Aerodynamics and the American Home
Norman Bel Geddes and Consumerism
The American public learned how to spend money on consumer goods in the Roaring Twenties. The Great War had forced the United States to grow up quickly and the techniques of mass production or Taylorism that were applied to the automotive manufacturers were transferred to the defense industry that sprang up to supply the Allies and then the American military. Immediately after the Great War, nativist and restrictive immigration laws were passed in 1921 and 1924 that imposed quotas and favored white nations such as Germany and those from the British Isles. With the sudden drying up of unskilled labor, machines took the place of people and production of goods devoted to domestic pleasures, powered the new machine economy of the twentieth century. The spread of movies which modeled new ways of dressing and new lifestyles that had to be emulated taught Americans what to spend their money on. For the first time in decades, the middle class was not only increasing in numbers but also in spending power and advertising in newspapers and magazines began to use nascent psychology to persuade purchasing, not of an object, but of an actual life. The Jazz Age presented American men with a line of casual university inspired clothing that marked them off from them grandfathers and department stores expended great efforts to lure men into the domain once considered overwhelmingly “female.” Women, likewise, had to restyle themselves from head to toe, from inside to out to be up to date. Although women drove cars, men were expected to buy big-ticket items, while the interior of homes was the prerogative of the “wife” to furnish. Women were expressly targeted by advertisers and were encouraged to buy the latest proffered product.
Advertising emerged in the early twentieth century as a potent economic force, the engine to industrialization. Products were made and thus had to be sold, and in between, people, men and women, had to be educated into learning how to buy. Being a consumer was nothing new to the wealthy, but to the middle class, having disposable income was a relatively new experience. The dark of art of advertising was developed enough to have its own literature. In 1905, Earnest Elmo Calkins wrote Modern Advertising, stating, “Advertising is a force whereby a keen-eyed man, controlling a desirable output from a great facory, secures for it the widest possible market by utilizing every form of publicity, and every method of making an impression upon the public; who watches its sales on one hand and its publicity on the other; who, like a train despatcher in his watch tower, keeps a constant and thoughtful hand on the pulse of the market, knows exactly what his advertising is accomplishing and what it is failing to accomplish; knows where to strengthen it and where ot weakenit; who, considering the entire country as a whold, adapats his advertising to each locality, pushes his products where such products may be soldk and leaves uncultivated the places where no posible market may be made.” In 1928, Edward Bernays, an American nephew to Sigmund Freud, wrote Propaganda, applying Freudian theories to mind control, including advertising and political persuasion. He wrote, “In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if everyone went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soups or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going to the capture our minds in the interest of some policy o commodity or idea.” These two experts, prescient in their examination of human desire for objects, were writing at the beginning of an era of prosperity and at the end of a decade of dizzying possibilities–the Roaring Twenties.
Most middle-class Americans had limited income and purchasing tended to be practical and confined to the domestic sphere. Homes, reflecting the pace and tempo of the Jazz Age, needed to reflect the rapidly changing and modernizing time of intensified technology. As the dream of servants faded, the middle-class homemaker was on her own and, not so coincidently, an entirely new class of appliances and products rose up to tempt her. Electricity made housework more automated and the magic of plugging in an object that would perform–such as a toaster–was potent in the twenties. Most importantly, to induce the buyer to buy, the vacuum cleaner was styled and designed, not for performance but for the look of modernity. Less modern were the long cords that conducted electricity, invented by William Hoskins in 1905, and still used today. Because when homes were updated to electricity no one had imagined the use of outlets, each room had one or two, but lamps and fans and all manner of items needed to be plugged in, albeit from a great distance. In the twenties, the appliances were molded with the techniques perfected in automobile factories. An iron could be shaped the same way a car body was stamped out. To add to the moderne appearance of the household, certain items could be chromed, giving a shiny look to the labor-saving device. Although the chrome (a new technique) would soon wear off, the desire to acquire had been satisfied. Therefore, when the Depression crashed the party of the 1920s, Americans had learned how to want, how to translate want into acquisition, and, in the process, they learned how to become active consumers.
The Depression crushed the economy of the United States and left twenty-five percent of its inhabitants unemployed, destitute, and without any money. But to say that twenty-five percent were unemployed is another way of saying that seventy-five percent were employed and holding down jobs and were potential consumers. Advertising, by the early Thirties, was a well-developed business and, with the Depression gnawing away at the consciousness of the nation, the account managers were cautious. Clearly, there were consumers but it was necessary to be tactful in approach. As Jeffrey Meikle discussed in his book, Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design In America 1925-1939, “Before 1920 most ads simply announced availability of a given product with certain characteristics. After 1920 the industry’s approach shifted to persuasion by appeal to irrational desires..As the major conduit of a consumption mystique derived from a faith in limitless technological possibilities, advertising naturally emphasized modernity, novelty, and change for its own sake..By popularizing startling forms of expression from the esoteric domain of high culture, advertising itself as a visual medium, reinforced a common perception of rapid change. Along with the automobile, labor-saving appliances, radio, movies, and new consumption-oriented styles of dressing and living, advertising both expressed and stimulated mass realization that “the tempo of life is speeded.” Although the foundation for consumerism in the next decade was laid during the Roaring Twenties, the “Dirty Thirties” were a difficult time for advertising. But the nation had been trained to consume and advertisers simply shifted tactics. As William H. Young and Nancy K. Young wrote in The 1930s,“..advertising in the Depression seldom reflects the nation’s problems. Despair and social upheaval are rarely even hinted at in newspaper or magazine spreads.More frequent would be the advertisement that shows the consumer in his or her preferred environment–the man in his office, the woman in her home–an in the presence of the PRODUCT..Despite its refusal to acknowledge the crisis, advertising did change. Ads are more direct–“louder”–than their 1920 counterparts. The hazy view of an optimistic future is replaced with a more hard-edge depiction in of the present, but it is a present without the Depression. Thus many, if not most, of the Depression-era messages remain cherry..they reflect aspirations, not realities..ads focus less on the consumer and more on the product. The thrust of a message might be to buoy up sagging spirits and to bolster confidence about price and value.” The authors note that, despite the best efforts to adjust to changing times, advertising revenues fell during the 1930s. “As income fell off,” they continued, “the nature of the advertisements themselves change. Some agency directors felt that too much detail in an ad was distracting. Bowing to the streamlined ethic of the decade, less becomes more and simplicity is the key to communicating a message..Modernity was also brought forth in a significant number of advertisements. There was a rapid integration of innovative new ideas in technology, design, architecture, and the like into the world of style; the “new” was promptly made chic..”
Art Deco did not arrive in America as an actual style until the late twenties and the early 1930s and it promptly morphed into the Streamline look or Moderne. The Thirties was the decade of the industrial designer, the designer who needed to completely re-invent the environment of the early twentieth century to save it from any lingering elements of the past. The main target was the big cities, especially New York. The Midwest and the south were destroyed by the Depression and, these regions bereft of consumers would be passed by and left alone. Like Art Deco, which was a luxury style in France, the Streamlined look was more famous than expansive and was more local or limited in clientele than its fame would suggest. Like the Art Deco of the movies, the Streamline style was an aspirational design, but unlike the high-end Art Deco products, this style was applied to articles of everyday life. The industrial designers who created modern America were visionaries who were gripped with a futuristic idea of how America, an industrialized nation should look. No one was a more famous or actively imaginative man of the future than Norman Bel Geddes. Geddes, as we shall see, was not alone. As Gabrielle Esperdy wrote in her book, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal, that it is a historical fact that “under the aegis of corporate manufacturers to create demand for consumer goods glutting the marketplace in the wake of a 40 percent decline in consumer spending since 1929. Companies such as General Motors, General Electric, Hoover, and RCA brought in industrial designers like Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes, and Henry Dreyfuss to streamline a wide range of durable goods and household appliances, mainly by changing form or style and not function or technology. Simultaneously, they retained advertising agencies..to promote new cars, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and radios by convincing the public that the appliances they currently owned were obsolete, out of date, and not modern.”
Norman Bel Geddes, Corba Lamp, circa 1930s Wilhelm Wagenfield Lamp (1924)
As a designer, Bel Geddes was post-Bauhaus, post straight line. Resisting the outmoded whiplash of the Art Nouveau natural and organic designs, Streamline design restrained itself as a “drop,” a teardrop or a raindrop or the shape that is aerodynamically efficient. If it is necessary to design a car or a train or an airplane with smooth curved lines that allowed air to stream over its surface, then household appliances needed to look as modern as ready to move as their larger counterparts. The consumers were urged to modernize their homes, not just as the Youngs pointed out, to purchase better technology, but to buy the look of the future. The dark Cobra Lamp of the 1930s made for the Fairies lamp company is utterly unlike the Bauhaus lamps of 1920s. The Wilhelm Wagenfeld lamp of 1924 was a student’s response to an assignment from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to design an “industrial lamp” and was a simple design of two circles: one flat–the base, and one nearly a complete sphere, the shade. The circles were connected by the straight line of the shaft. The bronze Corba lamp, in contrast to the shiny nickel plated and glass clarity of the “Bauhaus lamp,” was dark and sinewy, an arrested movement of a coiled snake. And yet the bronze lamp lacked any naturalism, for the “Cobra” was paused and frozen into a line of arrested motion. On the other hand, the Bel Geddes “Manhattan” cocktail set of 1936 could have been a Bauhaus design. Made of chrome-plated brass and manufactured by Paul Revere’s company, Revere Copper and Brass, the tall “party-sized shaker rises like a simple lean skyscraper above a stepped tray. Surrounded by a set of six chrome goblets, the shaker is topped very simply with a round screw off cap, rather like the thermos a working man would have in his lunch pail.
Cocktail parties were well-established by the Thirties, a post Prohibition custom that celebrated ‘drinking” elaborate concoctions that were shaken, stirred, and shocked into gassy life with seltzer. The prudent homeowner and host had a well-stocked bar that included not just a wide array of alcoholic beverages and mixers and elaborate equipment.
Three years later, Bel Geddes designed the equally restrained Soda King seltzer bottles, another part of a well-appointed cocktail bar. Walter Kidde Sales company introduced this elegant accouterment in 1938 in a chrome body and an enameled metal red top or gasket with a beak left slightly and politely open, like a bird on pause. The Bottle, which came with a book of recipes, is described by the Brooklyn Museum as “Surmounting the top is a triangular hood with a rounded pouring spout, beneath which is a round slotted disc that unscrews to accept a carbon dioxide cartridge.” The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston noted that the “rocket shaped” bottle had a top that came in a number of colors, blue, black, red, cream, and silver.
Ending one decade and beginning another was the design that is probably the best known and best-known of all of his designs, the Patriot radion by Bel Geddes arrived on the market of 1940 in the midst of an impending war, stripped like the American flag. Since his early forays into car design, Bel Geddes had developed a more restrained design aesthetic: the discreetly soaring Manhattan cocktail shaker, referencing the modernity of skyscrapers and the soda bottle, implying the sophistication of the upper classes. But the Patriot radio was all-American, aimed for everyone who loved his or her nation.
The Emerson radio, a model celebrating the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary was made of assembled cast phenolic resin called “Catalin” and could be purchased in black, blue, white or red. The Patriot did not fit in with the sleek sophisticated look of the designer’s products of the Thirties but Bel Geddes captured the straightforward and full-hearted allegiances that preceded the Second World War. The straight lines of the flag were remade into bars covering the speaker and the rectilinear squared-off shape of the small set (10.75″ wide by 7.25″ high by 5.50″ deep) deliberately resembled the American flag. Out of this radio for the next five years would come news of a war forced upon America. But Bel Geddes had one more act–predicting the future and designing the world of tomorrow before the War changed everything. His chance for one more dream would come in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. Stay tuned for the Futurama.