“A Throw-Away Esthetic”: New Measures and Metaphors in Product Design Criticism, 1955–1961 Part 2

The Applied Life of Products in Industrial Design Magazine, US, 1955–1960

Sifting the Trash: A History of Design Criticism, Alice Twemlow, MIT Press


Industrial Design, “the most professional of design magazines”113

While Richard Hamilton’s article about built-in product obsolescence ran counter to the ethos of the British Council of Industrial Design and the content of its house magazine, it connected quite closely to the kinds of preoccupations of American design discourse being exercised in the New York-based independent trade publication Industrial Design. This magazine was among the sources of images and articles that members of the Independent Group used for their lectures, articles, and artworks—and was referenced in particular by Banham, who dubbed it “the most professional of design magazines.”114 Under the co-editorship of Jane Thompson and Deborah Allen, Industrial Design offered a pluralist view of product design that acknowledged the existence of “a mass culture, in which artifacts are produced under completely new circumstances,” and the reality that “we have in mass-produced objects a new kind of folk art in a new dimension: an anonymous, or group-oriented expression of the twentieth century in terms of practical needs—which is not by all the people, but at least for the people.”115

Industrial Design had begun life in 1941 as a column in Interiors, a magazine devoted to the interior design profession. Upon the advice of designer George Nelson, its publisher Charles E. Whitney decided to develop the column into a publication aimed at industrial designers “concerned with product planning, design, development and marketing.”116 In 1954 the “Industrial Design” column editors Jane Thompson (then Fiske Mitarachi) and Deborah Allen became the new magazine’s first editors, with Nelson as editorial contributor and advisor. Nelson’s design office was in the same building, and he seems to have had some considerable influence on the content and ethos of the magazine. Thompson remembered: “He would decide what he wanted to write and once in a while he decided what you wanted to write.”117 Nelson, primarily a designer and at the time design director for Herman Miller Furniture Company, also had experience as a writer and editor. He was co-managing editor of Architectural Forum, a contributor to both Fortune and Interiors, and in 1959 his collected essays were published by Whitney in the book Problems of Design. When Ralph Caplan joined the magazine as an associate editor in 1957, he tutored himself on design and its issues by reading this book, copies of which were stored in a crate by the men’s room.

In his “Publisher’s Postscript” to Industrial Design’s first issue in February 1954, Whitney explained his perspective on the genesis of the bimonthly journal: “The establishment of a new magazine was made almost mandatory by a series of developments in the last decade—the ascent of the product designer to a position of executive authority in industry; the vigorous demand by designers for a publication edited exclusively for them; and more particularly, the enlightening contacts we made at Walter P. Paepcke’s Aspen Design Conference two years ago.”118

The magazine went on to develop a close relationship with the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA) through reporting its activities, republishing its papers, and the magazine editors’ involvement as moderators and conference board members. During these years both the conference and the magazine campaigned for greater recognition of design’s value to business and society, and sought to promote the significance of design “as a unique, autonomous function in the overall industrial operation—on parity with engineering, manufacturing and sales.”119

Nelson’s article in the first issue of Industrial Design, on his role in developing a new line of bubble lamps for Howard Miller Clocks (a subsidiary of Herman Miller) is also indicative of this mission to elevate the standing of the designer in the “industrial operation.” Nelson wrote: “The designer functions as a member of the top policy group and his recommendations carry the same weight as those of the production and sales executives.”120

In addition to its close ties to the IDCA, Industrial Design operated within a network of other contemporaneous general interest magazines such as Harper’s, Collier’s, House & Home, and the New Yorker, international design magazines like Design in Britain and Domus in Italy, and museums, especially the Museum of Modern Art. Industrial Design frequently commissioned writers and republished articles from other magazines, and from recently published design books from the Whitney publishing stable, while its editors participated in, and reported on, debates on styling and “good design” at MoMA. Despite such exchanges, the particular quality of Industrial Design’s engagement with its subject matter was unique within this network. A 1958 panel, organized to discuss an exhibition of “Twentieth Century Design from the Museum Collection,” moderated by Industrial Design’s then-consulting editor Jane Thompson and recorded in the magazine under the title “Design as Commentary,” revealed some of the differences between the Museum’s and the magazine’s conception of design. Arthur Drexler, director of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design since 1956, was one of the panelists, and stated that the museum’s collection purposefully excluded “those mass-produced objects supposed to be characteristic of our high standard of living. There are no television sets, no refrigerators, no telephones, and only a few mechanical appliances—not because such objects are intrinsically unworthy but rather because their design seldom rises above the vulgarity of today’s high-pressure salesmanship.”121 Industrial Design, on the other hand, devoted a whole section each month to analysis of such domestic appliances. Drexler went on to observe: “The Museum’s collection is not concerned with persuading people to use objects, to buy them, to consume. Our interests are concerned primarily with art.”122 While Industrial Design certainly promoted design, its editors also critiqued it. They considered formal beauty too limiting a criterion, however, and focused instead upon the way products worked, how they were used, and what they said about “a heavily goods-oriented society.”123

The US did not have a government agency like the British CoID to campaign for the importance of design to industry, and so this job was left to entrepreneurial individuals who had been instrumental in the formation of the country’s industrial design profession. In the 1940s they had started to assemble into professional organizations. The Society of Industrial Designers had been established in New York in 1944, initially with fourteen members, including Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Harold Van Doren, and Russel Wright.124 The group initiated an annual awards scheme and produced an occasional annual publication called US Industrial Design, but they did not possess the journalistic drive to create news stories, nor the distance from the profession necessary to a critical stance. Thompson and Allen, at the helm of Industrial Design, on the other hand, helped to pioneer a distinctively American, mass-market product design criticism, fueled by their personal beliefs, intellectual backgrounds, and experiences as both professional working women and homemakers.


Televisions, refrigerators, and telephones

The interrelated philosophies of relativism and pragmatism permeated much of liberal intellectual American culture in the postwar period. In 1950 the historian Henry Steele Commanger praised pragmatism, describing it as deriving directly from the country’s historical experience and becoming, in the twentieth century, “almost the official philosophy of America.”125 The sociologist Daniel Bell recommended an eschewal of utopian ideologies that had been tainted by totalitarianism, and adherence, instead, to a quintessentially American tradition of sober, prudent practicality; while historian Daniel J. Boorstin advocated for a “doctrinally naked,” and therefore flexible, America able to accept “the givenness of experience.”126 Disturbed by the activities of anticommunist ideologists in the 1940s such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, the American intellectual critical community, typified by such groups as the New York Intellectuals (who included essayists such as Lionel Trilling, Harold Rosenberg, and Daniel Bell), abandoned what Neil Jumonville has termed “their earlier ideological and faith and prophetic partisanship,” and adopted “a more modest and precise outlook based on reason, analysis, and pragmatism.”127

Thompson and Allen, while not overtly political, deployed a similarly rationalist, pluralist, and nonpartisan outlook to the New York Intellectuals. But where the latter saw mass culture as threatening their professional status, Thompson and Allen were not afraid to deal very directly with it. They viewed designed products and their impact on everyday life as ripe territory for literary exploration. Throughout the pages of Industrial Design their version of pragmatic relativism is evident in their frequent use of personal experience to illuminate the specifics of a product, their innovative use of explanatory diagrams and “how-to” guides, and their refusal of aesthetic absolutes and prevailing ideologies such as “good design.”

Thompson wrote several articles about her approach to evaluating industrial design. She dismissed the use of set standards, which she termed “automatic evaluation”: “The end result is a code-book of styles; no one need bother to think for himself as long as he has the rules firmly memorized.”128 Her preferred method was “creative evaluation,” which necessitated an immersive understanding in order to “look at a thing and understand not how it conforms to existing rules, but what new rules it may be suggesting for the future.”129 Thompson believed that taste was a “smokescreen” that prevented one getting to the “deeper implications” of design, a “substitute for evaluation, rather than a basis of evaluation.” In a July 1957 editorial preface to Industrial Design, she further expanded her relativist position on assessing design: “[Design] can be judged ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ only on its own terms. I am aware that moralists do not enjoy this point of view. It is hard not to rely on the crutch of our own absolute Good and absolute Bad. Yet if one is serious about judging design, the task, as in viewing all art, is to overcome the temptation to judge its subject matter alone, or its moral value, and to sense its vigor, its aptness, its communication.”130

Jane Thompson grew up in Larchmont, Westchester County, New York, the daughter of an air-conditioning and refrigeration engineer, who also edited a trade association magazine and “wrote a lot.” Reflecting on the role of writing in her childhood years, she said: “I was used to the idea of sitting at a typewriter and grinding things out.”131 Thompson studied at Vassar College, a prestigious women’s liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, and pursued graduate studies at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. She began her career as secretary to the architect Philip Johnson, who was then the curator and head of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. She soon transitioned to the role of acting assistant curator. Of this period, during which the museum staged the first US Mies van der Rohe exhibition (1947) and installed the Marcel Breuer House in its garden (1949), she has observed: “It was an education in the history of architecture and its future, and it also helped me to develop my critical sense.”132 In 1949 Johnson hired Arthur Drexler, architecture editor from Interiors magazine, to be a curator, and Thompson took his vacated position at the magazine.

Deborah Allen was an associate editor at Interiors, and Thompson identified her as a likely collaborator. Like Thompson, Allen had grown up around writing. She believed her interest in design, her opinionated nature, her taste and her work ethic derived from a cultured family upbringing and some interesting female role models. Her aunt was Ethel B. Power, editor of the home decorating magazine House Beautiful between 1923 and 1934, and her aunt’s partner was the architect Eleanor Raymond. Allen’s mother, Dwight Hutchinson, worked as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson, and then as a freelance writer for women’s magazines. Allen’s childhood home in Boston was filled with magazines about design and interiors, and designed objects her mother had brought back from trips to Sweden. While studying art history at Smith College, a liberal arts college for women, Allen wrote for the college newspaper and the writer Mary Ellen Chase, who was in residence at Smith at the time, read her work and sought her out. “She said, ‘don’t do anything that will teach you to be glib. Take your writing seriously.’ I liked that,” Allen recalled.133 After graduating, Allen worked for a short while at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and married Oliver Allen, an editor at Life and son of Frederick Lewis Allen, editor of Harper’s.

In 1953, when Interiors publisher Whitney asked Thompson to edit a new magazine for industrial designers, she asked that Allen be her coeditor. The women were given a small budget and the sole mandate that the magazine should be as graphically bold and handsome as Fortune magazine was at the time. “He wanted flashy gate folds,” Thompson recalled.134

Unfettered by any institutional or prescriptive viewpoint on design, Thompson and Allen set out to build from scratch a magazine for the industrial design profession informed by their own educational backgrounds in the humanities, their professional experience as journalists, and their domestic responsibilities as wives and mothers. (These were not insignificant—Thompson married four times and had two children and seven stepchildren, while Allen had five children.)

The magazine’s business model was based on a mixture of advertising and subscriptions, which rose from 5,910 in 1955 to around 10,000 by 1959. Advertisements (mainly for materials producers and fabrication services such as Arabol Adhesives, Marco Polyester Resins, Chicopee Specialty Weaves, Aluminum Extrusions, and Dupont, and a handful of furniture companies like Knoll) were mostly grouped in the front-of-book, with the editorial preface marking the start of the feature well.135 As Ralph Caplan, who became editor of the magazine in 1958, remembers it, the publisher was disappointed with the advertising revenue; he had mistakenly thought that industrial designers specified furniture and materials, just as interior designers did, and that he could sell advertising on the same basis as he did at his other magazine, Interiors. Caplan observed: “Although an industrial designer might specify that a product be made of aluminum, he was not empowered to choose Reynolds or Alcoa.”136

While the stated purpose of Industrial Design was to elevate the standing of the designer in the realm of commerce, for Allen and Thompson there was another goal, expressed through their chosen subject matter and examples, and that was “to connect designers to consumers and users—the applied life of the product.”137 Unlike Design magazine in the UK, however, where the consumer was conceived of as rational and willing to be educated by the editors’ superior taste and knowledge, Allen and Thompson wrote for a consumer who also had irrational whims and emotional concerns. Thompson recalled: “we perceived things that we needed that were not being answered by the designer. We saw from a consumer’s perspective the way a product works or doesn’t work, or pleases or offends.”138

In an editorial about taxi design, for example, they described an industrial designer in their own terms, thus subtly guiding their readership toward a similar view: “He’s not so much a stylist—a man who slaps jumbo grilles and speedlines on another fellow’s chassis—as a skilled and critical taxi rider, professionally fitted to give a roadworthy chassis a body worthy of human occupation.”139 Their choice of the terms “taxi rider” and “human occupation” here were key to their own guiding principles as critics: designers should be physically familiar with the use of the things they are designing, and concerned for the bodily and emotional well-being of other users.

The articles Thompson and Allen commissioned addressed a wide range of subjects, from bathrooms and plastics to tractors and design planning, and were characterized by deep research, clear exposition of complex technical issues, and extensive annotation. In addition to the staple fare of a design magazine, such as product reviews and issue-based features, Allen and Thompson introduced a wide array of unfamiliar article formats, including historical surveys of product types, cartoon interludes, photographic portfolios, book extracts, profiles of designers, and elaborate graphic devices such as timelines and charts. Allen had initiated such approaches while still at Interiors magazine. For her account of a 1950 MoMA panel discussion about the aesthetics of car design, she integrated condensed extracts of the panelists’ arguments (not omitting their jokey quips) with images of the cars being discussed and diagrams of their components, adorned with pointing hand symbols and hand-drawn arrows. Her piece conveyed the dynamic nature of a live conversation and the voiced opinions of the participants far more directly than a linear report.140 Allen continued to develop her visual article formats at Industrial Design. The article “What’s So Special about Plastics?,” for example, was laid out as a series of extended picture captions on spreads edged with binder file markings, suggesting its practical use in the design studio. In 1958 the designer Walter Dorwin Teague wrote in to congratulate the magazine for an article titled “Is This Change Necessary?” by Richard Latham, indicating one of the ways the magazine was used in a design studio: “I have asked all our partners here to read Latham’s article—exceptionally well written by the way—and I shall read it again myself and keep it at hand for ready reference.”141

Other readers’ letters commended the magazine’s range of formats. Raymond Loewy, probably the best-known designer in the US at the time, applauded the editors for “the variety of methods you are employing to report design activities—as projects, as individual case histories, as analyses of an office’s operating techniques, and as aesthetic critiques.”142

Thompson and Allen sought to explain complex ideas and technical processes through visual storytelling. The narrative of an article often continued into the image captions; manufacturing processes were broken down into digestible steps illustrated with cartoons; photographs of cars were silhouetted, cropped to highlight features and grouped for comparison. Of the other design magazines of the period, Thompson recalled: “There was no sense of energy, no attempt to convey ideas through the way you place things on a page, or how you use the type.”143 Thompson and Allen were unhappy with the art director of the first few issues, the acclaimed graphic designer Alvin Lustig, complaining that he was “too stiff” and resistant to a conception of page layouts as news-driven and visually animated compositions. “We wanted scale, changes of scale, big type, and a newsiness,” said Thompson.144

To identify contributors, the editors used portrait photographs and short, familiarly written biographies. Nelson’s design consultancy was described as having “an uncheckable tendency towards expansion,” and contributors John W. Freeman and Alexandre Georges were characterized as “looking as apprehensive as a couple of dicks.” Such language signaled the editors’ informal authority—their insider knowledge of their contributors beyond the bland facts of their official résumés. In the first issue, a series of cartoons by the illustrator Robert Osborn and Thomas B. Hess, editor of Art News and an exponent of biography-based criticism, satirized the stereotypes and pretensions of such résumés in portraits and fake biographies of Will C. Werk, Asa U Waite, Cozz McFields, and Rram de ’Vhwh (To pronounce ’Vhwh, say ‘leave whey,’ then omit ‘lea’ and ‘hey.’)”145


“Dear Sirs”: the significance of gender

Despite their authority and desire to break new ground, the fact remained that the magazine catered to an almost wholly male readership of designers, engineers, and executives. Gender polarization was still rife in the design industry and in society at large in the 1950s. As a result, letters to the editors were addressed “Dear Sirs”; the magazine’s female writers were rarely mentioned in the list of contributors; not a single woman designer was profiled in at least the first decade of the magazine; and in 1957 Thompson noted that 80 percent of her appointments and interviews in the previous six months had been with men.146 One of the most pronounced examples of the gender in divide, against which Thompson and Allen’s own careers appeared in stark relief, was in a report of the American Society of Industrial Designers’ fourteenth annual conference, which “ended with a luncheon panel of designers’ wives, each with her own idea of how and why to be one.”147

Thompson and Allen brought a feminine perspective to bear on their subject matter—not in a politicized manner, but through what Thompson termed “an experienced and educated female instinct.”148 She said: “Women can look at a sharp object and know immediately that someone will get hurt with it. Men will never see it that way.”149 This maternal sense of danger was a recurring trope in the pages of Industrial Design. In her car reviews Allen would point out “the sharp edge” of the overhanging cowl of a Buick, which “looks as dangerous as the knobs it is supposed to shield,” or car ashtrays which when opened make the dashboard turn menacing, since they are “frequently jagged edged and sticky.”150

Thompson and Allen brought to traditionally masculine subject matter, such as cars, power tools, tractors, DIY, and plumbing, a point of view based on their domestic experience. And they brought that domestic experience, direct from their own homes and those of their friends, as subject matter into the pages of the magazine. The idea of changing lifestyles in the home, for example, became the focus of articles. “We knew that the separation between the dining room and the kitchen was breaking down,” said Thompson, and to demonstrate this they staged a photograph at some architect friends’ apartment in Greenwich Village, showing the family eating a meal in the kitchen.151

Thompson believed that she and Allen managed to “turn the female perspective to natural advantage in interpreting design. Our articles were informed not only with hard facts and real news, but also with the insights and attitudes of designers’ ultimate customers—the female purchasers and users of products. This editorial pluralism built a perspective that no other design publication could offer to this special audience.”152 In an article titled “Working in a Man’s World,” which she wrote for Charm magazine in 1957, Thompson tried to convince working women that their female characteristics—“instinctual nurturing qualities,” attention to detail, and insights from humble daily experience—were actually assets in the businesses where they worked. While such advice may seem conservative when considered in the light of burgeoning second-wave feminism, fueled by the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Thompson’s own career and those of her female colleagues provided robust exemplars. Thompson stayed at the magazine as editor in chief until 1959, and as consultant editor until 1964. She went on to become a director of the Kaufmann International Design Awards, develop research on the history of the Bauhaus, join the board of directors of the International Design Conference at Aspen, and chair three of its conferences. She switched her focus to urbanism when she married the architect Ben Thompson and collaborated with him on many projects including the concept planning of the 1976 renovation of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the running of the restaurant Harvest, and the influential store Design Research. Among the female writers for the magazine, Ann Ferebee went on to found and direct the Institute for Urban Design, and Ada Louise Huxtable became the first architecture critic for the New York Times in 1963. Even within such careers, the spheres of home and work were not separate, but inextricably entwined.153

Thompson and Allen co-wrote much of the magazine’s copy, especially the editorial prefaces, and enjoyed a symbiotic working relationship. Allen’s husband worked on weekends, closing the book at Life magazine on Saturday nights. Allen had to stay home to look after the children, so the women would work at her apartment on Beekman Place. They wrote articles collaboratively—rather like playing a game of hangman, Thompson recalled. Thompson would write one line and Allen the next, using an Olivetti typewriter. “And we’d write all the way through until we got something and then probably one person would patch it up, and then the other person would read it and patch it up some more. Our thinking was always in parallel and going in the same direction.”154


“The editorial effort itself is a critical one”155

Allen and Thompson conceived of the entire project of editing the magazine as a form of criticism. Thompson devoted her April 1957 editorial preface to that topic, provoked by a reader who had written in to say: “It is not the business of the magazine to act as critic.”156

Thompson and Allen believed that self-knowledge, which demands hard work, was essential to navigating the contemporary American consumer landscape and to outwitting “would-be manipulators.” In her review of Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders, Thompson wrote:

Now there is no denying that Americans today are living out their lives, and their needs, through material symbols: the fins and portholes serve a deep-seated purpose in leading consumers into new social realms—imagined or real. But [Packard] reserves not one word of comment for the irrational consumer, and the ambitions and insecurities that drive him into the arms of businessmen. Is the condition the fault of merchandisers? Or are the merchandisers, rather, a symptom that people themselves might do well to examine?157

Thompson and Allen were also attentive to the needs of consumers of criticism, who included designers. They suggested that a designer had need of critics in order to develop his own critical faculties: “It is here that a magazine edited for him—continually studying his work and his problems—can be of some service. By expressing considered opinions and evaluating our motives for having them, the editors of Industrial Design hope to offer not only the news that each reader needs, but one set of views to help him form his opinions and examine his motives for doing what he does.”158

Reflecting on this impulse in later in her life, Thompson said: “I think critical writing … is about trying to explain something so that the other person could have an opinion or evaluate it as well as you.”159 Thompson, Allen, and other writers, like the British critic Banham, did this by making their critical process accessible and visible, often taking readers through it with them step by step, with the intention of empowering readers to critique design for themselves.


Deborah Allen’s lush, situational car reviews

By the mid-1950s, the American automobile industry, based in the Midwestern city of Detroit, had reached a plateau in technological developments to offer consumers. In order to compete for market share, the major companies, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler (or “the Big Three,” as they were called), put their resources into applying styling to the body shell of the car, focusing on details such as grilles, lights, fenders, tail fins, and chrome trim and painted metal strips, and into marketing these incremental style changes in their new models, using the women’s fashion industry as inspiration. By 1957, General Motors was offering seventy-five body styles in 450 trim combinations.160 Toward the end of the decade the automakers were bringing out new body shells every year, and these excesses were attracting criticism from all quarters.161

In articles such as “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy,” published in the Nation in 1959, Ralph Nader drew attention to the safety concerns and inconveniences (such as their inability to fit into parking spaces) of the huge cars of the late 1950s. Meanwhile, Vance Packard sought to expose the unethical business practices of automakers through their use of rapid style changes to fuel consumers’ desire to own the latest model. An article in The New York Times spoke of a need for “rescue from the rubber-tired incubi,” for moderation on the part of “the grand viziers of Detroit … because there is just not room on the streets or in the parking places,” and suggested that “the system is exhausting the elements necessary for human life—land, air, and water.”162

In panel discussions at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Design Conference at Aspen, and in articles in the design press, it was the aesthetics of car styling that was targeted—the use of “vulgar, superfluous, gadgety decorations, stripings or curlicues, accompanied by cheap color,” as Raymond Loewy put it in 1951, or “borax,” as MoMA’s Director of Industrial Design, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. termed it in 1948.163

In art historian C. Edson Armi’s view, MoMA, which excluded modern mass-produced American cars from its collection, “treated the car like an illegitimate child. After all, the primary function of a car’s appearance was sales, and the ‘philosophy’ of its designers was likely to be a combination of power, fantasy, raw sexuality, and newness for its own sake—all basically abhorrent to the Bauhaus-oriented industrial arts establishment.”164 Industrial Design, by contrast, conducted comprehensive car design reviews in response to the automakers’ annual changes, and can be seen as an emphatic example of the new type of criticism of popular, mass-produced design with which this chapter is concerned.

Despite her compelling coverage of the automobile industry for the magazine until the late 1950s, Deborah Allen is not well known as a design critic. She came into the profession through a series of chance encounters, rather than being driven by a mission. For four years at Industrial Design she wrote a series of sharp analyses of car design, and then stopped abruptly, due to the pressures of family life, never to be heard from again in a design context. Allen’s oeuvre is well worth examination, however, since she reckoned with the design of cars, the most visible and profitable manifestation of American mass production, with a level of acuity and stylistic flair unparalleled among design critics of her time, and since.

Overall, Allen had little patience with the “expensive toys” she reviewed as a car critic.165 She lived in New York, used public transport, and didn’t even like cars that much. “It was hard to write about them because I thought they were senseless,” she said of the exaggeratedly low-slung, long and streamlined cars of the period.166 One review began: “In 1957, as far as we can make out, the American cars are as expensive, fuel-hungry, space-consuming, inconvenient, liable to damage, and subject to speedy obsolescence as they have ever been.”167 Allen’s impatience with the stylistic flourishes of cars also comes through in her reviews. Of the 1958 Chevrolet she wrote: “The gull wing is as easy to identify and as annoying in its relationship to the rest of the car as all of GM’s trademark tails.” And to Allen, the “arbitrary whiplash” of another model’s rear fender “is the final straw that makes one wonder what sense there is in any of these curves.”168

Her mind changed, however, in early 1955, when riding into New York from Westport in a friend’s Buick Century, as we saw at the beginning of this chapter. Inspired by her exhilarating experience of the car speeding along the coastal road, and her appreciation of the way her friend the driver inhabited its interior space, she wrote an uncharacteristically enthusiastic review. She referred to the Buick as a “slab on waves,” demonstrating what she meant with accompanying diagrams. Allen was skeptical of the designers’ desire to create an illusion of weightlessness, since the materials were actually very heavy. She observed that it was hard to believe in the “diaphanous” pretense of the Buick’s heavy rear cantilever when you witnessed the effect upon it of a bump in the road. She wrote: “This attempt to achieve buoyancy with masses of metal is bound to have the same awkward effect as the solid wooden clouds of a Baroque baldacchino.” But she went on to suggest that the beholder should “accept the romantic notion that materials have no more weight than the designer chooses to give them.”169

The last line of the short review reads: “The driver sits in the dead calm at the center of all this motion; hers is a lush situation.”170 The depiction of a female driver refers to Allen’s personal experience of this particular car, but also to the fact that most publicity shots supplied by car manufacturers featured women driving their cars. Manufacturers used women both to model the car and to acknowledge that women were key decision-makers in the purchase of family cars in the US; also, due to the postwar demographic migration to the suburbs, increasing numbers of women needed their own cars to perform household management tasks or get to work.171

The lyricism of the closing phrase, “hers is a lush situation,” is achieved through the self-consciously poetic use of the third-person possessive pronoun, a set of circumstances as the object, and the calculated evocation of the multiple meanings of the word “lush”—an adjective used to describe luxuriant vegetation, the state of being lavishly productive, and also something that is sensual and sumptuous. The phrase also conjures a novel image of a 1950s American woman, not trapped in the meaninglessness of her suburban existence as Betty Friedan and others portrayed her but, rather, calmly poised, in control of 5,000 pounds of metal, and embodying all the potential for productivity and growth evoked by the term “lush.”

Industrial Design was run on a small budget. There was no money for Allen to go to Detroit for firsthand reporting, so she based her analyses on what she “saw on the road” and examination of the brochures the manufacturers sent her.172 In this way she made use of art-historical techniques, such as comparison and type analysis, that she would have studied at Smith College and practiced briefly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Indeed, in a 1955 essay titled “Vehicles of Desire,” Reyner Banham referred to Allen’s “ability to write automobile critique of almost Berensonian sensibility.”173 Banham was referring to the American financier and art historian Bernard Berenson, who specialized in the Renaissance and whose analytical approach, codified in his essay “The Rudiments of Connoisseurship (A Fragment),” was highly influential in art history. According to the art critic Robert Hughes, Berenson pursued a “scientific” ideal of connoisseurship: “a system of discrimination based not on any special power of argument, still less on the iconographical or social meanings of art, but on meticulous observation of detail, sensitivity to style, and exhaustive comparison based on a retentive visual memory.”174

Allen betrayed her art-historical training in another review, of 1955’s brightly colored cars. She drew attention to the replacement of sheet metal, which had previously been used to convey speed, with that year’s use of paint to describe “the more exaggerated effects of motion—a far more fitting medium for such impressionism.”175 And, in her appraisal of the 1955 Studebaker’s “rakish” new body shape, she wrote in form-appreciative terms: “It is a stylish, Italianate combination of slow compound curves and sharply contrasting angles.”176 Again, in her review of the 1958 new Lincoln, we see more of her art historian’s eye at work:

American cars often look as if they were based on quick sketches rather than a careful study of form. At Ford, especially among the high-price cars, these sketches are apparently in clay: on Lincoln’s side body, the sculptor’s tool shows clearly in swift long lines, sharp edges, and concave modeling. This breeziness is slightly out of place in expensive hardgoods—with a little more time the sculptor would certainly have smoothed out the kick of metal ahead of the front wheel, the dust-catching ledge down the body, the extra metal at the back window. Furthermore, this sophisticated side-modeling conflicts with front and rear motifs that seem to be borrowed from below: sloping light mounts and chromed ovals recalling Edsel and Mercury and coy wings from the lowly Ford.177

Additionally, Allen’s decision to crop photographs of cars to highlight certain features such as rears, bombs, posts, bulges, spears, saddles, speed lines, doors, and bumpers, and her meticulous assemblage of these images in pairs and typological groups, recalls the Wölfflinian technique of visual comparison so fundamental to the art history slide show.178

Such deployment of the visual rhetorical strategy of comparison and grouping was unusual in design criticism at that time. But by 1957, companies advertising in Industrial Design were using similar techniques. In an advertisement for Rohm & Haas Plexiglas in the April 1957 issue, for example, eight cropped images of tail fins from various cars were shown in a grid over a spread with the tagline “What do they have in common?”179 And in the same issue, an advertisement for Enjay Butyl rubber displayed all the rubber components of a car, just as Allen had done with zinc die castings in her review of 1957 cars a month earlier.180

In addition to her appreciation of the car as image, Allen’s analysis also demonstrated a concern with the realities of its use. Her sensitivity to the ways in which people inhabited cars, and to how industrial design was experienced physically, differentiated her writing from ocular-centric, connoisseurial art criticism. She often drew attention to cars’ safety hazards—the protruding rockets on the grilles, the sharp edges and knobs of the interior dashboards, and the poor visibility of wraparound windshields—and the cramped conditions of car interiors, especially the third man spots over the drive shaft “hillocks.” Allen’s discussion of use was not confined to ergonomics and functionality, however. She also took into account the mental and emotional qualities of driving. In a section of her 1955 review devoted to the positioning of the Plymouth’s posts (the vertical structural elements that support the roof of a car), she concluded: “At GM a post isn’t a post, it is a design on your emotions, and if it defies purist logic, it nonetheless succeeds in its real aim, which is purely psychological.” And of the 1955 Buick, she wrote: “But when the driver gets into the car … something else begins to operate. In the Buick she is couched at just the right point among the flattering curves, and her distance from the windshield gives her an air of command that may do more for her driving than a clear view of the road.”181 In a special feature titled “Cars ’56: The Driver’s View,” Allen led with a picture of a steering wheel and dashboard in which three disembodied white-gloved hands manipulated the car’s “appalling number of gauges, controls, and push-button devices,” which could include record players, air-conditioning, ashtrays, antenna, and convertible top controls. The article made typological comparisons between features like speedometers and crash features, using cropped photographs gathered in tight juxtapositions and a listed taxonomy of all the “Watch” and “Work” functions of the car. In her introduction she opined: “Yet logic and legibility are only one part of dashboard design. A second challenge—and often it seems the major one—is psychological. As a nerve center of the car, the dashboard explains and advertises its performance and builds up the pleasure and excitement of driving. Like most psychological problems, this one is complex: the car must generally look powerful and heavy yet fast and maneuverable, loaded with conveniences yet simple to master, safe yet daring, lush yet sporty.”182

Furthermore, Allen’s writing shows that she also understood the interrelated economic processes of manufacture, retail, and distribution. She tracked sales figures and made predictions about a model’s commercial success. She explained technical aspects of car production with clarity and precision, using diagrams to supplement her written description. In her review of the 1958 Chevrolet, for example, she wrote: “To achieve the lowness of its competitors, Chevvy uses a new frame that seems to provide good interior space. … Rather than a box frame or an x-frame, this is an ‘hour-glass’ frame that concentrates structure at the driveshaft, where there is a hump anyhow. In place of the heavy side rails that brace the usual x-frame, Chevvy has light rails attached to the body rather than to the frame.”183

Informed by art-historical study and literary flair, Allen’s writing was also tempered by lived experience and technical knowledge, and applied to human interaction with cars as well as the mechanics of their economic exchange. Allen was, as she put it, deeply interested in car design, not on moral grounds—“we can’t say this is wrong, any more than Eve was wrong”—but simply because cars at the time were “the most unavoidable, costly, and popular example of industrial design on the American market, and of all popular American products they are the most aesthetic in concept and purpose.”184

Allen struggled to balance the pressures of running a large family and maintaining an editorial career. She and her husband had moved to Washington, D.C., and she commuted to New York for some time, taking a magazine’s worth of copy to edit on the train, but finally bowed out in 1957, leaving the editorship in Thompson’s hands (although she would continue as a consultant to the magazine for a few more years).

As we have seen, Allen’s work from this period had an unexpected second life in Richard Hamilton’s art work, specifically his “Hers is a Lush Situation” series in which the lipstick-red mouth of a bodiless driver hovers above a diagrammatic inventory of Detroit styling features including visor-hooded headlamps, chrome spears, tail fins, speed markings, and a CinemaScope windshield, details which Hamilton had gleaned from Allen’s car reviews. Despite her own disillusionment with her subject matter and her rejection of the medium she was so skilled in, therefore, Allen’s writing transcended, or at least escaped, its genre and made a curious voyage across continents, disciplines, and contexts to live on in the canons of British, and international, art.

Reyner Banham, too, found in Allen’s writing inspiration for his own appraisals of cars, and more generally for his desire to develop a new mode of writing about the expendable, mass-produced materiality of popular culture. In 1955, he declared excitedly of Allen’s Buick review: “This is the stuff of which the aesthetics of expendability will eventually be made.”185 He applauded Allen’s writing for its ability to channel the vitality of the Detroit body stylists themselves, to approximate “the sense and dynamism of that extraordinary continuum of emotional-engineering-by-public-consent which enables the automobile industry to create vehicles of palpably fulfilled desire.”186 Banham saw the body stylists of the automobile industry, vilified by most other design writers both in the US and the UK, as providing essential arbitration between industry and the consumer. Their work would become a key reference point for him in developing his new literary arsenal for dealing with popular culture, in his “attempt to face up to Pop, as the basic cultural stream of mechanized urban culture.”187

Although Banham did not learn to drive until 1966, preferring the Moulton bicycle as a mode of transport through London’s streets, and regarding “auto-addicts” as “an ugly mob,” he found in cars subject matter that suited his knowledge of engineering and appreciation of popular culture.188 In the 1960s, during travels to the United States, and possibly inspired by Allen’s writing, he began to appreciate the physical experience of driving, writing of negotiating Los Angeles freeways in ecstatic terms: “To drive over those ramps in a high sweeping 60-mile-an-hour trajectory and plunge down to ground level again is a spatial experience of a sort one does not normally associate with monuments of engineering—the nearest thing to flight on four wheels I know.”189



113. Reyner Banham, “Design by Choice,” Architectural Review, July 1961, 44.

114. Ibid.

115. Jane Fiske Mitarachi, “Evaluating Industrial Design,” Journal of the American Association of University Women, October 1958, 17.

116. Magazine subhead, Industrial Design, February 1954, 1.

117. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

118. Charles Whitney, “Publisher’s Postscript,” Industrial Design, February 1954, 150.

119. Subscription card, Industrial Design, February 1954.

120. George Nelson, “Planned Expansion,” Industrial Design, February 1954, 148.

121. Arthur Drexler, quoted in “Design as Commentary,” Industrial Design, February 1959, 56.

122. Ibid., 61.

123. William Snaith, quoted in “Design as Commentary,” Industrial Design, February 1959, 60.

124. Their focus was primarily to introduce stricter codes of professional practice and to reinforce the legality of industrial design as a profession, established in a seminal case in 1940 where Teague successfully argued that it should be considered a profession in terms of taxation.

125. Henry Steele Commanger, The American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), quoted in John Patrick Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 400.

126. Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (New York: Free Press, 1960); and Daniel J. Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953). For a detailed account of the influence of pragmatism in American culture, see Diggins, The Promise of Pragmatism.

127. Neil Jumonville, Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), xii.

128. Jane Fiske McCullough, Journal of the American Association of University Women, October 1958, 14–15.

129. Ibid.

130. Jane Fiske McCullough, “Taste, Travel and Temptations,” editorial preface, Industrial Design, July 1957, 25.

131. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

132. Jane Thompson, Architecture Boston 9, no. 4 (July/August 2006), 50.

133. Deborah Allen, personal interview, July 6, 2007.

134. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

135. Surprisingly, the British grant-funded magazine had better success with its advertising than the commercially driven US publication. Its advertisements were mainly for materials too, such as Pirelli rubber, Formica, and the British Aluminum Co., but they also managed to attract furniture companies like Hille, Knoll International, and Ercol, presumably because they were not in competition with an interior design magazine as Industrial Design was; but also, judging from the Design magazine memos and correspondence of the 1970s, Design had a comparatively aggressive sales staff.

136. Ralph Caplan, “I.D. Magazine, 1954–2009,” Voice, AIGA website (January 5, 2010),< http://www.aiga.org/i-d-magazine-1954-2009/> (accessed September 17, 2012), para. 4.

137. Jane Thompson, Architecture Boston 9, no. 4 (July/August 2006), 50.

138. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

139. Jane Fiske Mitarachi and Deborah Allen, “The Trouble with Taxis,” Industrial Design, February 1954, 11.

140. Deborah Allen, “The Body Beautiful: A Museum Asks 7 Men to Eye Automobiles,” Interiors, May 1950, 112–116.

141. Walter Dorwin Teague, letter to the editors, Industrial Design, April 1958, 8.

142. Raymond Loewy, letter to the editors, Industrial Design, April 1954, 18.

143. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

144. Ibid.

145. Robert Osborn and Thomas B. Hess, “Who’s Who in Distinguished Design,” Industrial Design, February 1954, 68–71.

146. Jane Fiske McCullough, “Working in a Man’s World,” Charm, November 1957, 87.

147. Report on ASID’s 14th annual conference, Industrial Design, June 1959, 60.

148. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

149. Ibid.

150. Deborah Allen, “The Driver’s View: Cars ’56,” Industrial Design, August 1956, 138.

151. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

152. Jane Thompson, “Urbanist without Portfolio: Notes on a Career,” in Claire Lorenz, Women in Architecture USA (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).

153. Recent work on the history of women’s work has sought to dismantle the metaphor of the “female sphere,” which had been used as a trope to characterize unequal power relations between the sexes, demonstrating instead the fluidity of interchange between the household and the world. See, for example, Linda K. Kerber, Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

154. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

155. Jane Fiske Mitarachi, “Critical Horseplay,” editorial preface, Industrial Design, April 1957, 43.

156. Ibid.

157. Jane Fiske McCullough, review of The Hidden Persuaders, Books section, Industrial Design, May 1957, 10.

158. Jane Fiske Mitarachi, “Critical Horseplay,” 43.

159. Jane Thompson, personal interview, July 30, 2007.

160. C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), 50.

161. Deborah Allen, “Crisis Year for Cars, Cars ’58,” Industrial Design, February 1958, 71.

162. Harrison E. Salisbury, The New York Times, March 2, 1959, excerpted in Industrial Design, April 1959.

163. Raymond Loewy, Never Leave Well Enough Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1951); Edgar Kaufmann Jr., “Borax or the Chromium Plated Calf,” Architectural Review, August 1948, 88–92.

164. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design, 54.

165. Allen, “Cars ’55,” 82.

166. Deborah Allen, personal interview, July 6, 2007.

167. Deborah Allen, “The Dream Cars Come True Again,” Design Review: Cars 1957, Industrial Design, February 1957, 103.

168. Ibid.

169. Allen, “Cars ’55,” 89.

170. Ibid.

171. Margaret Walsh, “Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War,” Journal of Macromarketing 31, no. 1 (March 2011), 57–72.

172. Deborah Allen, personal interview, July 6, 2007.

173. Reyner Banham, “Vehicles of Desire,” Art, September 1, 1955, 4.

174. Robert Hughes, “Only in America,” New York Review of Books, December 20, 1979, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1979/12/20/only-in-america/> (accessed September 18, 2012), para. 18.

175. Allen, “Cars ’55,” 82.

176. Ibid.

177. Allen, “Crisis Year for Cars, Cars ’58,” 72.

178. Photography historian Tim Benton has observed how Banham, too, used the Wölfflinian technique of visual comparison: “For if Banham rejected parts of the high art history lecture, he was a master of the very Wölfflinian technique of visual comparison. We were all brought up in the tradition of the left and right projector screens and the basic grammar of art historical comparison. … Selection and ‘play’ of images lies at the heart of this tradition and constitutes part of the argument.” Tim Benton, The Art of the Well-Tempered Lecture: Reyner Banham and Le Corbusier,” in The Banham Lectures: Essays on Designing the Future, ed. Jeremy Aynsley and Harriet Atkinson, with a foreword by Mary Banham (Oxford: Berg, 2009), 11–32.

179. Rohm & Haas advertisement, Industrial Design, April 1957, 30–31.

180. Enjay Butyl advertisement, Industrial Design, April 1957, 29.

181. Allen, “Cars ’55,” 82.

182. Deborah Allen, “Cars ’56: The Driver’s View,” Industrial Design, August 1956, 134.

183. Allen, “Crisis Year for Cars, Cars ’58,” 74.

184. Allen, “The Dream Cars Come True Again,” 103.

185. Banham, “Vehicles of Desire,” 3.

186. Ibid.

187. Reyner Banham, “The Atavism of the Short-Distance Mini-Cyclist,” in Design by Choice, 88. Originally published in Living Arts 3 (1964), 91–97.

188. Reyner Banham, “Unlovable at Any Speed,” Architects’ Journal 144 (December 21, 1966), 1527–1529.

189. Reyner Banham, “Roadscape with Rusting Rails,” Listener 80 (August 29, 1968), 267–268.  

Deborah Allen in General Motors lot, Los Angeles, photographed by Oliver Allen, c. 1948. Courtesy of Oliver Allen.