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  • Educating the Eye:Body Mechanics and Streamlining in the United States, 1925-1950
  • Carma R. Gorman (bio)

During the second quarter of the twentieth century, many writers on industrial design noted that, prior to about 1925, attractive appearance was not designers' or consumers' priority, at least not in the product categories that a Fortune magazine writer defined in 1934 as the "formerly artless industries": aluminum manufactures, baby carriages, sleds, railroad cars, cash registers, clocks, electrical appliances, food packaging, automobiles, eyeglasses, pens, refrigerators, scales, sewing machines, stoves, and washing machines. 1 Consultant industrial designer Harold Van Doren, writing in 1940, stated that in contrast to the fields of ceramics, glassware, textiles, silverware, jewelry, wallpaper, and furniture, in which products "are sold, and always have been sold, largely on appearance," "in the manufacture of engineered products like typewriters, utility and price were the prime concerns of manufacturer and purchaser alike until a few years ago." 2 Similarly, Van Doren's contemporary Raymond Loewy, writing in 1951, noted that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American consumers had been satisfied with "engineered as you go" mechanical products that were characterized by a "haphazard, disorderly look" (see, for example, fig. 1a). 3

Both period commentators and historians have agreed that after 1925, however, consumers began to demand beauty even in those products for which there had been, as Van Doren put it, a "lack of an educated demand for attractive appearance in years past." 4 In an era when refrigerators or washing machines in a given price range could be expected to work and to wear about equally well, newly professionalized American industrial designers acknowledged that they were "designing for the eye"—trying to lure consumers with products that were distinguishable from one another stylistically more than technologically. 5 Particularly during the Depression, it was widely acknowledged that "the sales curve would not respond to the old forms of pressure . . . [and] the product had to be made to sell itself" through attractive appearance. 6 The clean-lined [End Page 839] style that consultant industrial designers developed to meet consumers' demands for beauty in the formerly artless industries went by the name "streamlining" (for example, fig. 1b). 7 The origins of the term streamlining lie in hydro- and aerodynamics, but most industrial designers—even proponents of scientific streamlining such as Norman Bel Geddes—admitted that in the 1930s, streamlining was primarily an aesthetic device rather than an aerodynamic one, and further claimed that their aesthetic was derived primarily from the form of the human body. 8

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Figure 1.

Raymond Loewy, McCormick-Deering cream separator, before (a) and after (b) Loewy's redesign (1945), from Raymond Loewy, Industrial Design (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1988), 121. Reproduced with permission of Laurence Loewy.

Period observers and historians have both offered many different explanations for how and why this post-1925 shift in tastes and demands occurred, and for the rise of the popularity of streamlining. 9 Many of the well-known explanations are "supply-side" ones, in which particular designers or exhibitions or manufacturers or merchandisers are understood to be the drivers of stylistic change. Consumers, in this paradigm—when they are understood to affect the design of products at all—do so by adopting new styles after seeing them in exhibitions, magazines, movies, and department stores. Designers then are presumed to cater to consumer tastes by making more products that look like [End Page 840] the ones that have already sold well. The problem with this model is that it assumes two things: first, that consumers develop taste preferences primarily through informal means (such as skimming a magazine) rather than through formal ones (such as undergoing a required course of study at school), and second, that consumers develop ideas about and tastes for consumer goods only by looking at other consumer goods. Both assumptions are unwarranted. Between 1925 and 1950, there were at least two important formal mechanisms for the teaching and acquisition of taste that had implications for the appearance of the artless industries: "related art" and "body mechanics" training. These forms of education, which flourished in elementary, high school, and college classrooms, have clear implications for the...


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