Thursday, October 18, 2012

Never Leave Well Enough Alone by Raymond Loewy

[Source] Loewy posing with the Pennsylvania Railroad's GG1

Last year we discovered the industrial designer Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) on a visit to Roanoke, VA.  He more or less invented the profession of "industrial designer" and transformed the 20th century aesthetic.  It is hard to overstate his influence on American culture, from trains, tractors, cars, buses, refrigerators, toasters, Coke bottles, fonts, corporate logos... You can see a long list of products whose look he designed here, and an assemblage of some of his corporate logos here.

I suggested Tim read Loewy's autobiography Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951) to N. for the next installment of their autobiography "curriculum" and they've been enjoying it a lot.  (You can see N.'s brief composition work incorporating Loewy in my recent post about nouns).  Loewy describes a free-wheeling childhood in France (he came to the U.S. after World War I) under the mentorship of two older brothers: 
 "My brothers were watching me closely, and they encouraged me to try new things on my own, to rely completely on myself, and to work hard.  They were a good influence and I owe a great deal to their constructive tutoring.  They had confidence in me and they gave me confidence in myself.  They were appreciative of my efforts and I never felt that I was working in a void.  Georges and Max established the proper climate for their young brother and they never let me down.  I was living in an atmosphere of passionate research, fascinated by anything new, unusual, or merely promising -- whether it was a paradoxical new theory, a different automobile horn, a witty expression of Parisian slang, the mouvement Dada, a new play by Rostand, or a decor by Diaghilev."
In his youth Loewy was already attuned to the ugliness or beauty of objects; for example he designed a prize-winning model airplane (and started a successful company manufacturing them as a 15-year-old) because while he was entranced with flight, he hated the look of the airplanes of his time.  This became his lifelong passion: to make objects look as beautiful and modern as they were in concept.  He had a voracious enthusiasm for the modern world he was entering: 
"The life of a young man around 1905 was an exciting one.  Can you imagine a young boy who in rapid succession sees the birth of the electric light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the cinema, and the radio?  How could a child born in my time wish to become anything but an active participant in one of these new earth-shaking developments? I couldn't see it.  I knew I wouldn't live happy in anything not directly connected with these momentous discoveries."
Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951) by Raymond Loewy
 Even the form of Loewy's autobiography reflects his passion for design, from its elegant cover to his use of myriad fonts and layouts on the chapter title pages to teach mini-lessons about design. 

This book makes a provocative pairing with Frank Lloyd Wright's autobiography and the two narratives have helped expand N.'s appreciation of architecture and design beyond his beloved late Victorian/Queen Anne period.  Yesterday he pointed out that even though he likes our ottoman, Loewy would label it "schmaltz!"  Beyond this, N. is learning lots of cultural history of 20th-century America through Loewy's account of his redesign of iconic products such as the Sears Coldspot refrigerator and the toaster.  His corporate logos lead us to conversation about marketing and commercial culture.  This is such a fun, integrated way to learn history of several different kinds (cultural, business, political) while barely even noticing that's what you are doing. 

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