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  • When Modernism Was Still Radical:The Design Laboratory and the Cultural Politics of Depression-Era America
  • Shannan Clark (bio)

December 2, 1935, dawned frigid and blustery in New York City as the metropolis endured an Arctic blast that heralded the arrival of winter, but several hundred young men and women lined up early nonetheless outside the East Thirty-ninth Street office of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Although queues like this one had become commonplace in the midst of the Great Depression, those waiting in the morning chill sought not employment on a WPA infrastructure project but a chance to enroll in the Design Laboratory, a pioneering new school sponsored by the Federal Art Project (FAP), one of the WPA cultural programs. As the first institution in the United States to offer comprehensive education in modernist design, its introductory brochure claimed that it had been "created to supply a hitherto unfulfilled and pressing need in America" for people with the skills to devise, package, and promote consumer products that were styled to sell, thereby stimulating economic recovery. By emphasizing "coordination in the study of esthetics, industrial products, machine fabrication and merchandising," the school would "train designers, not specialized craftsmen, by correlating thorough instruction in the general principles of design and fine arts with shop practice."1 The line of young adults on the first day overwhelmed the registrar. The Design Laboratory enrolled 220 students—which was somewhat more than the school's administrators had anticipated—and still had hundreds more on a waiting list to enter should space become available.2

The Design Laboratory had significance far beyond that of just a school for commercial artists. It furnished a vibrant point of contact between the business culture [End Page 35] of America's industrial design entrepreneurs, the experimental modernism of the depression-era avant-garde, the unprecedented public arts bureaucracy of the New Deal, the militant industrial unionism of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the radical cultural politics of the Popular Front.3 When its federal funding stopped in June 1937 as part of a general retrenchment in the WPA cultural projects, the faculty and students reorganized the Design Laboratory under the sponsorship of the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT), one of the left-led unions of white-collar workers affiliated with the CIO. After the union was compelled to withdraw its backing the following summer, the school experienced a second reorganization to become an independent cooperative officially chartered as the Laboratory School of Industrial Design. As it evolved from a provisional experiment in art education supported by temporary relief measures, attaining some measure of permanence as an academic institution, the New York State Board of Regents authorized it to confer bachelors degrees. Unfortunately, the dedication and effort of the laboratory's faculty, students, and advocates could not overcome both the school's perennially shaky finances and the turbulent political and cultural currents that accompanied the Second World War. The school suspended its regular operations at the end of 1939 and permanently disbanded in the spring of 1940, scattering its faculty and students throughout the design profession.

Although the Design Laboratory lasted only four years, it had a substantial influence on American visual and material culture. Perhaps its most immediately apparent impact came through the pedagogical and curricular innovations of its faculty. Through the first half of the 1930s, the art and architecture programs at most elite schools were still defined by the anachronistic Beaux Arts traditions of the late-nineteenth century, while the earliest courses in industrial design offered by commercially oriented art and technical schools like Pratt Institute in Brooklyn tended to be, in the words of laboratory alumnus Don Wallance, "mainly superficial and anecdotal."4 By the late 1940s, however, the modernist aesthetics and the instructional approaches developed at the Laboratory had become the new standard throughout the United States, as, in many cases, artists and designers who had been associated with the school joined the faculties of other academic institutions, bringing the Laboratory's pedagogy and curriculum with them. On a more fundamental level, however, the Design Laboratory was not merely a dispensary of useful knowledge about cutting-edge styles and...


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