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The Big Sleek
Industrial Designer Raymond Loewy Practically Defined Consumer Goods American Modernism
JUKEBOX HERO: Raymond Loewy (or one of his minions) made this look this cool.
JUKEBOX HERO: Raymond Loewy (or one of his minions) made this look this cool.
Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture

The exterior plaza entrance to UMBC's Center for Art and Visual Culture is strewn with discarded radio innards, a busted bus seat, and scattered plastic shards. Spray-paint markings left on the courtyard bricks indicate where pieces of newspaper once provided indifferent and inconsequential protection from some project, all of it setting up a quasi-ghetto impression.

Designer Raymond Loewy is the antithesis of whatever terrible malaise is going on outside. Although born in 1893 and deceased since 1986, Loewy is alive and well in much of our bustling inventory of logos, durable goods, and modes of transportation. He was a suave and charismatic industrial designer of French origin and one of the most influential arbiters of purely American style during its booming post-war era.

He transformed the pulse of our upstart country from colonial to cosmopolitan, resolutely applying his design strategy of "streamlining" to American form and vernacular. He gave new-world sensibility to the European Deco movement. And he taught the rising middle class how to live a new brand of elegance, one not bound by the inheritance of furnishings and assets but rather a revised, inclusive one that put little stock in the social trappings of previous generations. Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture presents many of the original objects, with sketches, and documents of his pioneering initiative.

Loewy believed that every appliance of daily life could provide aesthetic pleasure through style and convenience. "The spiritual value of a vacuum cleaner may not be terribly high, but it may do the trick until we have an American Gandhi," the exhibition quotes him saying. Perhaps he already suspected that Americans would be wont to comprehend distinctions between his two examples.

One of the early cultural modernists, he eschewed the superfluous and the ungainly, replacing pattern and ornament with smooth, sleek chrome, bright enameled steel, and a variety of new molded plastics, disguising any accompanying bulging motors in long, slender, aerodynamic housing and using that wonderful swollen bullet shape wherever it might be called for.

Loewy assembled a team of designers who dedicated their talents and ingenuity to his house name, while he generally assumed credit for all of the concepts that came out of their collaborative designs. A few of these designers' names managed to surface over time, such as Richard Latham in the Chicago office, but for the most part these people produced culture-shifting ideas in obscurity while their flamboyant boss was celebrated on the cover of Time and in the fashion rags of his era. A Life magazine centerfold piece elaborated on his approach to trendsetting by contrasting examples of what Loewy considered refined taste across the page from an assortment of has-been décor items. He was well known for his ability to manage the press, and cultivated that clever, basically humiliating desire that compelled every homemaker to feel a need to replace every ruffled lampshade and Dresden pitcher in her home.

A master at melding mass marketing and mass production with an uncanny sense for the capacity of the public to assimilate an idea or reject it, Loewy worked out a conceptual acronym formula he dubbed MAYA. Code for "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable," it was the filter through which he and his charrette teams ran every design concept to imagine how any innovation might be received by the potential consumer. A highly effective filter evidently, as many designs still look fresh and potent today. Coca Cola, Lucky Strike, International Harvester, Air Force One, Frigidaire, and Greyhound are just a few products and redesigns that continue to demonstrate the impact of Loewy's sophisticated hand. The associated graphics and familiarity of forms of many of these companies have become American icons, turning their products into symbols.

In the case of Air Force One, as Loewy designed a more linear graphic for the plane, he also transformed the pre-existing condensed, sans-serif font on the earlier craft to duplicate the font used on U.S. currency, forever psychologically linking economic security with the well-being of the famous carrier and its cargo. Meanwhile, a visit to Ikea will affirm the longevity of his lean, angular, contemporary approach to home furnishings. If there was one instance where MAYA failed him, or he failed it, it was his design work for Studebaker. The precocious 1962 Avanti model proved itself too advanced for the public. That it might be cherished now only demonstrates how the marketplace's willingness to embrace form is a carefully timed process.

The rich, comprehensive collection of objects and memorabilia that make up this show is produced by Exhibits USA courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del. It was originally curated by Glenn Porter, and was booked for the Center for Art and Visual Culture by UMBC faculty Tom Moore and Symmes Gardner. Could there be a more perfect exhibition for the curriculum they direct--one that flows between the design arts and a comprehension of human aesthetic motivations?

All midcentury aficionados will shortchange themselves if they don't see this inspiring show. And as they travel through the art project jetsam left carelessly in the lower courtyard en route to the gallery, they might consider just how challenging it is to enliven visual ideals in an extended society, and how remarkable it is to transform and maintain the consciousness of an entire culture the way that Raymond Loewy managed to do in his time.

 

 

Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper