Bret H. Smith, IDSA | Auburn University
Pundits offer a number of reasons for our current economic crises. Many point to the greed of Wall Street as the single cause of our market troubles; others point to the housing bubble and sub-prime mortgages as the culprits. While these are certainly significant factors, there are also less talked-about causes: as a nation we have forgotten the tangible value of insightful design and skillful manufacturing; of vision, daring, and showmanship. In short, we have forgotten what those who founded our profession knew. The idea for this paper began with a puzzling question: how could industrial design not only come into being, but thrive during the Great Depression? In 1929 the stock market crashed, banks closed their doors forever, fortunes were lost and unemployment skyrocketed to twenty-five percent. In the midst of this distress, American industry took a chance on a new profession, Industrial Design, and the Industrial Designers delivered. The 1930s saw the birth of a new style, streamlining, brought to life by Industrial Designers like Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, Harold Van Doren, Robert Buddlong, John Vassos, and Peter Muller-Munk. While these names are familiar to us, many are unaware of the thoughts and deeds of these early designers, whose wisdom and resourcefulness not only built a new profession in the midst of the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history, but improved the lives of everyday people. As the first style available to the masses, it inspired them, providing a view of the future--one filled with optimism and excitement. It was the first style widely available to the masses. So what is streamlining? In a book entitled Industrial Design, published in 1940, industrial designer Harold Van Doren quotes the Oxford Dictionary in describing streamlining as “that shape of a solid body which is calculated to meet with the smallest amount of resistance in passing through the atmosphere.” (Van Doren, pp.138-139). He goes on to identify two different types of streamlining: functional streamlining, and borrowed streamlining. Functional streamlining is most often found in transportation design: trains, airplanes, cars, and boats. Borrowed streamlining occurs when the form principles of functional streamlining are applied to slow moving or non-moving objects.