Although European artists initially struggled to balance industrial designs against the craft movement, machine art thrived in the United States from the start because it capitalized on a defining American characteristic: modernity, at least in the sense of forward movement and technological achievement. Lacking an ancient or classic cultural tradition, America relied on its strongest asset, progress, especially technological progress, to make a mark on the world cultural stage. During the industrial revolution, manufacturers allowed the machine to dictate design, producing unappealing, albeit highly useful, products. Soon after, Victorians employed machines to mimic excessively decorative hand-made products. However, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, artists who recognized the potential of the machine to create attractive consumables began infiltrating the ranks of manufacturing companies and designing machine made products with a beauty and eloquence all their own. The emerging machine art replaced unnecessary embellishment with streamlined utility and held fast to the belief that form followed function. By the 1920s, this band of designers altered the meaning of American progress, so that the end was no longer the machine but the beautiful machine. Compare, for example, the 1891 cast-iron stove created by the Portsmouth Stove and Range Company with Norman Bel Geddes' 1932 gas cooker designed for the Standard Gas Corporation. The latter incorporated "the absence of projections or dirt-catching corners; the broiler elevated to a stoopless position; Bakelite hardware; enclosed cooking top" (Geddes, 11).

As early as 1929 advertiser Ernest Elmo Calkins, who strongly argued for the use of modern art in advertising and marketing, wrote: "In applying art to machines [Americans] are on our own ground. Machines are native with us, and the effort to beautify them has created a new field of artistic endeavor, as witness the skyscraper, the motor car, the phonograph, and the radio" (251). And a number of top designers evidence Calkins' point.

By August 1931, Henry Dreyfuss, originally a stage designer, was working as a consultant to Bell Telephone Laboratories. He had already designed a fountain pen that had "a distinctive outline and rest[ed] easily in the hand" and a shaving brush that "changes the usual proportions of the bristles and handle and provides a firmer grip by making indentations for the fingertips at the proper place" (Gilbert Seldes 22-23). In 1930, Bell sponsored a design contest for the look of the future telephone. Although he was one of ten designers invited to compete for the $1000 prize, he refused, "insisting on the necessity of working with Bell's engineers and designing 'from the inside out' " (Heskett 108). The company disagreed--until none of the submissions proved appropriate. Then Dreyfuss was called in and allowed to work as he pleased.

Similarly, in 1927, Eastman Kodak hired graphic artist Walter Darwin Teague to redesign both its cameras and their packaging. The "Vanity Kodak," produced in a number of colors, boasted metallic trim and a silk-lined case. In the '30s, Teague's "Bantam Special" eliminated all unnecessary decoration for more efficient use: "The horizontal metal strips on the case appear at first sight solely decorative, but were raised from the moulded body to limit the surface area over which the lacquer coating had to be spread, thereby reducing the danger of chipping and cracking" (Heskett 82).

Teague eloquently describes the role of the industrial designer in Advertising Arts:

He does not so much create or invent beauty as evoke it. His designs are always latent in the things he deals with, and it is his job to discover and reveal them. He approaches an object, a mechanism, a device, with a mind uninfluenced by its present form and with the kind of imagination which is really a creative kind of insight. He asks himself, 'What is this thing for? What is it supposed to do? What is it made of? How is it made?' He turns the answers to these questions over in his mind, fitting them together, matching one against another; and if he is a good designer a form will emerge which is a composite answer to all these questions--the most complete, perfectly balanced, unified answer he is capable of conceiving. And that form will be beautiful, and it will be quite obvious to anybody that it is beautiful and right (25).

These examples are not meant to suggest that designers alone created the revolution in the marketing of household goods or in the acceptance of those same goods as objects of art. Since the early '20s, the American public had been slowly and unconsciously internalizing principles of good taste. "The commercial artist is extinct," claimed Calkins. "He has disappeared. The men who produce advertising art are the men represented in the art exhibitions. There is no longer any distinction, and no stigma attaches to art used for business" (21). The situation changed the terms of American advertising and, in the process, attitudes toward art.

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