Stylish ways of making money

Industrial Design Strength
August 20, 2004

Exactly 50 years ago, the industrial designer Brooks Stevens stood up at a meeting of advertising agency executives in Minneapolis and coined the phrase "planned obsolescence". It was a catchphrase that would define an era of annual model changes on the production line and instantly transport Stevens, as if in one of his own tear-drop-shaped trains or boats, to the forefront of the debate about morality and the mass market in mid-20th century America.

Up until that point, the consultant responsible for the Steam-o-matic clothes iron (1940), Coolerator refrigerator (1948) and Harley Davidson Hydra-glide motor-cycle (1949) had been energetically and inoffensively building a successful design practice as a member of the industrial elite in his native Milwaukee.

But in 1954, Stevens' candid talk of "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary" offended a great many people nationally, who saw his strategy as sinister and exploitative. As Glenn Adamson, author of this handsome and comprehensive survey of his work, suggests: "Stevens discovered quite by accident that the easiest way to become famous was to become infamous."

Among his critics was Vance Packard, whose books The Hidden Persuaders and The Waste Makers would attack Stevens for promoting two different types of planned obsolescence - "functional obsolescence", in which objects were intentionally designed to wear out, and "psychological obsolescence", in which last year's model was deliberately made to look out-dated in the manipulated mind of the consumer.

None of this appeared to bother the self-confident Stevens, who was steeped in free-market conservatism and defended planned obsolescence as an engine of economic growth essential to the survival of democracy. During the rhetoric of the Cold War, he even described one of his own vehicle designs as a "bullwark against communism".

But within a few years Stevens himself was looking out of date. His arguments were weakened by the success of companies such as Volkswagen, which flatly contradicted him in one 1959 advertisement by saying: "We do not believe in planned obsolescence." By 1968, Fortune magazine was commenting on "the decline of industrial designers", and by 1970 Stevens was clinically depressed. He survived, of course, but by the 1970s, his best days were over and his flashy icons of Americana looked an anachronism.

Adamson's book is both a sumptuous study of all those trademark Brooks Stevens speedboats, snowmobiles and sports cars that accessorised the American Dream of the 1950s and a sharp critique of the designer's commitment to consumerism. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but it is mostly balanced through a series of essays, project descriptions and Stevens' own writings.

A picture emerges of a talented and dynamic individual who survived polio as a child, studied architecture at Cornell, married well and used his family's industrial connections to launch a career in the embryonic field of industrial design. The design historian John Heskett points out that Stevens belonged to the second wave of modern design pioneers who were not weighed down by ideology and made use of aesthetics simply to sell products. Stevens asserted that the industrial designer "should be a businessman, an engineer and a stylist, in that direct order".

He never really made it into the charmed inner circle of the godfathers of the US industrial design profession. His designs were never as fantastical as those of Norman Bel Geddes, nor as ergonomically rigorous as those of Henry Dreyfuss. He could not match Raymond Loewy's immaculate sense of timing, even though he shared his showmanship, and he lacked Walter Dorwin Teague's gravitas. Indeed, Teague attacked Stevens over planned obsolescence, arguing that progress in the market would happen through "legitimate, honest obsolescence" rather than the marketing tricks of Detroit responsible for lame ducks such as the Ford Edsel.

For all that, Stevens, who lived between 1911 and 1995, is an important figure from a time when American economic and technological superiority was matched by an inflated sense of design style. Today, that superiority remains but the style has gone entirely.

This book rescues the Brooks Stevens story from obscurity but does not quite restore his reputation. We are left with the memorable image of perhaps the only big-league American designer who did not go to the coast - a strutting Milwaukee socialite dressed in "lemon yellow pants, a pink jacket and a ruffled shirt", hosting a party in 1958 against a painted Venice backdrop and persuading another local manufacturing bigwig to let him streamline the future. A dinosaur, in other words, who does not yet know it.

Jeremy Myerson is professor of design studies and co-director of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, Royal College of Art.

Industrial Design Strength: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World

Author - Glenn Adamson
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 219
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 262 01207 3

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