Dreyfuss Designs the Bell 300 Telephone Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Henry Dreyfuss’s design for the Bell 300 telephone—which remained the standard desk telephone from its introduction in 1937 until 1950—was a milestone for the developing world of industrial design in the United States.

Summary of Event

Henry Dreyfuss was born on March 2, 1904, in New York City. He graduated from the Ethical Culture Fine Arts High School in 1922. His father and grandfather had been in the theatrical equipment business, supplying costumes and props, and Dreyfuss followed family tradition by becoming an apprentice to stage designer Norman Bel Geddes in the design of the sets for the 1924 Broadway hit The Miracle. Starting in 1923, Dreyfuss worked as a designer for the stage productions of the Strand Theater in New York City. His success at the Strand led to similar work for the nationwide RKO Orpheum chain of vaudeville theaters. “Out of the sheer necessity of producing six new sets weekly for 260 weeks,” he recalled in his Designing for People (1955), Designing for People (Dreyfuss) “came an understanding of what people like.” [kw]Dreyfuss Designs the Bell 300 Telephone (1937) [kw]Bell 300 Telephone, Dreyfuss Designs the (1937) [kw]Telephone, Dreyfuss Designs the Bell 300 (1937) Bell 300 telephone[Bell three hundred] Design movements;industrial Industrial design [g]United States;1937: Dreyfuss Designs the Bell 300 Telephone[09330] [c]Fashion and design;1937: Dreyfuss Designs the Bell 300 Telephone[09330] [c]Science and technology;1937: Dreyfuss Designs the Bell 300 Telephone[09330] Dreyfuss, Henry Dreyfuss, Doris Marks Geddes, Norman Bel Teague, Walter Dorwin Loewy, Raymond Fernand

Dreyfuss was first attracted to industrial design in 1927, when an executive at Macy’s department store asked him to look into the possibility of redesigning the store’s merchandise to boost sales. Dreyfuss turned down the job because he thought that the changes involved would require excessively expensive retooling. He concluded that the way to improve the design of a product was to work directly with the product’s manufacturer before the manufacturer had made a major investment in machinery and materials. “A fundamental premise was involved in my refusal—one from which I have never retreated,” he later explained. “An honest job of design should flow from the inside out, not from the outside in.”

Interest in industrial product design first appeared in Europe, climaxing in a 1925 Paris exhibition of designs and decorative arts. Industrial design, however, emerged as a profession first in the United States, where the rise of a consumer culture occurred earlier than in Europe. In the 1920’s, demand for mass-market consumer items such as automobiles, sewing machines, refrigerators, radios, and other electric appliances increased enormously, and at the suggestion of their advertising agencies, manufacturers began to give more attention to the appearance of their products. Henry Ford’s decision to meet increasing competition by replacing the Model T automobile with the new Model A in 1927 gave other businessmen a high-profile demonstration of the importance of style to sales. The Great Depression further pushed manufacturers into searching for ways to boost sales by making products more attractive and efficient.

The leading philosopher of the emergent profession of industrial design was Dreyfuss’s mentor in stage design, Norman Bel Geddes. Geddes’s 1932 book Horizons Horizons (Geddes) did much to popularize what became the dominant American style of the 1930’s, streamlining, Streamlining Design;streamlining which emphasized the separation of the outer shell of a product from its internal mechanism. The outer shell typically had a smooth and flowing surface with rounded edges. Streamlining was strongly influenced by research in aerodynamics—the techniques for eliminating the friction of wind resistance to a moving vehicle. Researchers had concluded that the teardrop was the aerodynamically most efficient shape for a moving vehicle. Industrial designers in the 1930’s extended the teardrop shape from its use in locomotives and automobiles and began to apply it to stationary objects.

Geddes was a technocratic utopian who envisaged industrial design transforming the world. A similar vision animated Walter Dorwin Teague. Teague had a successful career as an advertising illustrator before he began his second career as an industrial designer by creating (around 1930) several cameras for Eastman Kodak. He would count among his clients such other corporate giants as Ford, Texaco, and Du Pont. Teague and Dreyfuss took the initiative in promoting organization of a professional association for industrial designers; they in turn brought in Raymond Fernand Loewy to constitute the founding triumvirate responsible for the establishment in 1944 of the Society of Industrial Designers. Society of Industrial Designers

Loewy came to personify for the lay public the new profession. Loewy—who had been born in Paris in 1893—launched his own independent design firm in New York City the same year that Dreyfuss opened his office. He would go on to become a household name with such designs as the Gestetner stencil duplicating machine (1929), the remodeled Coldspot refrigerator for Sears, Roebuck (1934), the interior of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited train (1938), the Chrysler Motors Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the red-and-white package for Lucky Strike cigarettes (1941), the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus (1954), and the Studebaker Champion (1947), Starliner (1953), and Avanti (1962) automobiles.

Model 302 in the Bell Telephone 300 series, designed by Henry Dreyfuss.

In April, 1929, Dreyfuss opened his own independent design office on New York’s Fifth Avenue. One of his first employees was Doris Marks, whom he married in 1930. After their marriage, she remained active in the firm as business manager. During the firm’s early years, when clients were few, Dreyfuss kept afloat financially by designing the sets for such Broadway shows as The Last Mile (1930) and The Cat and the Fiddle (1931). Gradually, however, he built a following among manufacturers. One of his first commissions was his redesigned mason jar, which occupied less space; Dreyfuss achieved the goal by making the jar square with a rounded top. His Toperator washing machine for Sears, Roebuck in 1933 was a runaway sales success. So was his design in 1934 of a refrigerator for General Electric that had its motor unit at the bottom, enclosed in an easy-to-clean cabinet, instead of at the top. Starting in 1930, he worked as a consultant for the Bell Telephone Laboratories to design an improved desk telephone. The result of his collaboration with the Bell engineers, the 300 model—introduced in 1937—confirmed his reputation as a leader in the new field of industrial design. The 300 model remained the standard desk telephone until 1950, when it was replaced by another Dreyfuss model.

Other Dreyfuss designs included the Big Ben and Baby Ben alarm clocks for Westclox, a vacuum cleaner for Hoover, the Eversharp pen, a Royal typewriter, gas stations for Cities Service, bathroom fixtures for Crane, and farm equipment for John Deere. His influence was strongly felt in magazine publishing via his design of the formats for McCall’s, Time, and Reader’s Digest magazines. His scale model of the “city of tomorrow” for the interior of the Perisphere at the 1939 New York World’s Fair did much to bring his name to popular attention.

Dreyfuss’s most publicly visible contributions were in the transportation sphere. The two trains that he planned for the New York Central Railroad—the Mercury (1936) and the even more famous Twentieth Century Limited (1938)—set a new standard for luxurious rail travel. He designed the interiors of the American Export Lines ships SS Independence and SS Constitution, along with those of many airplanes. He was proudest, however, of the prosthetic devices he invented for the victims of limb loss during World War II.

By the 1950’s, his firm had grown to include two offices (in New York City and South Pasadena, California) headed by six partners, with a staff of fifty specialists and office personnel. Dreyfuss himself divided his time between the two offices. His approach to design called for detailed knowledge of all aspects of the manufacturing and selling of the product. Accordingly, he placed heavy emphasis on research and teamwork in the design process, and he limited his clients to approximately fifteen at a time.


Dreyfuss lacked the personal flamboyance and flair for self-publicity exhibited by his colleague Raymond Loewy. Dreyfuss’s tastes were more plain: Brown was his favorite color, not only for his suits but also for his office decor. However, he shared Loewy’s pragmatism. He saw increasing sales for the client as the industrial designer’s primary responsibility. He applied to design problems a five-point yardstick: utility and safety, ease of maintenance, cost, sales appeal, and appearance. Although many of his designs reflected the dominant streamline model, he was no rigid devotee of that style. The keystone of his design credo was the maxim that “the most efficient machine is the one that is built around a person.”

Dreyfuss’s goal was thus to achieve maximum simplicity in fitting a product’s form to its function. He was wary about moving too far ahead of popular taste. The industrial designer, Dreyfuss commented in Designing for People, “is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste. . . . He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as a liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Dreyfuss was elected president of the Society of Industrial Designers in 1947. He was a consultant in industrial design at the California Institute of Technology and lectured in engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles. He had privately printed a pictorial record of his designs: Ten Years of Industrial Design: Henry Dreyfuss, 1929-1939 (1939); A Record of Industrial Designs, 1929 Through 1947 (1947); Industrial Design: A Progress Report, 1929-1952 (1952); and Industrial Design: A Pictorial Accounting, 1929-1957 (1957). His Designing for People combined autobiographical reminiscences with a summation of his design philosophy. He presented the data he had accumulated about the physical dimensions of the “average” American in The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design (1960). Bell 300 telephone[Bell three hundred] Design movements;industrial Industrial design

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bush, Donald J. The Streamlined Decade. New York: George Braziller, 1975. An excellent survey, with accompanying extensive illustrations, of the application of streamlining to locomotives, automobiles, ships, airplanes, industrial products, and even buildings during the 1930’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dreyfuss, Henry. Designing for People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955. A handsome volume, all aspects of which (jacket, binding, typography, and page layout) were designed by Dreyfuss himself. The text combines autobiographical reminiscences with a summation of Dreyfuss’s design philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1960. A portfolio containing charts summarizing the data that Dreyfuss compiled on the physical dimensions of the “average” American for the guidance of industrial designers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flinchum, Russell. Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit. New York: Rizzoli, 1997. Offers clear and concise discussion of Dreyfuss’s work. Includes more than two hundred carefully chosen images.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gorman, Carma, ed. The Industrial Design Reader. New York: Allworth Press, 2003. Valuable for its inclusion of dozens of primary-source critiques on individual works rather than just their photos. Features not only essays by the artists but also essays by advertisers, industrialists, academics, and politicians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meikle, Jeffrey L. Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979. A detailed and thoroughly researched account of the formative years of the industrial design profession in the United States. Focuses on the so-called big four of Geddes, Loewy, Teague, and Dreyfuss. Illuminates the assumptions, concepts, and visions influencing, and underlying, their design work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pulos, Arthur J. The American Design Adventure, 1940-1975. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988. Pulos carries on his history of American industrial design from where his first volume left off, with the same first-rate results.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. American Design Ethic: A History of Industrial Design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983. A pioneering survey of American product design from the colonial period to the 1940’s. Approximately the last third of the volume is devoted to the post-1920’s period, when industrial design began to emerge as a recognized profession. Lavishly illustrated; includes an extensive bibliography.

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