- Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World
Brooks Stevens participated in the transformation of the modern setting of everyday life into a designed environment. Although hardly a household name, he influenced the conceptual infrastructure of mid-twentieth-century consumer culture as he worked with product manufacturers and communicated his understanding of American business and consumer product design. In this way, as well as in his design of many consumer products and vehicles, Stevens shaped our world and the way we have moved through it. [End Page 548]
Industrial Strength Design challenges readers to take into account the role of consumer goods design and styling as part of mid-twentieth-century consumer culture. It introduces the reader to the career of Brooks Stevens, an industrial designer who considered himself to be "a businessman first, an engineer second, and a stylist third," but was mainly a salesman (p. x). Glenn Adamson presents a review of the designer's life and work that is accompanied by a chronologically organized design portfolio. No doubt due to the contents of the archives and the focus on one career, the interpretation of Stevens is internalist in orientation, yet it also places his work in context. Essays contributed by John Heskett on industrial design as the profession in which Stevens worked; by Kristina Wilson on Stevens's designs for domestic appliances and gendered environments; and by Jody Clowes on industrial design as a business that was devoted to giving consumers what they want add depth to the study. These essays, as well as Adamson's longer contribution, ground Stevens's firm in the Milwaukee metropolitan area, highlight his social and business connections with local industrialists, and explore the interplay between Stevens's personal aesthetic preferences and sense of style and his firm's commitment to the design of products with "buy appeal" and "ego-inspiring styling" (pp. 10, 26).
After studying architecture, Brooks Stevens founded an industrial design firm in Milwaukee in 1935. Stevens's firm flourished, and he earned recognition as an industrial designer during the decade following World War II. The firm's designs for appliances—including the Petipoint clothes iron and a Hamilton clothes dryer—and products such as Mirro cookware were progressive enough to imply modernity without being avant-garde. One-of-a-kind projects ranged from a "research vehicle" used by the Johnson Wax marketing department and a "Zephyr land yacht" filled with technological gadgets for a Milwaukee millionaire playboy during the 1930s, to the complete styling of the Olympian Hiawatha train in 1947 and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, which appeared during the late 1950s. Other projects had a broader impact. Stevens's 1946 Willys-Overland Jeep Station Wagon design, in particular, validated his prediction that postwar products would be very similar to prewar ones, rather than the bold futuristic designs that were projected for postwar modern life; the model also influenced the designs of Jeep vehicles for some time. In a similar way, the Harley Davidson Hydra-Glide model established a new sense of how a motorcycle should look. The firm's other vehicle projects included recreational motorboats, several concept and mass-produced automobiles, and an early snowmobile. Purchasers of less durable goods saw the firm's work in corporate logos and product packaging, such as that for the Miller Brewing Company and 3M. [End Page 549]
Brooks Stevens influenced the design and business sectors through the promotion of the concept expressed by a term he promoted during the mid-1950s, 'planned obsolescence.' He explained this approach to product management as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary" (p. 129). Stevens's work on annual new models for Evinrude motors and Lawn-Boy mowers, which were only slightly altered from the existing design, epitomized this business concept. His defense of planned obsolescence asserted that the practice supported the secondhand market and was good for the nation's...