The U.S. Postal Service has just issued its newest series of commemorative stamps, and it’s a marvelous set. Instead of honoring yet another crop of political leaders, sports figures or performing arts stars, these postage stamps commemorate 12 American pioneers of industrial design.
Names like Norman Bel Geddes, Gilbert Rohde, Russel Wright and Dave Chapman may not be known to many people today, but they were among a rarefied group of forward thinkers who revolutionized the way we think about design.
In part a reaction against the delicate fussiness of the beaux arts and art nouveau styles, these visionaries sought simplicity in form, celebrating the “utilitarian” aspects of the products they designed while eschewing any purely decorative elements.
From the clock radios of Norman Bel Geddes to the rotary telephone of Henry Dreyfuss, these designs placed “function” front and center. And they were indeed eyebrow-raising – in some cases shocking – to American consumers of the 1940s and 1950s.
But unlike the often ugly, relentlessly boring steel-and-glass boxes that came to symbolize modern architectural style, the items these industrial designers created possessed a style and elegance all their own – and many went on to become icons of design in their respective product categories.
In my youth, our household was one of many that owned a set of American Modern dinnerware, designed by Russel Wright and manufactured by Steubenville Pottery. These dishes were the epitome of “functional simplicity” – used and abused in kitchens and dining rooms during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
And yet, despite all of their simplicity, they had a style that was so distinct, no one who lived with them could ever forget them. “Vegetable bowls from outer space,” a friend of mine remarked once.
But Russel Wright and his fellow designers were doing far more than just paring down to the essentials; they aimed to simplify daily life itself. As a parallel to designing tableware, furniture and decorative objects, Russel Wright and his wife, Mary Wright, published a book titled The Guide to Easier Living.
Aiming to sweep away the last vestiges of the “old order,” when the well-heeled and bourgeois alike relied on “the help” to carry out elaborate dinner parties and other social functions, this book was a veritable how-to guide for the modern 1950s family.
How to organize and decorate the home … how to go about daily living … how to entertain without all of the fussy trappings: This and more were spelled out in suggestions and step-by-step instructions.
Originally published in 1950, the book was an instant success. Amazingly, it would be re-released in 2003 in its original form – without any editorial updates or adjustments – its content remaining surprisingly up-to-date.
The same timeless quality characterizes the work of the other 11 industrial designers featured in the USPS commemorative postage stamp series as well. Time and time again, people have returned to the work of these designers for inspiration.
Indeed, some of today’s most talked-about products, such as Target’s Michael Graves series of teapots or the new Dyson line of bladeless fans, trace their design inspiration straight back to the work of these pioneers – revolutionary in their day, but true classics now.