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Parrish Art Museum celebrates Raymond Loewy

This article originally appeared on Newsday.com on April 1, 2007
By Ariella Budick 

Raymond Loewy lived by the motto, "Never leave well enough alone." The father of industrial design wouldn't tolerate anything bulbous, clumsy or froufrou. He streamlined lipsticks and locomotives, refrigerators and Studebakers, endowing them all with sleek chic. "Loewy has probably affected the daily life of more Americans than any other man of his time," Cosmopolitan magazine crowed in 1950.

Considering his impact, Loewy remains relatively unsung. But a retrospective organized by Glenn Porter of the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del., and opening today at the Parrish Art Museum will allow viewers to reassess the career of this voluptuary Frenchman who revolutionized American industry.

Loewy was 26 when he came to this country in 1919, having served the French military with distinction during World War I. His parents' death in the 1918-19 flu epidemic left him with limited financial resources, so he followed his two brothers to New York. Almost immediately, he began to make a name for himself as a commercial artist. His drawings of sylphlike women in silk gowns lolling beside futuristic automobiles graced the pages of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair and other leading magazines.

All in the timing

Loewy's timing couldn't have been better. The 1920s saw the rise of consumption for its own sake. While the industrial revolution allowed for production on a previously undreamed-of scale, the problem now became how to sustain that titanic production with a concomitant increase in shopping. In a marketplace where many needs had been sated, manufacturers relied first on advertising and then on product design to spark demand. And once the Great Depression hit, the need to ignite consumer desire became increasingly acute.

"In the 12 years between the Wall Street crash and Pearl Harbor, the American imagination ... oscillated between two images, the streamline and the breadline, the former promising relief from the latter," art critic Robert Hughes has written.

Loewy hopped on the consumer express at the outset. Together with a coterie of innovators that included Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss and Donald Desky, he brought industry and fashion closer together by designing things that were meant to seduce before they slid out of style.

In his work for the Pennsylvania Railroad and for Sears, he hid complicated machinery beneath simple sheaths. Toasters, space heaters, gas cookers and electric shavers all boasted fluid lines and rounded silhouettes. He simplified the appearance of the electric locomotive, eliminating tens of thousands of rivets and lowering manufacturing costs.

In the early '30s, he still had to prove that someone with a commercial-art background had what it took to wrangle the beast of industry. He needed, as he said at the time, "to show these men that I was no long-hair artist trying to pretty up a 6,000-hp locomotive, but a realistic designer with practical sense."

Loewy worshiped speed and power, and he enshrined those qualities in everything he touched - even things that didn't move. The same aerodynamic grace he brought to the steam locomotive that was such a hit at the 1939 World's Fair can also be found in his metal desk-mounted pencil-sharpener, which looks like a torpedo.

The image of speed, however stationary, led directly to more buying. When Loewy began working on the Sears Coldspot refrigerator in 1933, it ranked 11th in national sales. By 1938, after he had transformed it into a chrome-trimmed vessel, it had moved into second place behind Frigidaire.

Loewy knew exactly how to calibrate the impact of novelty. He pushed originality, but not so far that it would alienate consumers. He operated on what he called the MAYA principle: "most advanced yet acceptable."

It was a dictum he applied to his own life as well, in the sense that he never sacrificed comfort or luxury on the altar of innovation. If his skills as a designer hadn't been enough to ensure fame, his homes - featured in such publications as Life; House and Garden; Interiors, and the Los Angeles Times, would still have made him a celebrity of the good life. He and his second wife, Viola, lived "to satisfy every appetite," he said. They partied at the Rainbow Room and the St. Regis, dined at Le Pavilion, and hosted lavish dinners.

Motivation in exotic life

"I believed," he wrote, "that driving fast cars, knowing chic, good-looking girls and handsome men, living an exotic life, appreciating wit and way-out things were not only my constant joy, but motivating factors I needed subconsciously or not."

His exotic life featured a farmhouse in Sands Point, apartments in Manhattan and Paris, a villa in St. Tropez and a spectacular glass and steel house in Palm Springs, Calif. And, of course, there were customized yachts, cars and a famously dandified wardrobe.

Loewy did not take comfort, beauty or ease lightly. He deeply believed in the ideology of consumption: that improving Americans' material circumstances was the great purpose of the republic. In this he was in sync with the political mainstream. It's not a coincidence that the famous 1959 showdown between Nixon and Khrushchev was waged in a kitchen, over the latest-model washing machine. The ability to update appliances became a symbol of American moral and ideological superiority.

Loewy was acutely aware that design was a key front in the Cold War. At a talk at the Harvard Business School in the 1950s, he complained that "no one yet has been able to make [democracy's] high spiritual values of freedom, liberty and self-respect a packaged item to be sold to the rest of the world." Design, he thought, might offer an alternative: "The citizens of Lower Slobovia may not give a hoot for freedom of speech, but how they fall for a gleaming Frigidaire, a streamlined bus or a coffee percolator."

Now there was a patriotic American.

Living large in Sands Point

In 1937, Raymond Loewy purchased a historic farmhouse on Sands Point, one of many domiciles he owned around the world. The Sands-Nostrand house, which still stands on a peaceful lane, was built in the 1690s by members of the Sands family - English sheep-raisers who purchased large swaths of land in the vicinity.

When Loewy lived there, he owned three Lincoln Continentals in a rainbow assortment of gold, green and cranberry, and his chauffeur sported color-coordinated uniforms. The post-and-beam house overlooks a marsh and has five bedrooms, four fireplaces and an idiosyncratic passageway that may have served as a secret chamber. Here the Revolutionary-era Sands family reportedly hid their own daughter, along with the family silver, from Hessian soldiers.

We can only imagine how Loewy used the room, but he certainly had more than a few luxuries to keep safe.

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