The Milwaukee Magician (Part One)

Remembering the life and work of Brooks Stevens.

Image: mam.org

In the pantheon of industrial and automotive design and styling, he sometimes gets lost in the shuffle at roll call; Pininfarina, Loewy, Eames, Bertoni, Buehrig, Giugiaro, Earl, Lyons, Rams, Opron and Bertone are all present, and deservedly so. There is, however, one gentleman; tall, suave, impeccably dressed and exuding an effortless sense of good taste, that many people may have more trouble putting a name to.

This is somewhat surprising when one realises that this man not only designed important vehicles for several automakers, but also counted Harley-Davidson, Evinrude, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad and a wide range of home appliance manufacturers amongst his clients. Moreover, he designed the first true SUV, was one of the founders of the Society of Industrial Designers, created with the famous Oscar Mayer ‘Weinermobile’ as well as the oval-mouthed peanut butter jar (to allow easier access to the bottom) and coined the infamous phrase ‘planned obsolescence’.

At any time between the mid-1940s and 1990s, one could walk into an American car showroom and purchase a vehicle in whose styling this man had a hand. In this series, we trace the history and evaluate a selection of the many designs of Brooks Stevens.

Clifford Brooks Stevens was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 7th June, 1911. His father, William Stevens, was the executive vice president and director of design and development for the Cutler-Hammer Company, a large machine-tool manufacturer. The senior Stevens had also patented a design for a pre-selector gearbox in 1916. Obviously born into an affluent family with a penchant for design and technology, fate dealt the young boy a cruel blow at the age of eight when he was struck down with polio: the right-side of his body was especially affected and Stevens would walk with a pronounced limp from then on.

Undeterred, Stevens’ father stimulated his son’s mind and body by encouraging him to sketch and build countless model airplanes and boats. He also challenged his son to swim a mile in a pool, with a new Ford Model T as his reward if he succeeded. “They must have hauled me out hundreds of times short of that mark.” Stevens later recalled. “But I finally got that car. My father knew how to motivate me.” William Stevens also took his son to several car shows around the country and he also had plenty of opportunity to inspect every inch of the Marmons and Pierce-Arrows that served as the family transport, then try them out for himself as he became a little older.

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Notwithstanding this interest, Stevens did not at first venture into the automotive field, but enrolled in architecture studies at Cornell University in 1929. He soon discovered, however, that this was not his calling. His professor agreed, telling him that he might make a good architect if he invested as much effort on the building as he did in drawing the cars parked in front of it. Stevens left Cornell University in 1933 without a diploma, returned to Milwaukee and found employment as a manager at Jewett and Sherman, a grocery supplies firm.

Bored at his job, Stevens found an outlet for his creative urges by persuading the director of the company to let him redesign the product labels. Soon afterwards, he also restyled the company logo of Cutler-Hammer. These first tentative steps into industrial design set Stevens on a course from which he would never again deviate.

Stevens opened his first design office, Brooks Stevens Industrial Design, in 1935. Four years later, he had a staff of five and thirty-three accounts on his books, growing to over fifty just a year later. Alongside contemporaries such as Loewy, Dorwin Teague and Bel Geddes, the young Milwaukee designer was part of a new generation who understood that an unattractive looking product, however perfectly it functioned, would have great trouble finding acceptance by an increasingly style-conscious buying public. For these new consumers, ease of use did not have to mean a less than pleasing appearance.

Illustrative is a conversation Stevens recalled with a manufacturer of electric appliances just before the Second World War. The company had developed an electric spinning clothes dryer; certainly a good idea, but the initial machine looked very industrial. “You can’t sell this thing,” Stevens told the manufacturer. “This is a sheet-metal box. People won’t even know what it is. Who’s going to pay $375 for what looks like a storage cabinet? Put a glass window on the door, get some boxer shorts flying around in there, put it in the stores and it’ll take off.”

The first product styled by Brooks Stevens that is known to have become commercially successful was the ‘Steam-O-Matic’ electric iron of 1940. It was the first steam iron that displayed smoothly rounded, polished lines and avoided looking like an intimidating mechanical contraption, at least as much as was possible with the then current technology.

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In the domestic automotive industry, General Motors was the first to appreciate and act upon the fact that the major perceived differences between, for example, Chevrolet, Ford, Nash and Dodge sedans lay in aesthetics, hence the establishment of Art and Colour under Harley Earl in 1927. GM realised that consumers will buy a product more readily if its appearance appeals to them. Conversely, choose the wrong aesthetic and you may alienate your customers, as Chrysler found out to its cost with its 1934 Airflow model.

Stevens married Alice Kopmeier in 1937 and the newlywed couple built a very modern house of their own design in Fox Point, a few miles north of Milwaukee. Brooks and his wife would live there for over fifty years and raise four children. The house still exists today and is among Milwaukee’s finest examples of domestic modern architecture.

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With the second world war still raging, Brooks Stevens founded the Society of Industrial Designers (SID) in 1944, together with Raymond Loewy and eight other industrial designers. Stevens attracted some controversy in 1954 when he delivered a speech at an advertising company congress in Minneapolis: he chose ‘Planned Obsolescence’ as the title and subject for his speech. His definition of the concept, “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary” was perceived as characterising design as simply a marketing ploy and was not received well by some within the industry. Be that as it may, there certainly was and remains a significant element of truth to the assertion and, as they say, sometimes the truth hurts.

Until well into the 1970s, Brooks Stevens Design would continue to flourish while several of its competitors faltered. Part of the reason for this lies in the broad diversity of products his company designed, including outboard marine engines, radios, cars, houses, hotels, tractors, trains, suitcases, aircraft interiors, kitchens, offices, lawnmowers, company logos, motorcycles and tape dispensers to name just some. By the time Brooks Stevens retired and handed over the reins to his son, Kip, he had helped shape around 3,000 products for close to 600 clients. “Would I change anything now that I did in the past?” Stevens said in an interview later in life: “Hell yes! Everything! Because it’s all outmoded.”

 

Brooks Stevens passed away on 4th January 1995, the last surviving founder member of the Society of Industrial Designers, but his legacy lives on. In further instalments, we will examine a selection of Stevens’ work, a small preview of which is shown above. This being DTW, the main focus will, of course, be on his work for the automotive industry.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

10 thoughts on “The Milwaukee Magician (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. This will be a good series. Brooks Stevens did a lot things, not all of them to my taste, like the Excalibur or Gaylord. I am sure planned obsolescence helped to sell more products, but I wonder if this is a good thing, with so many junk product these days. I like quality items that last me a long time.

    His house is very interesting (I have studied architecture) and I will have a look at it later on.

    1. Good morning Freerk. The commercial rationale for ‘planned obsolescence’ was obvious, but it was a cynical and manipulative strategy that instilled dissatisfaction and anxiety in customers by making the product they purchased prematurely out of date. It led to the excessive and uncontrolled consumption that is at the root of many of our problems today

      In similar vein, I’m not sure when it first emerged, but I’ve always found the word ‘consumer’ a pretty distasteful label, reducing us all to cogs in the vast economic machine.

      That said, Brooks Stevens was an extraordinary talented and prolific designer and this series is a cracker!

    2. Thank you for adding the link to the video documentary about the house- very interesting. I can imagine how it must have stood out in between the traditional mansions of the neighborhood!

  2. It’s good to read something about Brooks Stevens, one of the most prolific industrial designers that dared to design automobiles – like Raymond Loewy and my personal favourite, Sixten Sason.

    I see a nod to the Willys Itamaraty here. When I lived in Brazil, it was one of my restomodding dreams…

    1. I’m looking forward very much to the articles – thank you, Bruno. I like the Itamaraty – I came across it first on DTW. It has a similar aura to a Rover P5B saloon – an older design that has matured and looks powerful, yet dignified. I also like the way the Itamaraty resembles several other vehicles, somehow.

  3. “Planned obsolescence “… When trying to get admitted to the design academy in Eindhoven in 1989, ouch…) i got into a frantic discussion about this very concept, which i defined as a problem in view of sustainability. This clearly was against the opinion of the admission committee, and obviously so 😉 Thanks for putting the words to the concept, Bruno!
    By the way, wasn’t Harvey Earl a master of applying this concept?

  4. I spotted an SJ Grand Wagoneer today in dark blue complete with faux wood panelling. I can’t help but wonder if Brooks Stevens would have envisioned the early Wagoneer turn into the more luxurious later versions.

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