of the parkway bridges. The railroad changed the design of its bridge to one in sympathy with the setting and gained distinction by the act. And, while the act was a gracious and generous one, it was also an economically sound one, merely giving a broader meaning to the word 'service' and interpreting it in the new spirit of the age. These things note the mere beginnings of a movement the ultimate result of which will be that future industrial development will find it unnecessary to disfigure a landscape. Beauty is a greater force in human affairs than steam or electricity, than economics or engineering, and the meeting place of all can be found, for in fact it is being found.
There is behind all these changes simply the desire to sell. Beauty is introduced into material objects to enhance them in the eyes of the purchaser. The appeal of efficiency alone is nearly ended. Beauty is the natural and logical next step. It is in the air. When choice rests between two articles of equal utility, it veers toward the more attractive, as is shown in the case of Fords and Chevrolets. Moreover, in the new contest of beauty the possibilities are greater than in the contest of efficiency. In beauty the sky is the limit.
This remarkable turn of the industrial world toward beauty in design and color is not really a new thing. It is merely the size of the movement that is startling. From the earliest days the making of things followed the same process, but at a slower pace. Each new implement or tool was crude in its first conception, was refined and took on the semblance of design as soon as its usefulness had reached the maximum. The first wheel, the first jar, the first bench, were not those that we know. The potter made a vessel that would hold water, but he carried the idea no further. It was a second step to realize that the bottle or jar could have a pleasing shape. These little processes of evolution have gone on following the introduction of each new device. But here we are in the midst of an industrial age with new devices, machines, utensils, coming forth in a flood, but going through the same process—first utility, and then beauty added, as each one goes steadily forward to that final happy and pleasing shape which satisfies. In fact, if it is true that there is in all of us an inherent craving for beauty, we may rest confident in the assurance that each new ugly thing that is hurled at us by the machines will, under the softening influence of time, use, demand, and competition, evolve into something better to look at.
The effect of beauty in distributing goods is interesting from its economic aspect when we consider what is coming to be known as 'styling' the goods. When we speak of style, we usually mean a quality which makes a thing popular, with the corollary that popularity will soon cause it to cease to be stylish. Style flourishes best in a civilization in which a small class practises its rites and a large class stands enviously outside, barred by financial considerations and social ignorance from participating. What has happened, apparently, is that many more people have become conscious of style and the style idea has been extended to many more articles than were included in the original indictment.
This means that this new influence on articles of barter and sale is largely
used to make people dissatisfied with what they have of the old order, still good and useful and efficient, but lacking the newest touch. In the expressive slang of the day, they 'date.' People buy a new car, not because the old one is worn out, but because it is no longer modern. It does not satisfy their pride. They refurnish the house, not because the old furniture is unable to perform its duties as furniture, but because it is out of date, out of style, no longer the thing. You cannot produce this state of mind by mere efficiency. You cannot make people substitute a new car that runs well for an old car that runs well unless it has some added quality. The new quality must be borrowed from the realms of good taste—smarter lines, newer design, better color, more luxurious upholstery, more art, or at least more taste.
Within strictly material limits the machine apparently can do anything. It is only a question of time when the most perfect motor car made can be reproduced at a fraction of its present cost. Mechanical knowledge is a tangible thing, easily acquired or imitated but that intangible something which art gives, that creative, imaginative power, has no appreciable limits.
Much of the art influence which is transforming business is what is described, not very lucidly, as the 'new art.' The new art is the product of those men who are determined to break with tradition and produce art exactly as was produced that art which is now the tradition. They believe that art should reflect the age, especially an age which has introduced so many new values. The modern school of artists insists that we must have art that grows out of our life, not out of the life of a dead-and-gone era subject to influences so remote from to-day, and they are producing that art. It is logical that business should prove susceptible to these new art forms, because, in a way, both are the result of the same set of causes. Both the industrialism and the art are modern. The forces that are making our fast-paced, bright-colored, sharply defined civilization are prolucing our modern art.
It is also natural that modern art should enter business by the door of advertising. Commercial art began when all art was still subject to the old academic tradition; but, as advertising is the most sensitive and mobile of all business forces, it was the first to feel the innate appropriateness of the new forms to express the spirit of modern industrialism.
When advertising first took up art to help make its message clearer, it was difficult to interest the artist. The artist of that day considered business beneath his contempt. But as time went on better artists became interested because of the greater financial reward, the larger opportunity, the better understanding between manufacturer and artist, the improvement in processes of reproduction; and so a race of artists was developed of remarkable dexterity. At first it was desired to attain realism, but at length realism as a technique was so mastered that nothing more could be done. The magazines were filled with color pages of honest, sincere, straightforward painting that was, to use a commonplace phrase, lifelike. A dead line was reached, the dead line of excellence. By then the new art had arrived, the school of the more independent astists, trying to shake off bonds of tradition and strike out in new and Unknown worlds of imagination, and this impulse was reflected in advertising design. The new art was imaginative rather than realistic. It attempted to suggest rather than to show. And these young men subsidized by business, stimulated by both money and opportunity, have done some very wonderful things, and have gone so far in their advertising creations as to make one wonder whether the public or any great part of the public can follow.
In the creating of this new business art the man who stands first is René Clarke. He was the first to feel its import to business. He has been happiest in finding that meeting point halfway between the utilitarian demands of business and the unlimited and undreamed-of possibilities of an art that is even now creating its own technique. Especially noteworthy has been his skill in creating patterns of compelling beauty of such common homely units as tin cans of vegetable oil, fried eggs, vegetables, rolling pins, and skillets. This power of seeing patterns in new compositions of the things around us has profoundly influenced the designing of book covers, packages, textiles, and even architecture.
One remembers with what a blare of tom-toms the new art burst on this country a few years before the war. In an armory in New York City about fifteen years ago was held a monster exhibition of the first showings of the new tendencies, largely imported, but with some contributions from the more advanced rebels in our own country. That was the time when such names as Piccabia, Picasso, Du Champs, Gauguin, Cezanne, Redon, became known on this side of the ocean. The exhibition was a riot. For days that vast armory was crowded with puzzled, giggling, startled, scornful, unbelieving people, who felt, some of them, as if the familiar world were tumbling about them. Shortly after the exhibition closed there appeared in the newspapers of New York a page advertisement announcing the first showing of gowns influenced by the new art to be made at a series of seances in the Wanamaker auditorium. The day was cold and rainy, but the four exhibitions crowded that little theatre to its capacity. It was natural that a new art movement should register first in dress fabrics, although it was a little forwardlooking to seize so quickly so new an art form. But the astonishing fact is this, that the newer art forms are now being utilized by manufacturers whose goods are remote from those ordinarily influenced by style.
Modern color and design are styling not only products hitherto in the style class—silks, prints, fabrics, textiles, gowns, hats, shoes, and sports clothes—but social stationery, foods, motor cars, building materials, house furnishings, book bindings, interior decoration, furniture, and bric-a-brac.
Some of the new silk designs admirably express the modern spirit. At first glance they appear to be just what they are, sprightly patterns, produced by repeating some simple motif. But the motif, instead of being the old romantic one of a leaf, bird, spray, or scroll, is some bit of our modern life, a map of New York City, a couple dancing the Charleston, 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' a graph or statistical chart, the windows of skyscrapers at night, or a group of steam cranes. Beauty may be discerned in unexpected places. It already exists even in our machinemade age. The present ingredients are being assembled in new patterns which will eventually change the aspect of the world around us. Design and color are used to give them modernity.
You may ask, where are all these evidences of beauty in modern business? If the influence of art on machinemade products is so great, why do we not see more of it? It is true that the production of ugliness still outstrips that of beauty, and the machine works so fast that time must elapse before new standards applied at the source are evident in the distribution.
But the consoling thought for us bystanders is that there is now an economic reason for beauty. Art is indicated as a selling argument. Among other things it means that the artist is going to have a better market for the products of his imagination. Buying pictures to help the artist, or endowing art galleries in order that the public may have an opportunity to see beautiful things, is after all a makeshift. Subsidized art is of its very nature impermanent. It exits only through philanthropy. If art is the vital force in our lives that it should be, it does not need to ask favors. It does not need to depend upon charity. The only art that can survive and grow is art that is related to our life and our needs, and that has a sound economic foundation. It is far better that the world in which we live, our cities, our buildings, and our rooms, to say nothing of our landscapes, should be beautiful with the beauty that comes from appropriateness than that we should buy pictures unrelated to anything in our lives and hang them on our walls, and thus attempt to introduce a little vicarious beauty into ugly surroundings.
The slow but unmistakable turn of industry toward the creative arts means a future stable market for the artist's effort, putting him on a sound economic basis comparable to that of the chemist, the engineer, the economist, the statistician, and the efficiency expert, all of whom have been drafted by business as business grew beyond the specialized skill of the busines man.
When a conscious attempt is made to collect and assemble at one place samples in any industry that have received the benefit of taste in their manufacture, the effect is an impressive one. Each year the American Institute of Graphic Arts holds an exhibition called 'Fifty Books.' Each year that number of books is selected from the products of different publishers, chosen entirely on standards of good bookmaking, with no attention paid to their subject. Not only does each exhibition show that surprisingly good books are being made, but the history of the six exhibitions so far held shows how much the exhibitions themselves have contributed to producing material for future exhibits. The first year only two publishers voluntarily tendered exhibits. With great difficulty and by personal effort enough books were assembled to number fifty. This year 550 books were offered, and the fifty selected were better examples of the art of bookmaking than those shown six years ago. These exhibitions travel from place to place, and are being shown somewhere throughout the year. For the last two or three years it has been necessary to supply three duplicate exhibitions to comply with requests for local showings. Nor is it a purely aesthetic triumph. Publishers who have commissioned such printers as Elmer Adler, Bruce Rogers, or Berkeley Updike to make their books have learned that there is a market for the well-printed book, and have learned especially that better taste applied to the ordinary commercial book has an influence on its sale.
In a larger field the work of the Metropolitan Museum is significant. Some years ago, under the direction of Richard F. Bach, associate in industrial
arts, it was arranged that the Museum collections could be used by manufacturers as a laboratory of design. Each year there is held an exhibition of products, made under ordinary comercial conditions, inspired by museum
pieces. Like the Fifty Books, each successive exhibition showed a wider range of the creative power of American designers. Recently the restriction that the pieces exhibited should be museum-inspired has been removed, making it possible to introduce examples of the newer art not found in museums, but growing out of the life around us.
Recently the Art in Trade exposition sponsored by Macy's department store in New York City showed examples more in the modern spirit. Here were silks, furniture, upholstery, glassware, pottery, full of the life and movement of modern design and color, shown against backgrounds designed by Lee Simonson, planned in the same spirit, which revealed in a small way what can be done by manufacturers to give their products beauty in harmony with the age.
The significant thing about all three of these exhibitions is that, when commercial products transformed by taste are gathered together, the aggregate is impressive, especially when, as in most instances, the products shown are not exhibition pieces made for a special purpose, but the commercial product which is being regularly manufactured and sold.
There are also other signs that sordid business is awakening to the importance of good taste in creating a wider acceptance for its goods.
The New York Building Congress awards gold buttons and certificates for superior workmanship to workmen in various trades engaged on New York skyscrapers. Now there is talk of forming a group consisting of the financiers who furnish the funds for large buildings, the real-estate men who promote them, and the architects who design them, to exercise some control over the sky line of New York City, and especially to do away with the unaesthetic and stupid practice of building a tall structure with a front façade facing the street inconsistent with the cheaper treatment of the sides and back. The setback, dictated entirely by expediency to avoid making dark canyons of our streets, has shown promise of great beauty, and it may be that the imaginative conceptions of Hugh Ferriss will some day be realized as actual buildings.
The New Yorker, that little weekly which has been making such sprightly comments on the life of our largest city, discusses new buildings in a department of criticism exactly like the older and more conventional departments devoted to other arts, a practice which it is hoped will become general. What is needed most now is intelligent criticism of commercial products, which we are just beginning to have in some quarters, so that there will be a standard of taste, and also that the manufacture of goods may be recognized as an art, as it so easily can be. But while intelligent criticism of this new industrial manifestation is desirable, the real test is the buying and consuming public.
It is by no means beyond the realms of possibility that such organizations as the United States Steel Company, or the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, will have art directors whose work will be to style the products of these concerns in the aesthetic spirit of the age. Already the General Electric Company maintains a committee on beauty, with a representative from each department. That a corporation engaged in manufacturing products of technical and engineering qualities should maintain a research laboratory to follow and develop the scientific possibilities of the things it makes has been an obvious course and excites no surprise, but it is significant that the same ambition that demanded a scientific laboratory should also demand a board of beauty. It means that nothing we make—particularly and especially the things which are the outgrowth of our remarkable mechanical and scientific efficiency—is beyond the need or the possibility of the refining touch of good taste.
It is to be hoped that manufacturers in the search for design to beautify their products will start with a clear conception of what beauty is, especially beauty in an article of use. Beauty is original. It is found in the thing itself. Good design is never imitative. You cannot take it over from something else. You cannot take a Greek temple and make a library, a Renaissance palace and make a railway station. You may produce a beautiful and exotic building, but it will lack the deeper beauty of appropriateness. Good design is produced only by studying the article to be treated, its use, its purpose, so as to shape and color it to suggest unerringly that use and purpose. It must make the thing beautified newly significant. We are helped in this if we are able to observe the beauty that already exists in the industrial world around us. We must acquire the new point of view, aided by the undeniable affinity that exists between some aspects of modern industrialism and some aspects of modern art.
Not only is art influencing busines, but business is influencing art. Joseph Pennell, who railed unceasingly at this industrial world of ours, its factories, its advertising, its commercialism, contradicted himself with his etcher's needle by portraying the beauty that so often inheres in the steel skeleton of a skyscraper, or in a steam shovel eating its way into a vast excavation, or in a row of smoke-hung factory chimneys across the evening sky. The surest guide in divining new beauty in machine-made things is to grasp and interpret the beauty they naturally and intrinsically possess.