Design Heroes, The Australian, 1994

Monday 11 April

Design Heroes

Ross Harley

He had what friends called “a genial knack of pushing himself to the front”. He could redesign a pack of cigarettes, a fridge, lipsticks or locomotives with equal panache, and he never left well enough alone. Radical innovator or showy stylist, Raymond Loewy was among the first to drive home the value of design to American industry.

Like many others at the birth of the design profession in the 1920s, Loewy struggled to convince a sceptical world that design could improve the shape of things to come. Whether he was right or wrong, he was a key player in a major transformation of our culture. A talented individual swimming against the tide.

People like Loewy helped turn the tide the other way. Under- rated, unacknowledged, or just plain invisible, those responsible for some of the most stylishly functional and influential products of the century are beginning to lose their anonymity. Some at least.

A recent series of monographs — “Design Heroes” edited by the British critic Martin Pawley — is part of this gradual process. The short biographies on this century’s “most influential designers” are a serious attempt to help the general reader understand more about the importance of the names behind design. It remains to be seen whether the series will confirm pre-existing canons of taste or make for a few surprises. To date, books on Italian Ettore Sottsass by Jan Burney, and Americans Raymond Loewy by Paul Jodard, Harley Earl by Stephen Bayley, and Buckminster Fuller by Pawley have been released (Harper Collins, 1994, $24.95).

They serve as accessible (if somewhat predictable) introductions to the work of these important historical figures, giving us something of the context of their work in light of their personal lives and careers. But the idea for the series also highlights some of the problems that come with looking for design heroes in the first place.

For a start, where are all the women? Nowhere in his introduction does Pawley even mention the likes of modern furniture and textile-maker Eileen Gray, Bauhaus-trained Marianne Brandt, ceramic designer Susie Cooper or the contemporary architect/designer Zaha Hadid. Surely such figures have been driven by the same “determination, stamina and endurance”, overstepping the same “bounds of conventional behaviour in order not to relinquish the creative integrity” that their peers did? I shouldn’t go on. The series is still young.

As a youthful French illustrator living in the US, Loewy’s first success was with the now infamous 1934 Coldspot refrigerator, which he transformed from a clunky white box into a clean streamlined showpiece. Before, it looked like a machine you might need but would hardly want. He made people want one so bad they tripled Sears Roebuck’s mailorder sales in under a year.

Although he grew up in a similar industrial America, Buckminster Fuller travelled a very different path. He would never get the chance to come up with designs for Studebaker or International Harvester tractors as Loewy did. Besides, Fuller had his sights set on nothing short of creating a design science that would benefit the whole of humanity, not just industry. He’d do this, he declared so many times throughout his prolific teaching career, by obtaining maximum advantage from the minimum use of energy and materials. In Fuller’s hands the modernist cry “less is more” became the radically utopian “more for less”. People thought he was mad.

Unlike the successful Loewy, Fuller was constantly on the verge of disaster. His plans to build “Dymaxion” cars and houses were tragic failures. For much of his life he was subsequently considered a radical eccentric whose revolutionary visions for lightweight prefabricated mass housing could never be realistically achieved.

The comparative success of his geodesic domes late in life made his initial failures only slightly more bearable. Yet despite all this, he continued to create schemes for mechanically engineered architecture that proved to be years ahead of their time. Advanced technology of the sort used for space travel could be used to help humanity; on earth. “The answer to the housing problem” Fuller was often quoted as saying, “lies on the way to the moon.”

Ettore Sottsass had a slightly different lunar view: “A good design is like the possibility of going to the moon. Few people will have the opportunity to experience it directly but its existence will change the lives of millions”. He could be right.

The immediate post-war years in Italy impressed a social consciousness upon Sottsass that lead to the vitality of his playful and socially critical designs. Never truly in the mainstream (though his work with Olivetti is legendary) Sottsass has contributed much to the shape of contemporary Italian design. Much of this context is covered well by Burney’s monograph, which places Sottsass in amongst Franco Albini, the Castiglioni brothers, Gio Ponti, Alessandro Mendini and Andrea Branzi.

His central involvement in the formation of the highly influential Memphis group during the 1980s was one in a long line of collaborative projects. This was postmod irony and friendliness at its best. The fun vocabulary of forms, geometric shapes, hard lines and crazy linoleum patterns of Memphis developed out of a large studio group. More a collection of philosophical notes and statements than a truly low-cost mass-market enterprise, Memphis was primarily about communicating ideas.

A heroic task if ever there was one.