By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Your browser seems to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser.

Close

Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Close

BOOK

REVIEW

Eliot Noyes By Gordon Bruce.Phaidon, 2006.240pp. £45.00

The story of Utopian Modernism's diversion into an 'American Dream' is the thread that binds a web of connections which has Eliot Noyes at its centre. More successful as biography than a record of work - too much space is given to work other than Noyes' - Gordon Bruce's study can be seen as a revealing document of the 'American Century'.

At just 30, Noyes, a pupil of Walter Gropius at Harvard, was director of industrial design at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). With the support of Edgar Kaufmann Jr, son of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater client, Noyes set out his stall at once with an exhibition of 'Useful Objects of American Design for Under $10'. The role that good design could play in the mass market was encouraged by MoMA.

Then, in a show of competition entries for 'Organic Design in Home Furnishing', the Eames plywood chairs, based on techniques developed by the US Navy, made their first appearance.

A modernised domesticity was developing, but production was delayed until after the war, when Noyes was drafted to the Pentagon. There, as well as meeting Tom Watson Jr - a B-25 pilot who would later become president of IBM - his dealings with the 'top brass' provided sound training in the art of bringing corporate clients round to his point of view.

Soon after the war Noyes was able to build his first house, in the commuter haven of New Canaan, Connecticut, where architects such as Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson joined him. Together they were dubbed the 'Harvard Five'.

Their scattered houses, accessible only by car, may have seemed desirable fragments of a 'Virgilian dream', but as a settlement pattern contributed to the largest energy consumption per capita in the world. For while Noyes was bringing home the Bauhaus, Eisenhower was importing the autobahn.

'Autogeddon', as the poet Heathcote Williams put it, was under way. The electrification of domestic equipment and the idealisation of a woman's place in the home, which created an expanding consumer economy based on being up-to-date, added to this energy debt.

Modern art, meanwhile, had been virulently attacked by sections of Congress and by President Truman himself. It seemed that the administration's attempt to distance itself from Socialist Realism by promoting abstract art had failed but, thanks to covert financing and to MoMA, New York became the capital of the art world.

Besides designing the prototype for General Electric's Wonder Home, Noyes found himself with a new type of client. He said: 'People who build Modern houses, it seems, are likely to be collectors of Modern art.'

Sadly there is little information on these or other architectural projects, while Noyes' own final house, even with its uncomfortable duality, is featured across 10 pages.

The house does, however, photograph beautifully, and with its combination of rough stone wall, plate glass and timber boarding it now seems a perfect example of an allAmerican 1950s style.

The final part of this book looks at the work that Noyes' office undertook for major corporate clients such as IBM, Westinghouse, Mobil and Cummins Engine Co. Noyes' work on the first electric typewriter, which led to the market-dominating Selectric golfball head machine, is perhaps why the book is set in a similar typeface. With Tom Watson Jr as president of IBM, Noyes was made consultant director of design and could commission work from such notable figures as Mies, Breuer, and Paul Rand.

Work on mock-ups for the IBM showrooms must have helped in the set design for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was ripe for product placement. But when IBM management saw that the script called for the computer to turn on the crew, they withdrew.

So the IBM logo took one alphabetical step back and the computer became HAL.

As well as designing buildings for these companies, Noyes was able to commission the large-scale Modern art that they often housed. Here was the vindication of critic Clement Greenberg's rationale for élite patronage, first set out in his famous article, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' (1939).

Noyes died in 1977, his post-Bauhaus modernising saluted by Gropius himself.

The modestly converted hardware store on the corner of Main Street, New Canaan that served as his office and workshop gave no clue to the scale of his importance.

David Wild is an architect in London

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters