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What Is "Industrial Design"?

This is a question my dad, Read Viemeister, and his teachers at Pratt, Rowena Reed, Donald Dohner, and Gordon Lippincott, were trying to answer way back in the 1940s!

Interiors In the spring of 1943 Donald Dohner, chair of the industrial design department at Pratt Institute, proposed to Charlie Whitney of Whitney Publications that he add an industrial design section in his magazine Interiors. Dohner asked his student, Budd Steinhilber to design the first cover of Interiors premiering the new Industrial Design section. Budd used a photograph of his brother Norman playing the role of a designer with T-square and triangle. Almost every issue after that Dohner contributed a section on industrial design and the illustrations were invariable either by my dad or Budd, since, according to Dohner, "they were by far the best renderers in the class--they could make a drawing that just sang."

After Donher died, Whitney asked Gordon Lippincott if he'd like to be the industrial design editor of Interiors magazine. The industrial design supplement touted the new profession and discussed issues facing the nation after the end of the war: How could the new military inventions be transformed for civilian use? How can designers lead consumer demand? And, "What is Industrial Design?" Each issue focused on a different material: steel, rubber, plastic, etc. At his company, Lippincott and Margulies, corporate identity leadership was based on marketing the value of the new industrial design profession to the public using their first hires: Read and Budd.

Industrial Design

In 1947, when Whitney decided to drop the I.D. section, my dad and Budd convinced Whitney to copyright the name "Industrial Design." Smart idea, since in 1954 it was reborn as I.D. Magazine. Dad had a complete collection of every issue of I.D. and was a friend of all the editors, including the first "official" editor Jane Thompson. Writer Ralph Caplan was one of the distinguished editors in the '60s: he was also on the board of the International Design Conference at Aspen, worked for Herman Miller, and in 1982 he wrote the book, By Design; Why There are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and other Object Lessons. George Finley edited it during the '70s.

By 1978, I.D. had made its way from a section inside Interiors to a stand-alone publication published by the Billboard Group but they still promoted it like a trade journal. Since the audience of product designers was limited to about 5,000 in America, the strategy was rather weak. Along came Jim Fulton to the rescue. Jim was a graduate of Pratt and the last partner of Raymond Loewy's company before it closed. He carried on a successful practice in the deco McGraw Hill building on 42nd Street. He was a sailor and a member of the New York Yacht Club (then home of the Americas Cup) and was a trustee of Pratt. He rounded up a few designers to help buy I.D., including my dad. He wanted to spread the responsibility and the cost of ownership. In 1979 he hired Randy McAusland to take over as publisher and he hired a young, smart, Brown alumnus named Steven Holt as editor. Steven and I became friends--we worked on some design projects like the famous "Pool Chair with Wave Seat."

As furniture movements like Memphis and more scientific processes and theories were changing the industrial design world, the team tried to build a broader base that included more international reports and pieces on critical theory. They put out the word that I.D. stood for "International Design." Steven left to reorganize the product design department of the Parsons School of Design with Constantin Boym and when Annetta Hanna took over after Steven, the magazine was still teetered on the edge of economic realities. Once again, a hero emerged from the industrial design field when the Cogan family, owners of the Knoll furniture company, offered to buy the magazine from Jim and his group in 1992. They felt that the Cogans might be valuable friends who could invigorate the periodical--they also owned Art & Auction. Chee Pearlman, who was hired years earlier by Steven, became the editor. I.D's redesign by Bruce Mau
helped her win five National Magazine Awards. 

A New Era of Design

While Wired was transforming the digital world, I.D's redesign was beginning to reach a broader audience, too. But when the Cogans eventually sold the magazine to Farmers & Writers Publications--what a combination!--they moved the staff out to their headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, draining its edge. Finally they allowed it to move back to New York and hired a cool young staff which made a comeback under the editorship of Julie Lasky. It was the combination of digital media's economic advantage and the impending economic crisis that helped F&W decide to pull I.D.'s plug.

I.D. is like the industrial design profession: Misnamed and under-valued. But both were trying to make the world better by focusing on the usefulness of real stuff. I don't know what return my dad got for his investment--other than the set of bound editions--but his reward was supporting a platform for explaining to a new audience what industrial design is! The profession evolved dramatically over those 70 years and I.D. was there to chronicle and criticize. Maybe now I.D. could stand for "interdisciplinary," because the world could use a multidisciplinary voice to help us in the even more dramatic future!

Read Tucker Viemeister's blog What's Cookin'?
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Tucker Viemeister leads the Lab at Rockwell Group, an interactive technology design group combining digital interaction design, modeling, and prototyping for hotels and restaurants, casinos, packaging, and products. The LAB seeks to blur the line between the physical and virtual, exploring and experimenting with interactive digital technology in objects, environments, and stories. Tucker also co-founded the collaborative Studio Red with David Rockwell that was dedicated to innovation for Coca-Cola. Since joining Rockwell Group in 2004, Tucker has been instrumental in the design and development of JetBlue's Marketplace at the JFK International Airport, "Hall of Fragments," an installation that opened the Corderie dell'Arsenale at the 2008 Venice Biennale, a "living wall" for the lobby of the Sheraton Toronto, the traveling Red Lounge for Coca-Cola, and CityCenter in Las Vegas.

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2 Comments

  • Richard Karsten

    We've all been inspired by the heyday of industrial design in simpler times. Sometimes I wonder if there are any visionaries left to define the role of industrial design moving into the next 70 years. Are there great examples of industrial design's impact from the last 10 years that will resonate with the 20 somethings who are entering the arena?
    Btw, the spam deal on Nike Shox is a great buy!