Mid-century corporate design through 126 iconic objects
By Avantika Bhuyan
7 August 2017
Photo courtesy of Architectural Digest
The Lettera 22 Portable Typewriter for Olivetti designed by Marcello Nizolli in 1950; the sketchbook page, from 1967, featuring the logo design for Caterpillar Tractor Co; the iconic 1961-IBM Selectric typewriter designed by Eliot Noyes and the Model 500 Telephone for Bell Telephone Company from 1946-48 by Henry Dreyfuss—these are just some of the landmark objects on view at a major exhibition, Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University through August 21, 2017.
It’s interesting to see a narrative emerge about the relationship between the designers of the 1950s-70s with the top management of large corporations. To establish these connections, Wim de Wit, adjunct curator of architecture and design at the Cantor Arts Center, went through the archives of the International Design Conference in Aspen, from 1951 to 2004. The conference was founded by Walter P Paepcke, of the Container Corporation of America, as a way to share with other companies the idea that good design was good for business. The initial goal was to promote better understanding and partnerships between designers and representatives of the corporate world.
“Through careful reading of the announcements, minutes of board meetings, proceedings of the conferences, especially those of the 1950s and ‘60s, I realised that there was often a hidden message in the presentations, that one could summarise as an expression of fear for selling out to commerce,” says de Wit. At the same time, no matter how ambivalent the designers felt about this work, they tried to create the best products possible.
It is to showcase these thoughts and feelings, that the curatorial team has reserved one wall in the gallery space for quotes by these designers. For instance, there is a quote by American architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes, from a speech given at an IBM Design Seminar (1957), which has been showcased. It reads: “Design must be a function of management, attentive to but not controlled by sales or engineering departments.” One can see these quotes as soon as one enters the exhibition gallery. “In a way, they are hovering over the designs, so that one can experience the interaction between the two,” says de Wit.
There are multiple layers to the exhibition, allowing the viewer to view the objects from different prisms, be it social or political. Contributor Greg Castillo, associate professor of architecture at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, has placed the work of post-war designers in the larger cultural and political context of the Cold War and the developing counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s.
It was due to the post-World War II economic boom and the effects of the Cold War, especially the Marshall Plan, that the American and European companies were able to expand their businesses worldwide, and that they realised the need to stand out against the competition. “They, therefore, hired designers who could create unique identities, both graphically and product-wise,” he says.
One of the essays from the exhibition catalogue, which is especially thought provoking, is by Louise Mozingo, professor and chair of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design, at the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley. It mentions several instances of corporate directors hiring prominent architects to make their office buildings look modern, but later asking landscape designers to soften the seemingly stark architectural effects.
“For example, she writes extensively about the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company headquarters, Bloomfield, Connecticut, 1956, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, with SOM’s landscape architect, Joanne Diman. And also about Deere & Company Administrative Center in Moline, 1964, designed by Eero Saarinen (architecture) and Sasaki, Walker and Associates (landscape). She discusses several other projects,” he says.
Each object on display comes with interesting pieces of trivia. For instance, not many know that the SK4 Radio and Phonograph designed by Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot for Braun AG, was nicknamed the “Snow White’s Coffin” as the duo were famous for a minimalist, almost austere, style, which emphasized the functionality of the object, while making it as elegant as possible. Many such anecdotes await you at the exhibition, which can be viewed till August 21, 2017.