American Design, The Australian, June 1994

American Design

In America you can buy anything your heart desires. I mean *anything*. And why not? What else would you expect in the land where money is god and shopping is a natural religion? The rest of the world’s pretty much the same, sure. It’s just that in the States they’ve been doing it bigger, better, and badder for longer.

All cynicism aside, this actually goes some way in accounting for the incredible breadth and variety of American design, from industrial products to MTV-style niche marketing. Since the turn of the century designers have made it their business to create highly desirable objects. Some would even say that the industrial design profession was born in America for this reason alone. If it was to be successful, each new product had to differ from the last in terms of look and feel — even if (especialy if) the function remained pretty much the same. It had to be new, improved, and impossible to live without.

Of course they *were*. But by the mid fifties this tendency had turned into a grand and uncontrollable obsession with change and “progress”. The world was inundated with a million and one “new” products that were essentially variations on the same enduring theme of universal consumption. Built-in obsolescence became a hopeful celebration of over-abundence. Automobile manufacturers even made corporate plans based on the assumption people would buy new cars as often as they changed cocktail outfits. In the end they didn’t, and industry had to invent new ways to sell their wares.

And sell they did. Thanks to the efforts of designers like Ben Nash and Herbert Bayer, the packaging industry became an indispensible part of the American economy. How else would shoppers know for example, that Cheer was a washday marvel that cleans whiter, brighter clothes than the lesser instant miracles of Joy detergent? If the package hadn’t actually become the product, they simply wouldn’t. Advertising spread the word alright, but the battle for customer loyalty was won and lost on the supermarket shelves.

In the thirties, designers gave consumers hitherto unheard of “freedom of choice”. Choosing a new- model vacuum cleaner, soap, car, refrigerator, soft drink or whatever, was like a personal expression of freedom. It was all taken very seriously indeed. Still is for that matter. US citizens have fought hard to exercise their inalienable rights as consumers, to spend as much and as often as possible. That’s OK by industry. So long as they keep buying, the customer is always right. Keeping them happy is the tricky bit, and so the Herculian attempts to satisfy every taste, every eccentricity, every whim.

Americans were the first to capitalise on the fact that external appearance was an essential part of hooking the customer and keeping them satisfied (for a while at least). Even the simplest utilitarian objects could look good — especially if they ended up being displayed in the Design section of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But the struggle between “good design” and mere “style” ultimately turned out to be a not very interesting struggle over the bounds of good taste.

One of the greatest things about American design is that there has never been any shortage of products that ignored the dictates of “good design”. Thank god, because these products often turned out to be the “best” anyway. The race to create new styles and variations on form gave us the most playful and excessive designs ever created for a mass market. We need look no further than the towering and completely decorative tail-fin’s Harley Earl (and everyone else in Detroit) made famous in the fifites.

In fact, this icon of American car design shows just how useless the modern myth of functionalism really is. Nobody ever sold consumer products on their use value alone. The point of automobile design was not always about high performance or anything vaguely empirical like that. While Ford made his fortune standardising design (any colour so long as it’s black), Earl introduced a new form of sculpture to the American masses. What’s more they bought it. His over-the-top tailfins translated an image of high performance from post-war fighter jets into a suburban dream of flying down the highway.

The mass marketing of the fifties has mutated into the niche marketing of the nineties. Cable television caters for such an extraordinary range of interests that the large networks are having trouble surviving. MTV has earned its place catering to the most cynical anti- consumerist tendencies of the nation’s youth. Sells well too. You can even get the haircut if you want.