Loewy Pioneers American Industrial Design Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With his redesign of the Gestetner duplicating machine in 1929, Raymond Fernand Loewy became a pioneer in the new profession of industrial product design in the United States.

Summary of Event

Raymond Fernand Loewy was born in Paris, France, on November 5, 1893, into an economically secure family. From childhood, he was fascinated with train locomotives and automobiles. While still a schoolboy, he invented a prizewinning model airplane powered by an elastic band. He studied engineering and, during World War I, served in the French army, rising from private to captain. In 1919, after finishing his engineering degree, he left France for New York City, where he became a freelance illustrator for fashion magazines and a window designer for stores. [kw]Loewy Pioneers American Industrial Design (1929) [kw]American Industrial Design, Loewy Pioneers (1929) [kw]Industrial Design, Loewy Pioneers American (1929) [kw]Design, Loewy Pioneers American Industrial (1929) Design movements;industrial Industrial design [g]United States;1929: Loewy Pioneers American Industrial Design[07160] [c]Fashion and design;1929: Loewy Pioneers American Industrial Design[07160] [c]Manufacturing and industry;1929: Loewy Pioneers American Industrial Design[07160] Loewy, Raymond Fernand Gestetner, Sigmund Teague, Walter Dorwin Geddes, Norman Bel Dreyfuss, Henry Snaith, William T.

In 1929, Loewy launched his own design firm. His first major commission came from Sigmund Gestetner, the head of a British company that manufactured stencil-duplicating machines. As Loewy later recalled, Gestetner came one day unexpectedly to Loewy’s apartment after having read a promotional card that Loewy had written about how improving product appearance would boost sales. Gestetner reportedly insisted that the redesign of his machine would have to be done in three days, before he returned to England. Loewy agreed to do the job for two thousand dollars if Gestetner liked the result and for five hundred dollars if he did not. Loewy’s solution was brilliant in its simplicity. He covered the machine in clay, shaped the clay into a shell that concealed all the mechanical parts except for the operating controls, and mounted the whole thing on a cabinet-like base to get rid of its protruding legs. Gestetner was so pleased that he kept the Loewy design in production for forty years.

Despite his success with Gestetner, Loewy had a difficult time traveling around the country trying to sell his services to manufacturers during the Great Depression. The turning point came in 1934, when he introduced three landmark designs—the GG-1 diesel locomotive for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Hupmobile for the Hupp Automobile Company, and the remodeled Coldspot refrigerator for Sears, Roebuck and Company. The GG-1 locomotive marked the beginning of a long and productive relationship between Loewy and the Pennsylvania Railroad, including his design of the S-1 steam locomotive (1938) and (with University of Pennsylvania architect Paul Cret) the interior of a train for the Pennsylvania Railroad (1938). The whalelike deck shape of the ferryboat Princess Anne that he designed for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s affiliate, the Virginia Ferry Company, was so admired that commissions from other shipping lines followed. Perhaps most important, the spectacular increase in the sales of the new Coldspot refrigerator convinced American business leaders of the importance of design as a sales tool.

Those successes led to the rapid growth of the firm. By 1938, Loewy had 18 designers working for him; by 1941, he had 56. During the firm’s peak years, from 1947 through the mid-1960’s, it had more than 150 regular employees, with more temporarily added for special projects. When the firm was reorganized in 1944 under the name Raymond Loewy Associates, Raymond Loewy Associates Loewy made five key associates partners with a share in the profits. The business remained wholly owned by Loewy, however, and all the finished designs were signed with his name, regardless of who had done the work.

In its early years, the firm had three divisions—transportation, product design, and packaging. Later, a corporate identity division was added. What became the largest and most profitable division, however, was the firm’s Department of Architecture and Interior Design, established in 1937 under William T. Snaith (and renamed in 1944 the Department of Specialized Architecture) to handle the design and planning of retail stores. Retailing;store design In his autobiography, Loewy recalled that “a whole new world opened up for my design organization the first day we convinced a client that a store was an implement for merchandising and not a building raised around a series of pushcarts.”

The New York World’s Fair New York World’s Fair (1939)[New York Worlds Fair] World’s Fair, New York (1939)[Worlds Fair] that opened in 1939 transformed Loewy from a designer for corporate America into a household name. His commissions for the fair included the design of the House of Jewels, the Railroad Building, and, most important, the focal exhibit for the fair’s “Transportation Zone,” the Chrysler Motors Building. Loewy’s imaginative animated diorama for the Chrysler Motors Building, titled “Rocketport,” depicted the possibilities of space travel and became one of the fair’s most popular attractions.

Other major commissions included Loewy’s 1941 design of a new red-and-white package for Lucky Strike cigarettes, a corporate identity program for the International Harvester Company, and work for the Greyhound Bus Company that culminated in the 1954 creation of the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus. Loewy’s most visible role during the post-World War II years was his work for the Studebaker automobile company. The three Loewy-designed Studebaker cars—the 1947 Champion, the 1953 Starliner, and the 1962 Avanti sports car—were praised at the time, and have been even more admired since, for their innovative, compact lines.


Interest in industrial product design first appeared in Europe, climaxing in the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, yet industrial design emerged as a profession first in the United States because the rise of a consumer culture occurred earlier there than in Europe. The major impetus was the pressure during the 1920’s to mass-market consumer durables such as automobiles, sewing machines, refrigerators, radios, and other electric appliances. At the suggestion of their advertising agencies, manufacturers began to give more attention to the appearance of their products. No single event did more to alert business leaders to the importance of style than Henry Ford’s decision in 1927 to meet the competition from General Motors by replacing the Ford Model T automobile Model T automobile with the new Model A. The Great Depression reinforced the attraction to product design as a merchandising tool.

Loewy became popularly identified as the founder of the new profession of industrial design. That identification was not fully accurate; he had contemporaries who were equally important. The oldest of the group was Walter Dorwin Teague. Born in 1883 in Decatur, Illinois, 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 the Ford Motor Company, Texaco, and Du Pont. Another midwesterner (from small-town Michigan), Norman Bel Geddes—born the same year as Loewy—moved from advertising illustration to theater stage design before going on to industrial design. His 1932 book Horizons Horizons (Geddes) did much to popularize what became known as “streamlining,” and his “Futurama” exhibit for the General Motors Building at the New York World’s Fair pictured a utopian future built around the automobile and the high-speed highway. The fourth of the founders of American industrial design, Henry Dreyfuss, born in New York City in 1904, moved from theatrical design to industrial design in the late 1920’s. His most famous designs were Bell Telephone’s standard desk telephone (1937) and the Grand Central Railroad’s Twentieth-Century Limited train (1938).

Loewy did make a major—perhaps crucial—contribution to the establishment of the new discipline, however. A total of approximately five hundred designers worked for Loewy, many of whom went on to set up their own offices. In 1944, Loewy was one of the organizers of what became the Industrial Designer Society of America. Industrial Designer Society of America In 1946, he was president of the group and was responsible for drawing up a code of professional ethics for its members. Loewy probably did more than any other person to sell industrial design through a genius for self-promotion; he seized every opportunity for media exposure.

Loewy did not share the technocratic utopianism of Teague or Geddes, who envisaged industrial design transforming the world. His major criteria for a successful design were simplicity, convenience, economy, durability, and ease of maintenance and repair. He was, however, as interested in an aesthetically pleasing result as he was with the product’s utilitarian functioning. Once, when asked why he had included a particular detail in one of his designs, he bluntly replied, “Because I liked it that way.” His artistic creed was “Good design keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended.” Most important, he had what one of his partners termed “an unerring vulgar taste”—“vulgar” in the literal sense of appealing to large numbers of people.

In broad terms, Loewy’s work belongs to the style known as “streamlining.” Streamlining Design;streamlining The key to streamlining was the separation of the outer shell of a product from its internal mechanism. That outer shell typically had a smooth and flowing surface with rounded edges. Streamlining owed much to aerodynamics—the science of eliminating the friction of air resistance to a moving vehicle. Aerodynamics researchers had concluded that the teardrop was the ideal shape for a moving vehicle, and industrial designers in the 1930’s extended the teardrop shape from its use in locomotives and automobiles to the design of stationary objects. Psychologists have hypothesized that the popularity of streamlining lay in its appeal to the 1930’s yearning to overcome the frictions of the Great Depression.

In the post-World War II years, Loewy consciously adapted to the “planned obsolescence” Planned obsolescence approach of the corporate world. His most popular designs of the time were conceived with the potential for minor future changes in the basic models. When critics complained about the practice of annual model changes, Loewy replied pragmatically, “There is no curve so beautiful as a rising sales graph.”

Perhaps Loewy’s most important long-term impact on the American environment came from his collaboration with William T. Snaith in transforming retail merchandising. The Loewy-Snaith team was responsible for the first suburban branch store of a major downtown retailer, the Lord & Taylor branch at Manhasset on Long Island, outside New York City, which opened in the spring of 1941. The firm’s 1945 Lucky store in San Leandro, California, became the model for the post-World War II grocery supermarket, and its new building for the Foley Brothers store in Houston, Texas, in 1947 revolutionized conventional department store operations by rearranging selling and stock areas in accord with a profit-per-square-foot calculus.

In 1956, Loewy withdrew from active management of the firm, with Snaith taking over as managing partner and, from 1961, as president of the successor business, Raymond Loewy/William Snaith, Inc. When Loewy died on July 14, 1986, he was the last of the pioneer generation of American industrial designers. Design movements;industrial Industrial design

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bush, Donald J. The Streamlined Decade. New York: George Braziller, 1975. Excellent survey of the application of streamlining during the 1930’s to locomotives, automobiles, ships, airplanes, household appliances, and even buildings. Extensively illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, J. Stewart. American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. Essay on design of the period accompanies 170 photographs of items designed by Loewy, Geddes, and others. Published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loewy, Raymond. Industrial Design. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1979. Includes an introductory chapter, “My Life in Design,” in which Loewy answers questions from an interviewer. The bulk of the volume is a collection of photographs and drawings of designs, with Loewy’s accompanying explanatory commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Never Leave Well Enough Alone. 1951. Reprint. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Autobiography provides one of the fullest accounts of Loewy’s career available. Entertainingly written and highly readable. The 1951 French version appeared, appropriately, under the title La Laideur se vend mal (ugliness sells badly).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meikle, Jeffrey L. Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Excellent account of the formative years in the professionalization of industrial design. Focuses on Loewy, Walter Teague, Norman Bel Geddes, and Henry Dreyfuss and provides illuminating analyses of the concepts and values shaping their work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pulos, Arthur J. The American Design Adventure, 1940-1975. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988. Takes up the history of American industrial design from where Pulos’s 1983 book (cited below) leaves 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 pathbreaking and indispensable survey of American product design from the colonial period through the 1930’s. The last third of the text deals with the 1920’s on, when Loewy played a major role. Includes extensive illustrations and fine bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schönberger, Angela, ed. Raymond Loewy: Pioneer of American Industrial Design. Translated by Ian Robson and Eileen Martin. Munich: Prestel, 1990. This by-product of a major exhibition honoring Loewy includes excellent essays on his work and its place in the history of industrial design. Extensively illustrated. Includes a bibliography listing contemporary commentary on Loewy’s work and relevant secondary works.

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Categories: History