restricted access The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976 by John Harwood (review)
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THE INTERFACE: IBM AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF CORPORATE DESIGN, 1945–1976
by John Harwood. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2016. 288 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN: 978-0816674527.

In 1956, International Business Machines (IBM) hired industrial designer and architect Eliot F. Noyes (1910–1977) to reinvent its corporate image. Noyes found the corporate headquarters fusty, full of old-fashioned furniture and rugs and inspirational messages about trade leading to peace that reflected the generation and aesthetic of the corporation's founder Thomas Watson, not the "information explosion" world of his son and successor Thomas Watson Jr.

Noyes perceived IBM as not merely business machines, but a force "to help man extend his control over his environment," so it was necessary that it project clarity. As a student at Harvard of Bauhaus exiles Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, he promoted International Style buildings, hired Paul Rand (not to be confused with US Senator Rand Paul) to redesign the company's logo and gave attention to all aspects of the industrial design of the products. Noyes had served as curator of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art, and, as the housing of electric typewriters, computers, and other devices simplified, attention was paid to the human interface, the controls and displays the operator encountered.

As Watson Jr. sought to reorganize the company, his "consultant director of design" Noyes went from designing IBM typewriters (at first as part of Norman Bel Geddes's office) and computers to its laboratory and administration buildings, as well as the stationery and curtains within them. Paul Rand came up with a new corporate logo in 1960 and then redesigned it with blue stripes a decade later. IBM Design Guidelines were issued to guide all work within the company. There follows an illustrated history of IBM computers in this era, preceding the IBM PC personal computer, and the design thinking behind them. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. described a computer as a "parlor" for the operator's benefit and ideally, comfort, and then a hidden "coal cellar" of components where the computing operations actually took place ("under the hood" might be an applicable automotive analogy, too).

Eliot Noyes and Associates were the architects of several new buildings, but his program saw to it that other notable architects were commissioned for its various edifices around the world. Several new IBM facilities were strategically placed outside of New York city in case of—a concern in the 1950s and early 1960s—atomic attack. Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill designed in Armonk, NY, IBM's Corporate Headquarters, which contained "Garden of the Past," a courtyard designed by Isamu Noguchi. Paul Rudolph designed the IBM Manufacturing and Administration Building in East Fishkill, NY. Eero Saarinen and Associates [End Page 213] designed the IBM Manufacturing and Administration Building in Rochester, MN, as well as the Thomas J. Watson IBM Research and Development Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, NY. A good photo album of Saarinen's office in this era is Saarinen's Quest: A Memoir of a Photographer by Richard Knight (2007).

inline graphic Overseas, Marcel Breuer and project architect Robert Gatje designed IBM France Research and Development Laboratory in La Gaude. IBM developed a Real Estate and Construction Division to manage all this growth. IBM was a part of the nascent Silicon Valley, establishing a research lab in a rented property in San Jose, CA, in 1952 and constructing its own 190-acre campus of buildings in 1956. A later counterpart to Yorktown Heights, the IBM Almaden Research Center was constructed in Silicon Valley in 1986, outside the scope of this history. High atop a mountain south of San Jose, Almaden evokes a James Bond villain's secret fortress, protected by berms from any prying eyes below. I consulted there in 1994, prototyping O/S2 online help at IBM Almaden Research Center in Ted Selker's USER lab.

To further project a public image and naturalize the increasing role of computers in daily life, the Eames Office, Charles and Ray Eames and staff, created interactive hands-on exhibits for the delight of children and other visitors, including multiimage spectacles. These exhibits were installed at various IBM and noncorporate locales, including suburban Detroit's...


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