A New Design for Industry


DURING the past ten years you may have noticed the influence of industrial design — the smooth lines of a fountain pen, the more readable numerals on your speedometer, or the simple, graceful proportions of a saltcellar or a knife handle. The touch of the industrial designer is as apparent in these as in the more spectacular beauty of the streamlined train.

The Greeks thought that objects of everyday use should be beautiful. But it remained for the Industrial Revolution completely to separate the useful and the beautiful, until the two concepts were thought to be mutually exclusive. When decoration was considered at all, it was as ‘applied art’ — applied as paper to a naked wall to cover the machine’s starkness. Some of the earlier machines, in all justice, were unashamedly skeletons; others sought self-consciously to hide their gaunt outlines beneath a welter of wrought-iron roses, fancy grillwork, and metal brocade. A characteristically nineteenth-century touch was the use of Corinthian pillars, faithfully fluted and becapitaled, to support a stationary engine. Even this represents some kind of advance from the eighteenth-century lathe, smothered in cast-iron acanthus leaves like a steak in onions.

It must be admitted that the earlier inventors simply lacked the time to worry about design. Industrial development was accelerating at a tremendous rate with every passing year. Not until manufacturers’ sales began to dwindle did engineers turn to the problem of reducing production costs.

The economically dark and cold days after 1920 saw the first glimmerings of what the industrial designer had to offer. His solution was this: If products could look more graceful, more efficient, and more dependable, people would desire them more. A few venturesome manufacturers were at last induced to part with cold cash to a stranger — who could tell their engineers (who had been making their products for ten or twenty years) how those products should look. To their surprise, the thing worked. The sales curve immediately swung upward. Gradually other manufacturers followd suit, until today there is almost no major project but has had the attention of a design specialist.

Not that the sales manager and the production engineer have been converted overnight to a belief in art for art’s sake. From the first, theirs has been the cold-blooded question, ‘Will it sell?’ And the answer is emphatically yes. With the machine’s invasion of the home, it has become increasingly apparent to the manufacturer that his product must offer something more than an efficient internal unit. The user cannot hope to understand the complex viscera of the electric razor or vacuum cleaner. He must be reached in some more universal language than that of B.t.u.’s and r.p.m.’s.


The industrial designer must know methods, materials, and mechanics as well as design. He must be familiar with moulds, dies, forms, patterns, and manufacturing costs, as well as with the artistic possibilities and limitations of wood, steel, brass, copper, aluminum, glass, and plastics. To illustrate, take the case of a manufacturer of kitchenware, who is persuaded by a slumping sales curve to revamp his entire line. A designer is called in, and a rough outline of procedure is drawn up during the first conference with the manufacturer’s research department. It is decided that the coffee maker will be his first assignment.

Before he starts, the designer must study the function of the utensil, the materials that go into it, and the process by which it. is made. This particular appliance makes coffee by the drip method. Its basic parts are a spunaluminum top in which the coffee is brewed and a cast-aluminum base into which the coffee drips. Although he is free to alter the lines of the piece as radically as he thinks necessary, the designer must not change its liquid capacity or vary the characteristic finish which is associated in the public mind with the manufacturer’s name.

Because aluminum is a good conductor of heat, the base must be cast in a thick mould in order to keep its contents warm as long as possible. The handles must be made of a heat-resistant material and designed to make it easy to use the pot without burning one’s fingers.

A week of preliminary sketching and moulding in plaster follows. Designers, like builders everywhere, work from quick ideas, with the best results often to be found on the back of an envelope or on a restaurant tablecloth. After a day or more of jotting down on sketch pads every idea which comes to them, the designers select the best ten or fifteen designs, which are then worked out in greater detail. Some four or five are chosen, the others discarded for various reasons. This shape, for instance, is too squat, and would look clumsy in a heavy metal. That one is too delicate, and would contrast too much with the sturdiness of the characteristic finish. Another design entails a number of changes in the method of manufacture, and would be too costly to produce for the price at which this line must sell.

An important, innovation occurs to the designer; why not attach a handle to the upper section, so that it can be removed after the coffee is made? Then the base can be used as a table piece. Also, a lip for the cover is worked out, so that less heat will escape from the spout, and also to prevent ice from spilling when the coffee maker is used as a pitcher for summer beverages.

It is decided that a certain heatresisting plastic will be used for the handles. This in turn presents a twofold problem — to design handles that will harmonize with the body of the vessel and that will also be practical to mould in a plastic material.

In the final drawing, the whole unit is taller and thinner than the original model. Consequently, it can be shaped inward at the bottom without looking top-heavy. This enables the manufacturer to use less metal in the casting, and decreases the cost of production.

A plaster model, exact in every dimension, is made up from the final drawings and submitted for the manufacturer’s approval.

The designer’s job is by no means over at this point. Tool and die drawings, made by the engineers from the plaster model, must be checked over minutely. An inadvertent change in color specifications, a radius altered, or a different dimension might spoil the effect for which the designer has worked so long.


Sometimes the designer’s toughest job must be done before he sets pencil to sketch pad. Suppose, for instance, he has a traditional prejudice to dispel. Because thermostats have always been made with side vents to admit the air necessary to their function, it required considerable argument to convince one manufacturer that an offset housing would work just as well and at the same time solve a difficult design problem.

The hampering effect of tradition on true functional design can be seen all around us even today. Lighting fixtures are a case in point; they still dangle from the ceiling because candles once had to be hung at a safe distance from inflammable roofs. But lighting engineers insist that the logical way to light your house is to build the lighting in, just as you build in the heating plant.

Similarly, when the oil-burning space heater first invaded the parlor, it sedulously aped the appearance of the cabinet-type phonograph. It even tried to sound as much as possible like Victrola, and was named the Heatrola. Patterns in linoleum still copy woven rugs or wood flooring, and metal is grained, with the help of a complicated and expensive photographic process, to look like woods as familiar as walnut or exotic as Carpathian elm burl. The first mechanical refrigerators were wooden ice boxes with a cooling unit installed in ■what had been the ice compartment. It was only after discarding this conception of their product and its structure, and reexamining the problem as a new one, that refrigerator manufacturers discovered better and less expensive ways of making refrigerators. Because they did, the mechanical refrigerator today is cheaper to buy and run — and is more nearly perfect mechanically — than ever before.

One adolescent habit of thought that industrial design has not yet fully outgrown is an overemphasis upon the principle of streamlining. Ever since it was discovered that a drop of water falling through air assumed a characteristic shape to minimize friction, the teardrop shape has been used and abused until it has become an artistic cliche. True, one of the dominant ideas in modern design has been and should continue to be the elimination of fussy surface details, but many of the functional contributions of the designer have been overlooked in the heat of debate over what constitutes good decoration.

An example of obviously synthetic streamlining is the fountain pen, now generally made in the teardrop shape. But its new beauty is more than skindeep. Ten years ago, the fountain pen was a thick, stubby implement with a rubber sac, a casting of heavy, expensive metal plate, and a tendency to leak. Aside from the obvious refinements in weight and shape, today’s fountain pen embodies several fundamental changes in construction. Ink is now contained in a leak-proof, noncorrosive plastic barrel. The mechanism for filling has been made simpler and easier to work, as have the feed and pocket clip. The commercial development of urea, phenol, and acetate plastic compounds has provided the perfect material for inexpensive, mass-produced barrels. Today’s fountain pen, like today’s refrigerator or motorcar, is sturdier, handsomer, cheaper, and more efficient than its predecessors.

Plastics have influenced the industrial designer and his work. In fact, much of the small amount of decoration to be found on today’s well-designed products is the result of the enthusiasm of the designer for moulded plastics. Characteristic of modern designs, for instance, are curved surfaces and softly rounded corners, and these are to be found in products made of wood and metal as well as of plastics. But they have their origin in the design of plastic products such as radio cabinets, thermostats, and the like. For maximum strength, plastic cabinets and housings must be designed with very gently curved walls, and with rounded instead of sharp corners. This treatment has carried over into the design of other materials as well. Another characteristic of moulded materials has given rise to what one designer refers to as the ‘ three-parallel-line school of decoration.’ Certain mechanical requirements in plastic designing necessitate ribs to conceal blemishes. These ribs have most often taken the form of three parallel lines or beads on the exterior. Result: parallel-line mouldings, on wood, chrome-plated metal, and even on glass.


The industrial designer frequently aids the engineer by finding cheaper as well as better ways of doing things. There was the manufacturer, for example, whose product — a valve of the kind used on ordinary steam radiators — was made of seven different parts, some of metal and others of wood. The parts required such varied operations as swaging, broaching, finishing, polishing, plating, and the like. The designer to whom the manufacturer brought his problem produced a radiator valve that was smaller, neater, much more modern in appearance — and composed of exactly two parts. ‘Boiling down’ that valve saved the manufacturer thousands of dollars in operating and inventory costs, while the new design, being lighter in weight, is cheaper to ship.

Another manufacturer sent his designer a permanent-wave machine for redesign. The working parts of the machine were housed in ‘modernistic’ metal which weighed seven or eight pounds. As a part of the general restyling of the device, the designer specified a moulded plastic housing to replace the old metal casting. The now housing weighed two pounds. Thus the manufacturer was able to put the money he saved into the mechanism, and give his customers a better, more attractive machine for the same amount of money. And — logically enough — those improvements have also helped to boost his sales.

A striking example of the improvement, not only in appearance but in general usefulness, which design can effect is the ordinary bathroom scale. Still to be seen in some homes is the old-fashioned scale, a large and bulky device with a genius for tripping you up as you step over it. Its housing is stamped in several pieces of metal, which means that it was expensive to make. The dial projects above the housing and is obtrusively ugly. The modern scale may have a small streamlined housing containing its rotating dial. But more than the dial case is streamlined: in place of four or five metal stampings, two metal parts enclose the mechanism, and one of these serves as the platform. In addition the designer, aware that many serious accidents occur in the bathroom, has replaced the linoleum on the old platform with a nonskid rubber tread of scientific design.

Even the modern breadbox bears evidence of the designer’s shaping hand. It seems that years ago a Midwest manufacturer of bottle closures solved a difficult problem. His biggest customer sold hard candy in jars. In the hot and humid summer months, hard candy absorbs moisture, and becomes soft and gummy. By inserting a small paper disk soaked in a tasteless dehydrating chemical, this manufacturer could guarantee that candy packed with his closure would remain firm and crunchy even in the wettest weather. Housewives began to save the empty jars to preserve other absorbent foods like dry cereals, salt, and sugar.

When the vogue for hard candy went out, it seemed for a time that this manufacturer might go with it. Then a designer turned up with an idea. Why not adapt the dehydrating principle to a larger container, efficiently insulated against moisture, perhaps with an electrical unit attached to bake out the dehydrating pad when it had reached the saturation point? In short, a machineage breadbox.

Today you can buy a handsomely designed sheet-metal container for absorbent foods which looks exactly like a svelte breadbox, except that it carries a plastic housing on the top and a dial that changes slowly from green to red as the air inside becomes humid. When the dial finally shows a blushing crimson, the unit is simply removed and plugged into a wall socket overnight. Heat from a coil similar to that contained in an electric iron bakes out the chemical pad and restores it to working order by morning.

Design will eventually come into the parlor, but it is pursuing a devious course. So far the centres of modernization in the home have been the kitchen, the bathroom, and the laundry — all patently functional. But for the majority of homes the living and dining rooms are strongholds of tradition, where Queen Anne chairs rub elbows with modern radios, and a chrome-plated, thermostatically controlled coffee maker is not thought out of place on a table off which Samuel Johnson might have dined. For this reason design, after modernizing kitchen devices and similar home appliances, has moved on to the larger field of industrial products. It is no surprise to learn that gasoline pumps, buttercutting machines and pasteurizing machines, power shovels, tractors, hydraulic jacks, lathes, drill presses, and bottle washers have been styled by the industrial designer. These products, of course, are not used by the consumer; many are never seen by any but workers. But plant foremen have found that workmen take more pride in their work when their machines are trim and modern. Even more important, they have found that men working at white or light-colored machines become less fatigued, make fewer mistakes, and have fewer accidents.

From this point, some designers feel that they will gradually take over the problems of more efficient living, dining, and sleeping. While much traditional furniture was admirably designed, both functionally and æsthetically, most of it is now outmoded. Wings on chairs, for instance, originally served to ward off drafts in rooms heated only by fireplaces. With today’s central heating systems, wing chairs are as anomalous as whip sockets on automobiles. Lamps, at best poor solutions of the lighting problem, will be replaced by built-in lighting. Furniture, instead of consisting of unrelated chests, tables, and cabinets, will be organized as units for working, playing, and sleeping. New forms and new materials will answer new needs.

But the honest industrial designer refuses to predict what the washing machine of 1989 will look like. Because, he says, he is not sure we shall be wearing clothes then. If we are, they may be some lightweight material that will be cheaper to throw away when soiled. And of course, with the widespread adoption of air conditioning, clothes and furniture wall be soiled less easily.

Exactly what the future holds for industrial design is scarcely predictable. Yet there will always be a need for its contributions to better living. Today’s designer, although he expresses himself in terms of plan views, perspectives, and three-dimensional models, is simply a planner and a thinker — a man who sees into the essentials of a problem and makes them apparent to his fellows. And as long as man has this brief hour on earth there will be problems to solve, programs to plan, and a need for the man whose profession is planning and solving.