Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World
by Glenn Adamson
The MIT Press
2003, 300 pages, 9.5 x 11 x 0.8 inches
From $10 Buy a copy on Amazon
This excellent book profiles the most famous industrial designer you’ve never heard of: Brooks Stevens. Sure, you know of designer Jonathan Ive and his Apple products, and maybe Raymond Loewy, who slimmed the Coke bottle and decked out Kennedy’s Air Force One, but flipping through this book you’ll instantly recognize Brooks Stevens’ equally famous mid-century creations: that 3M “Mondrian” packaging, The Excalibur custom car, the Miller beer “soft cross” logo, the “boomerang” patterned Formica, and yes, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile!
Stevens grew up in Milwaukee, and his unpretentious Midwestern work ethic and pro-business attitude was clear in all his work and writing. Unlike other designers who indulged in fantastic and lofty, theoretical designs, Stevens applied his styling skills and practical design sensibilities to suit local manufacturers of lawn mowers, outboard motors, cookware, and vehicles, resulting in increased sales and efficient manufacturing (if not design awards).
One of his most famous creations is the phrase “planned obsolescence,” which was widely attacked at the time by Vance Packard in his book The Waste Makers as an example of the manipulation of consumers and crass commercialism. Stevens proudly defended his approach of constant improvements and questioned so-called “good design” as actually elitist, unpractical and most damning of all in his mind, ultimately unprofitable. The debate goes on and you’ll have to come to your own conclusion: are manufacturers’ frequent new product variations kaizen-like progress, or just needless churning of the consumer. (Do you really need that new iPhone 9x?)
As an industrial designer trained in the old-school skills of drawing and rendering, I loved seeing the many samples of marker sketches, gouache renderings and airbrushed presentations drawings. Check out the crazy concept cars and boats – it’s like a trip back in time to a mid-sixties auto show.