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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 345-346
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Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning
Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning. By Regina Lee Blaszczyk. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. xiii+380. $39.95.
In an attempt to complete the picture of the circular process of production/consumption/production in the life of manufactured goods, Regina Lee Blaszczyk's Imagining Consumers focuses on what the author considers to be a missing element in this process: "the strategic intersection of design practice, consumer taste and changing demand" (p. ix). This ambition has stimulated a fascinating account of the sales strategies of a group of American manufacturers of applied art products, in particular the Homer Laughlin China Company, the Kohler Company, and Corning Incorporated, in the years from 1880 through to 1960. Blaszczyk's study is informed by an intense body of material acquired from primary sources; it makes a significant, and very welcome, contribution to scholarship in this area.
The book's thesis is multilayered. In filling the gap noted above it sets itself firmly against the work of technological determinists, Marxist accounts of manufacturing manipulation, and design historians. The latter, the author feels, have concerned themselves only with products characterized by "good taste" that have been styled by consultants rather than in-house designers. Blaszczyk deals, in contrast, with "everyday" wares, which, she claims, are less the products of "tastemakers" than of what she calls "fashion intermediaries." Frederick Hurter Rhead, employed as a designer for the Homer Laughlin company in the interwar years, is studied as an example of the latter breed. His role, claims the author, was to find out what consumers (i.e., women) wanted rather than to tell them what they should buy.
This is an account of technology and design following popular taste, of a range of manufacturers who did not aim to push forward aesthetic boundaries but rather to sell their wares--ceramic and glass artifacts--by appealing to the female consumers who, in their quest for personal identity and social status, needed them. Inevitably the goods in question were not aesthetically innovative, nor did they fit into the model of Fordist manufacture. Rather, they were visually conservative and produced in the context of flexible specialization.
For the most part this thesis is argued persuasively. Without doubt the [End Page 345] most convincing section of the book is the one dedicated to the work of the Homer Laughlin China Company--from its Yellow ware to its brilliantly colored Fiesta ware--which clearly filled a gap defined by social and gender needs at a particular historical moment when those needs were at their most intense. Where the sanitary ware of the Kohler Company is concerned, however, the need for coordinated, colored bathroom suites seems to have been largely constructed by Hollywood films and company advertising combined with the construction of the model Kohler Village. For me, this hovers dangerously near manipulation, or, at the very least, heavy persuasion. Blaszczyk herself admits that the aim was to "break down consumer resistance to sanitary ware as a consumer durable" (p. 188). Equally, her determination to persuade readers that, in spite of large sums of money spent on advertising and investment in the idea of functionality in the kitchen, Corning's Pyrex cookware did not succeed commercially until it was designed in the late 1950s to "look good" seems to contradict her own thesis that design was a servant rather than a master in the goods selected for this study.
Blaszczyk makes a number of subtle points in passing that have enormous significance for scholars across a wide range of disciplines. An example is her comment on page 126 that "Victorian dining customs trickled downwards while informal eating habits moved upwards." This seemingly small point marks an important break from the still surprisingly dominant model of upward emulation formulated by Thorstein Veblen at the end of the nineteenth century. Blaszczyk's own prejudices are clear throughout the book. She prefers what she calls "practical men" to evangelists of "good...