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Midcentury modern designers and the ambivalence of corporate gigs

A new exhibition at Stanford juxtaposes iconic work with designers’ fears of selling out

Ettore Sotsass (Italy, b. Austria, 1917–2007) and Perry A. King (England, b. 1938), Valentine Portable Typewriter and case for Olivetti, 1969.
LA County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, Gift of Daniel Ostroff

The corporations of Silicon Valley have built it into a technology epicenter, but for many, success has been attributed to design thinking: Using design as a strategic tool to meet company objectives and improve user experiences. Good design is central to their businesses. But a new exhibit argues that during the middle of the 20th century, when high design and big business were just starting to get along, designers were more than a little reluctant to make the romance last.

“Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, 1950–1975” a new exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, explores the conflicting feelings midcentury modern designers had about working for corporations, at a pivotal time when they were beginning to shape the look and feel of big business in the postwar world. It’s a fascinating examination of creative freedom and financial realities, a showcase that’s both relevant in the age of Apple and revealing about a period when giants such as Ray and Charles Eames and Paul Rand were helping shape corporate identities.

While the midcentury modern aesthetic is seen as a highpoint for corporate design, many of the creators felt more than a little ambivalent about selling out.

Charles and Ray Eames molded Fiberglass chair with table arm, for Herman Miller.
LA County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

“Midcentury modern design is popular at the moment, but there are all kinds of issues surrounding its creation,” says curator Wim de Wit. “During the first 20 to 25 years after the war, there was this underlying feeling coming from designers, that while it was great working for these corporations, and it keeps our offices going, what does it do to us? Are we selling out to commerce? Why is a market director telling me what to do?”

These issues kept creeping up as de Wit was looking through the archives of the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) an annual gathering of corporate and design influencers in Colorado that ran from 1951 to 2004. These gatherings helped set trends and forge relationships that would shape the look and feel of corporate design during the 20th century.

Jacques Nathan poster for the Great Ideas of Western Man program

It begins with the Bauhaus and cardboard boxes

De Wit begins the survey of the evolution of midcentury design with a teapot. A simple industrial item made by German firm AEG, the object signifies how the original, streamlined Bauhaus aesthetic had a significant impact on later design thinking and modern trends. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a Bauhaus designer, would later emigrate to Chicago and set up the New Bauhaus (later the IIT Institute of Design), which would educate and influence many midcentury American designers.

But the real marriage of corporate output and high design, at least in a mass market sense, may have started in earnest with Walter Paepcke, the owner of the Container Corporation of America, who was looking for a way to make his company, which sold cardboard boxes, stand apart. His solution was the Great Ideas of Western Man, a series of striking posters and ads that showcased famous quotes alongside cutting-edge graphics. Papecke’s promotional program, divorced from the product itself and entirely focused on high-end design, was a great success, says de Wit. The example made the corporate titan a huge advocate for the power of design.

“He was a born-again Christian about it,” says de Wit. “If it worked for a cardboard manufacturer, it could work for anybody.”

Buoyed by this idea, Paepcke would found the popular Aspen Conference to share the idea that good design was good for business. Executives were hooked, but designers would be a tougher sell.

Desginer Lester Beall’s style book for Connecticut General Insurance from 1958.
Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester

Softening the face of global giants

One of the central tensions between midcentury modern designers and corporations was the MAYA dilemma, or “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.” A phrase coined by Raymond Loewy, a pioneering 20th century industrial designer, MAYA summed up the difficulty in elevating design while pleasing executives. De Wit showcases this contradiction throughout the exhibit, juxtaposing quotes from designers with examples of their work, such as Eliot Noyes’s Selectric Typewriter for IBM and Lester Beall’s logos for Caterpillar. The sometimes sharp statements give a little bit more edge to the stories behind some of the sleek, streamlined products on display.

A perfect metaphor can be found in proliferation of mammoth corporate campuses during the era, such as Eero Saarinen’s headquarters for John Deere. One of the essays accompanying the exhibit examines the repeated examples of corporate directors who hired prominent architects to design modern office buildings, then asked landscape designers to soften the seemingly stark edges.

“We believed that once all business embraced the notion of design as a function of management, all of us would be employed to produce beautiful products,” reads a quote from Saul Bass, a legendary graphic designer employed by IBM. “But it didn’t turn out the way we thought. Sure enough, Big Business embraced design, and promptly turned it into a commodity.”

Buoyed by postwar prosperity and the country’s dominant place in the world, massive American corporations suddenly had a global marketplace available to them. But they needed to stand out and signify they were modern, sleek, and streamlined, without going too far. Enter the power of design.

“These companies needed to be recognized, but didn’t want to be too risky,” says de Wit. “The companies were as suspicious of the designers as they were of the companies.”

Many of the corporations from this period associated with great design, such as Knoll and Herman Miller, were outliers in terms of the way they worked with designers, giving them a high degree of creative freedom. It was rare for larger firms to follow the lead of a pioneer such as IBM, which hired Eliot Noyes as a design director. Noyes, who told IBM top brass that “ I want to work with you, not for you,” would eventually employ experts from multiple fields—Rand for graphic design, and Saarinen for architecture—to give the computing behemoth a more modern look.

As de Wit writes in the exhibition notes, the compromises made by designers and companies “ensured that Walter P. Paepcke’s idealism about a greater appreciation between designers and business managers never came fully to fruition. Ironically, both needed but never totally trusted each other.”

De Wit feels that fear of selling out, of falling prey to commerce, doesn’t exist today. The entire relationship between business and design is different. But seeing the designers’ sentiments juxtaposed with the end results, after they’re already known as design icons, seems to beg the question of what could have been.

“It’s important that this show is happening in Silicon Valley,” de Wit says. “I hope they come to see the exhibition.”