Going to plan
Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World By Glenn Adamson. MIT Press, 2003. 219pp. £29.95
While Brooks Stevens is not exactly a household name in Britain, even in design circles, he was a young contemporary of the founding fathers of American industrial design: Walter Dorwin Teague, Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy and Harley Earl. But where these pioneers represented the last generation of the 19th century, men who opened their first office in the 1920s and enjoyed their greatest success in the 1930s, Stevens followed 10 years later, only taking up industrial design after three years of architecture at Cornell (where he did not graduate).
Later he was to further separate himself from his forebears by remaining a Midwesterner all his life. His glory years were the 1940s and '50s, when he rode the great wave of American industrial supremacy that followed the New Deal and victory in the Second World War.
As a designer, Stevens was idiosyncratic, client-centred and omnivorous. His first design success was a wide-neck peanut butter jar dating from 1934, but his most important commission was the much-coveted opportunity to design the 1946 'Victory Car' - the Jeep Station Wagon which, in the guise of the Jeep Cherokee, is still around in an evolved form over 50 years later.
Between and after these career milestones, Stevens also enjoyed a steady flow of work and fun from his own 'Excalibur' custom car company - which he jokingly called 'the sixth largest car manufacturing company in America, because there is no seventh'. Besotted with automobiles of all kinds, Stevens designed a mobile hot-dog-shaped advertising vehicle for the Oscar Mayer Company, and in 1940 a streamlined 'research vehicle' for the Johnson Wax Company (often photographed next to its new Frank Lloyd Wright building in Wisconsin).
More mundanely, but with equal success, he redesigned the Allis-Chalmers tractor;
restyled the Olympian Hiawatha express train;
designed an entire range of outboard motors and speed boats for Evinrude; styled sundry luxury refrigerators and electric clothes driers for the Hamilton Company;
and did rotary lawn mowers, containers, packaging and white goods without limit. He also made occasional attempts to return to architecture, beginning with his own eclectic Brooks Stevens Residence in Milwaukee and ending with a number of hotel projects dating from the 1970s.
All of this work is thoroughly illustrated, dated, web-referenced, footnoted and described in this book to an extent that speaks not only of a lifelong archive, but a level of scholarship and editorial skill rare in design books from any source.
Most unexpected of all, in a Festschrift book of this type, is the even-handed treatment of Stevens' not always popular involvement in controversies of his day, and the extent to which he was prepared to adopt unpopular views. An early example of this was his (correct) opinion that there would be no utopian eruption of revolutionary flying cars or private helicopters in the United States after the war - these and other fanciful devices being a mainstay of 'after the war' advertising during the conflict.
Stevens' later defence of his 1954 concept of 'planned obsolescence' enraged much of the profession. Undeterred, he turned the concept into a definition of industrial design, calling it 'a means to instil in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary'.
By 1960 even this version had been simplified, with Stevens saying: 'Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence, and anyone who can read without moving his lips should know it by now.' 'Planned obsolescence' remains Stevens' lasting contribution to design theory.