Industrial Design – design for mass production

Industrial design featured image
Industrial design featured image

After 1865, as industrialisation accelerated and consumer products proliferated, producers were forced to concentrate on product appearance. Ordinary people desired comfort, even luxury: patent furniture, opulent home interiors, and eclectic mail-order products. Celluloid and other new products imitated the look of luxury ivory and tortoiseshell. While there was no such thing as an industrial design profession in the late 1800s, architect Frank Lloyd Wright expressed its principles in 1901 by urging artists to abandon craft creation, favouring creating prototypes for factory reproduction.

Struggle for form

After 1900, manufacturers struggled to give shape to electrical appliances, automobiles, and other new technologies. Consumers frequently demanded the future disguised as the past. The “horseless carriage” was only one example of a novelty whose reception was based in part on preconceived notions. Engineers who were developing new products were unsure how to proceed. Art schools taught applied artists how to produce commercial art and decorative furnishings. Still, they didn’t teach them how to use modern technology. To express the Machine Age’s pace, some decorators adopted French “modernistic” styling in the 1920s. Art Deco was popularised in the late 1920s by architects and museum curators.

Response to ‘Great Depression.’

Industrial design arose as a business response to the Great Depression, based on the efficiency expert Frederick W. Taylor’s principles. Commercial artists and stage designers shifted their focus to product design. They used streamlining as a general style for the Machine Age streamlining, inspired by aerodynamics, transformed automobiles, washing machines, and radios. It lubricated the flow of goods to consumers for manufacturers, and it promised a future of material abundance for consumers. 

The designer celebrity

Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, and Walter Dorwin Teague became celebrities as industrial designers. Companies such as General Electric, Sears Roebuck, and others established in-house design departments. Some designers sought to transform society, as at the utopian New York World’s Fair of 1939. Still, Egmont Arens described his profession as “consumer engineering” due to commercial considerations. Designers boosted morale during WWII by visualising postwar products in magazine advertisements: prefabricated housing, bubble-domed automobiles, and push-button telephones. The profession was formalised by the American Designers Institute (1938) and the Society of Industrial Designers (1944), which were later merged to form the Industrial Designers Society of America (1965).

Eames Chair replica
Eames Chair replica

High Modernism

Beginning in the 1930s, art, business, and government all contributed to a period of “high modernism” that lasted until the 1960s. The Museum of Modern Art promoted a series of noncommercial design statements, including abstract “machine art,” warmer “organic design,” and reformist “good design.” 

Bauhaus influences

Refugees from Nazism, such as Lรกszlรณ Moholy-Nagy, brought progressive ideas associated with the Bauhaus, the German design school founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, to America. The Container Corporation of America’s president, Walter Paepcke, was influenced by this climate of opinion when he supported Chicago’s Institute of Design and established the Aspen Design Conference for business leaders and policymakers. Organic furniture was designed for institutional and corporate America by Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames. George Nelson popularised high modernism through the journal Industrial Design and official consumerist celebrations such as the United States pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair (1958) and the Moscow trade fair (1959). (1959).

Eero Saarinen Womb Chair
Eero Saarinen Womb Chair

‘Good design’

“Good design” principles rarely stymied profit-driven corporate marketers, whose approach was exemplified by the chrome-laden chariots produced by the postwar American automotive industry. J. Gordon Lippincott’s Design for Business (1947), abandoning the 1930s idealism, insisted that industrial design existed only to increase a client’s profits. Many well-trained designers graduated from various educational programmes in the 1950s, few became consultants. Most joined in-house design departments, which treated design as cosmetic styling, which quickly became anonymous, dull, and repetitive. Harley Earl’s styling division at General Motors, established in the late 1920s to rationalise planned obsolescence, pioneered flaring tailfins and two-tone paint jobs that influenced gas pumps’ design coffee tables, sectional sofas, and even suburban carports. The “Populuxe” era’s amoeba and boomerang shapes reflected faith in scientific progress and many essentially disposable products.


Reactions to postwar excess, reflecting countercultural disdain for American affluence, frequently targeted industrial design. Design for the Real World (1972) by Victor Papanek dismissed much design as worthless. It urged designers to address the needs of poorer nations, the disabled, and the elderly. Stewart Brand’s series of Whole Earth Catalogs, which began in 1968, promoted decentralised living with limited reliance on technological systems. Such perspectives influenced the subsequent environmentally-conscious “green design” and “eco-design” movementsโ€”a series of costly product-liability lawsuits compelled corporations to adopt design awareness for both safety and profit.

Just as the 1930s depression compelled designers to create a cohesive style for the Machine Age, the 1980s and 1990s global competition pushed designers to shape the information age’s hardware and immaterial software. Quality prophets urged executives to elevate design from its status as a cosmetic afterthought and to broaden the designer’s responsibilities to include corporate strategy. As a result, there was a design revival reminiscent of the 1930s, with its utopianism based on electrons’ flowing streams rather than machines.


Boyer, P. S. (2004). The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford University Press.

“New European Bauhaus” to help Europe move to a circular ….

You may also be interested in

Industrial Design – Magazine 1954 – 2009 – Encyclopedia of Design

Alvin Lustig, Cover for Industrial Design magazine, April 1954, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Tamar Cohen, reproduced courtesy F + W Media, Inc. Founded when the industrial design profession was becoming firmly established in the American manufacturing industry, Industrial Design has long been established as America’s leading magazine for industrial designers.

Steven Brooks American Industrial Designer – Encyclopedia of Design

Brooks Stevens was an American industrial designer. He was born in Wisconsin and was active in Milwaukee. He studied at Cornell University in Utica, New York. In 1933, to overhaul machinery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stevens set up his workshop. In 1936 he designed the first electric clothes drier.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.