Saturday, March 2, 2019

John Wall's "Streamliner"

John Wall has a BA from Ohio State University, worked as a journalist at Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Japan, the Toledo Blade, Insight magazine and the Altoona Mirror. At the Mirror he also was a syndicated movie critic for Thomson Newspapers.

In 1994 Wall left journalism to become a writer-editor at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and later worked as director of media relations at Juniata College, a tiny liberal arts college in rural central Pennsylvania. He's now retired and lives in Altoona, Pa. and is mulling over ideas for his next project.

Wall applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of American Industrial Design, and reported the following:
As I leafed through Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of Industrial Design toward page 99, I was a bit anxious that the target page would fall upon one of Raymond Loewy’s more obscure designs or that the page would center on railroad statistics or the historical background for one of the many industries Loewy worked in. After all, when you write a book about one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, choosing a single page to write about could result in an exegesis of the design of Air Force One or, unfortunately, an explanation of how a cream separator operates.

Imagine the relief when page 99 turned out to be the resting place for one of the book’s most important photographs, a shot of Raymond Loewy posing in the middle of the “Designer’s Studio,” a special exhibit Loewy created with architect Lee Simonson for a 1937 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s one of the more familiar images of Loewy and had appeared in pretty much every book or article ever written about the man who some influential critics and authors consider “the father of industrial design.” This also is the same person other design writers denigrate as a shallow opportunist who sold a public image of himself while taking credit for others’ designs. As I discovered while researching and writing this book, there are elements of truth in both views and clues to both sides of Raymond Loewy are contained in this single image.

The design career of Raymond Loewy, who emigrated from France to the United States after World War I, stretched from 1928 almost until his death in 1986. His design career began with a simple “makeover” for an ungainly European copying machine called the Gestetner Duplicator. He, along with three other pioneering designers — Norman bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague and Henry Dreyfuss — transformed the American consumer marketplace by democratizing design, creating products that put beautiful objects within affordable reach for rich, poor and in between. Loewy accumulated assignments and attracted attention for his designs for Sears (the Coldspot refrigerator), the Pennsylvania Railroad (three classic streamlined locomotives), International Harvester (tractors and corporate logo, American Tobacco (Lucky Strike), Coca-Cola, NASA (Skylab) and Studebaker Motor Company (the 1953 Starliner coupe, the Avanti sports car).

The photo of Loewy in a model design is a classic study of the artist as businessman. Loewy is immaculately attired in patterned slacks and sports jacket. He’s perched against a desk so minimalist it looks barely able to sustain his weight. The space, with walls lined by horizontal moldings, horizontal windows finished in a semicircle, and metal-framed furniture, is decorated by a model of a Loewy automobile and framed sketches of a ferry Loewy designed for a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The photograph is aesthetically perfect and taken in the perfectly composed “Hollywood glossy” style of George Hurrell and Cecil Beaton. The preserved image was one of Loewy’s most important photo opportunities, as it established for the public what a designer should look like. Loewy also realized that photography and publicity would be the key to making the term “designer” and “Loewy” synonymous. Until his retirement in the late 1970s, Loewy never missed an opportunity to be interviewed, photographed or consulted, almost always next to one of his designs. He was among the first to realize that successful people must not only be recognizable but also identifiable in the correct context. Close observers of the photo see the office is hardly functional and would be a used in the real world. It is tiny, cramped, and bereft of the storage space any businessperson would need. The office is, in the end, a stage set, created by a man who had no connection to the theater yet constantly played the role of the cultured, cosmopolitan aesthete.

The rest of the book examines how Loewy created the art of “branding” to hone his image with every design his company produced. The book also traces Loewy’s gift for design—not necessarily a hands-on talent—but rather as an editor armed with what one of his business partners called “unerring taste.” When consumers see Loewy posed next to a product, Ralph Lauren in a faded denim jacket, Martha Stewart next to a bountiful table, and even President Donald Trump with a black bankers overcoat and long red tie, the spark of familiarity conceivably can be traced back to this photo.
Learn more about Streamliner, and visit John Wall's website.

Writers Read: John Wall.

--Marshal Zeringue