This article originally appeared in The New York Times
By Benjamin Genocchio
“Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture” at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton is a beguiling, if oddly insubstantial, retrospective. The French-born industrial designer it celebrates is hardly remembered today, but he literally changed the look and feel of modern American life, reshaping mass-produced objects to make them look more attractive and thus sell better. Among his clients were Coca-Cola, Nabisco and Studebaker; he even revamped the exterior design of Air Force One for President John F. Kennedy with graphics and a color scheme that are still used today.
Loewy (1893-1986) arrived in the United States from France in 1919 with only $40 in his pocket. His parents had died in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918-19, and he came to live with his brother in New York City. He worked for a decade as a commercial illustrator before combining his artistic skills with an interest in engineering to promote himself as an industrial designer. By the mid-1940s he headed the largest industrial design business in the country, and in 1949 he became the first industrial designer to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
Loewy (pronounced LO-ee) was the leading figure of what is often termed “streamlining,” the most influential and popular industrial style from the 1930s through the 1950s. The word streamlining, taken from engineering, is commonly defined as “the contouring of a body to reduce its resistance to motion through a fluid.” In the context of the design of everyday consumer objects, it meant making them attractive, comfortable and convenient to use. As consumerism took off in the 1950s, Loewy set about redesigning practically everything in modern American life.
The list of Loewy’s clients and design creations is astonishing; I would go so far as to say that anyone who lived in America from the 1940s to the 1970s at one time or another owned or used a product designed by him. He streamlined Greyhound buses and Coca-Cola bottles and designed both companies’ logos. He designed the Lucky Strike cigarette pack, Studebaker cars and the logos for Shell Oil, Nabisco and Exxon, all of which are in use today. He designed ferries, ocean liners and airplanes. He even streamlined the modern locomotive.
Though Loewy is an acknowledged legend of industrial design, and helped shape today’s pervasive consumer culture with its endless novelty of new-looking — but substantially similar — goods and services, the show feels short on objects. There are a few cases of everyday household items that he designed or streamlined (toasters, blenders, clocks, flatware and other gadgets) but many displays are of packaging or framed newspaper articles showing his interior designs for department stores, shopping centers, private homes and supermarkets.
How much you get from these displays depends on your patience and level of interest in product packaging. Loewy’s long association with Nabisco included work on not only its trademark logo but also on many product packages, including Ritz crackers. It is interesting to know that he designed these packages, but ultimately they are not terribly exciting to view.
Almost no aspect of the kitchen, dining room or home escaped Loewy’s attention. He designed cabinets, cupboards, sinks, faucets and a range of refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, chairs and credenzas. He also designed color schemes and patterns for the Formica Corporation, whose laminates covered many of the surfaces in postwar homes.
Some of Loewy’s most admired designs were for the German-based china and porcelain producer Rosenthal. In the early 1950s the firm’s young leader, Philip Rosenthal Jr., eager to break into the United States market, turned to Loewy for inspiration. Some of the china lines Loewy created were so popular that they remained in production until the end of the 1970s.
Loewy’s designs ranged far and wide in the following years, as several newspaper articles in the latter part of the exhibition show. But it is the presence of two automobiles in the final gallery that really catches your eye. The cars are a two-toned blue 1954 Studebaker Regal Champion and a red 1964 Studebaker Avanti R1, each designed by Loewy. They both have slick wraparound back windows, achieving a panoramic effect. Sleek and elegantly designed, they stand out for their futuristic look. Loewy may not have been an engineer, but he knew how to create a great package.
“Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture,” Parrish Art Museum, 25 Job’s Lane, Southampton; (631) 283-2118 or www.parrishart.org. Through May 27.