Nearly 40 years after the publication of The Measure of Man, the standard work on human factors in design, the US industrial design profession is still getting the measure of its author Henry Dreyfuss.
As a consultant, Dreyfuss (1904-1972) was responsible for designing some of America’s most recognisable consumer objects this century. Yet on a personal level, he was less showy than many of his contemporaries and, until this summer at least, he remained an enigmatic and relatively unexplored figure.
Now fresh light has been shed on the “man in the brown suit” responsible for the Bell 300 telephone (1937), the Hudson locomotive (1938), the 1943 redesign of Time magazine, the first circular thermostat produced by Honeywell (1953) and the Polaroid automatic land camera (1963), in a major retrospective at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.
The exhibition and accompanying Rizzoli monograph, curated and written by Russell Flinchum, teach us more about a man who – like the French composer Eric Satie – only wore brown suits throughout his entire career. It also gives the background to a seminal industrial design portfolio which included John Deere tractors, Singer sewing machines, and Hoover vacuum cleaners fitted with bumpers and headlights to avoid damaging furniture.
Dreyfuss played a dominant role during what is regarded as the golden age of American consumerism. His company, which still bears his name, pioneered many of the techniques of the industrial design consultancy – from competitive analysis boards to ergonomic studies – that we now take for granted. But just who was Henry Dreyfuss, and why did we take him for granted for so long?
Part of the answer lies in his particularly sober and socially oriented stance on design at a time when America was becoming the very Babylon of capitalism. Dreyfuss invented the term “human factors” to describe the process of “fitting machines to people”; he genuinely believed in designing for people and wrote a book with that title in 1955, a forerunner to the 1960 publication of The Measure of Man.
Dreyfuss is rightly regarded by design historians as one of the “big four” godfathers of US industrial design, alongside Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague and Norman Bel Geddes, under whom he trained initially as a theatre designer. But, although he shared with them a background in stage design, the suave self-confidence of the natural salesman, and a sense of destiny about the future of the industrial designer, Dreyfuss was less interested in being a star and snaring the next big client. He was more interested in solving the problem.
By the Fifties, he was obsessed with what American design really stood for. Thus, he always stood aloof from prevailing fashion, a difficult man to categorise. He was swift to condemn superficial, populist American styling. On one occasion he caricatured his rival Loewy’s famous streamlined pencil sharpener, pointing out the cognitive dissonance created by a streamlined form screwed solidly to a desktop. On another, he sniped at Detroit’s master showman Harley Earl, chief stylist at General Motors: “Detroit’s reliance on the stylist is based on the perverse notion that the best way to care for a sick man is to call in the tailor. Don’t fret about his organic ills, just buy him a new suit.”
But Dreyfuss was equally suspicious of the East Coast design establishment which was Euro-centric and minimalist in its definition of good design. When a delegation from the Museum of Modern Art in New York came to discuss the possibility of a one-man show,
Dreyfuss remarked that the only places he would like to see his products exhibited would be Macy’s or Marshall Fields, and even then, not permanently.
At one Museum of Modern Art show in 1951, a sterling silver jug from Georg Jensen was juxtaposed with a Hoover washing machine designed by Dreyfuss’ office. Both cost $210. The irony was not lost on Dreyfuss. Russell Flinchum comments in his book: “Can formal designs for a wealthy elite legitimately be compared to the machinery for modern living?”
Dreyfuss learnt about design for people early. He was from a poor immigrant background but a talent in art alerted the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which took him into its art high school in the early Twenties and then gave him a scholarship to study theatre design under Bel Geddes. By 1930 Dreyfuss was not just busy in the theatre, designing sets for nine different productions; he was experimenting with industrial design commissions for children’s furniture, glassware and temporary exhibitions.
As a young designer, Dreyfuss was sent to Iowa to discover why a brand new, beautifully decorated RKO movie palace was not drawing the punters while the unventilated fleapit down the road was full to the rafters every night. Dreyfuss lowered the prices, ran triple features and gave away food from the cafeteria but still nobody would come. For three days he stood outside the movie house watching the reactions of people wandering by. Then he removed the expensive deep-pile scarlet carpet from the lobby and replaced it with a simple rubber mat. Immediately, like a miracle, the RKO movie palace was full. The problem, as Dreyfuss rightly identified, was that the good Iowa farming folk didn’t want to mess up that gorgeous carpet with their muddy boots.
It was a lesson Dreyfuss never forgot. Design of machinery and environments to fit people’s real needs became a philosophy that he invested with integrity throughout a career of amazing consistency. Dreyfuss retired in 1969 and three years later, aged 68 and still healthy, he gassed himself in his car in a suicide pact with his wife, Doris Marks, who was suffering from cancer. This troubled end, as Russell Flinchum points out, perhaps muffled the tributes to Henry Dreyfuss. But those at his company today are sure of his contribution to 20th century design.
Jim Ryan, one of the four current partners of Henry Dreyfuss Associates, joined the company in 1966 and immediately worked closely with its founder on the American Airways account. “It was a landmark project. We were designing the interiors for the first Boeing 747s and Henry had a great interest in it,” recalls Ryan. “His outlook was unique. He was not interested in following a particular aesthetic. He wanted to get it right.”
Henry Dreyfuss Associates today has 40 industrial and graphic designers, modelmakers and human factors specialists. It still designs aircraft – the company is working with Galaxy Aerospace – and it is still retained by the agricultural machinery producer John Deere. Polaroid has been joined by Kodak as a client – the company is working on colour strategy for the new APS range. Medical equipment is a key area and a glucose meter for Boehringer Mannheim is another recent project.
In Dreyfuss’ day, the company was based in New York and Pasadena, California. Today it has moved to three new sites: a downtown Manhattan office has been complemented by a New Jersey proto-typing centre for large transport projects and a third studio in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan, to handle the John Deere work as well as the other engineering and automotive related projects.
The company’s extensive archive, with microfilm of virtually every drawing, provided the basis for the Cooper-Hewitt’s research. But isn’t the design legacy of the “man in the brown suit” a heavy burden to bear? Not so, claims
Jim Ryan. “There’s tendency to compare the current practice unfavourably with either hot new studios that are emerging or the great days of the past. But the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition has enabled us to remind people that we are continuing a sound tradition. We are still designing products that have longevity and we’re still winning awards.”
Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit by Russell Flinchum is published by Rizzoli International, price 32.95