The Consequences of Criticism: An Interview with Ralph Caplan
History of design criticism
Ralph Caplan (1925 – 2020) began working at Industrial Design magazine in 1957. He was quickly promoted to editor-in-chief and stayed with the magazine until 1963, when he left to pursue other writing projects. Through his writing, speaking and teaching, Caplan helped to pioneer the practice of design criticism in the USA. The format of the editorial preface was particularly well suited to his talents as a comic and raconteur and here he developed a mode of delivery that was, by turns, philosophical, funny, and pragmatic. He once said “Thinking about design is hard, but not thinking about it can be disastrous.”
In 2007, I went to Caplan’s lovely Upper-West-side apartment and sat in his book-lined office to discuss his time at I.D. magazine. This was the beginning of a much longer conversation which took place over a weekend in Maine with Jane Thompson and, indeed, for the next 8 years in my Design Criticism masters department at the School of Visual Arts, where I hired him as a tutor. His course was titled “The Critical Imperative” and each Christmas, the last class of the semester would take place in that same book-lined apartment I had first met him in. I’ll never forget the look of rapt attention on my students’ faces as they sat catching every word uttered by the then-elderly and soft-spoken Ralph as he held forth on the sit-in protest as a design object while, behind him, outside, snow fell silently into the Hudson River.
This interview has been in my archive for years, and as I read through it now, I find myself once again mourning the demise of Industrial Design, which folded in 2010, but especially Ralph, who died last year at the age of 95. I realise how much I miss his wit, wisdom, modesty and generosity. Thank you, Ralph Caplan, for being the godfather of SVA MFA in Design Criticism and for your important work in shaping American design criticism in the post-war period.
Alice Twemlow: How did you begin at Industrial Design magazine?
Ralph Caplan: Originally I moved to New York because I wanted to be a novelist and was teaching writing and poetry at colleges. I got a job at a humor magazine called Bounty as I had been a stand up comic in the Marine Corps and I had taught college English so it was a good fit. But it was actually a very unfunny magazine. It was funny to work there, but the actual product was awful. It was run by these two Czech guys and we had this language called “office-Czech.”
AT: It sounds like it had the potential for surrealism…
RC: Oh absolutely! The magazine folded in less than a year despite their backing and, by that time, I’d got married and needed a job. I was in Bloomingdale’s one day and I saw someone from Industrial Design and she told me they were looking to hire someone.
In the interview for the job, the editor Jane Fiske asked me to suggest a topic to write about. I knew nothing about design. Out of thin air, I plucked the idea of reusable packaging and so she put me in charge of packaging.
AT: So you started working at a design magazine without any knowledge of design. How did you get up to speed?
RC: Initially, the most important things I learned about design were from George Nelson’s book Problems of Design. There was a crate of these books in the office [because the book had been published by Whitney, who also published Industrial Design magazine] and, every time I went to the men’s room I would pick one up and read it. Within a few weeks, I had some basis for understanding the issues of design.
AT: Do you think your lack of design knowledge helped you be more critical of it?
RC: Perhaps, yes. I wrote an article on a packaging design and said something unflattering about a certain design and I got the angriest piece of mail I’d got in a long time. This made me realise that all that was expected of the design press was to say something existed and that it was great… and they’d already told you it was great in the press releases!
American designers thought it was very unfair to be on the receiving end of criticism.
So, a few years later, the first time I went to Aspen [The International Design Conference in Aspen], I gave a talk about design criticism. I said that if you wrote a book or put on a play, the performance would be analysed as though it mattered but in design everyone’s asking to be free of this. It seemed to me this approach was a real block to healthy growth. That was the first time I’d talked about design criticism and no one was really talking about it. This had a lot to do with it being the United States; in Europe there was more of a tradition of design criticism. American designers thought it was very unfair to be on the receiving end of criticism.
AT: Why do you think that was the situation at that point in time? Were there factors limiting criticism?
RC: I think, more than anything else, it was because design was, and still is, so tied up with profit-making businesses and clients. And, nothing in business was criticized, the trade magazines like Ad Age only reported on what the trade did.
The great thing Jane [Fiske] did at I.D. was to set it up as a professional magazine rather than a trade magazine. This was a big disappointment to the publisher, Charles Whitney, because he had set up a business of trade interiors magazine previously which had advertising revenues. Interior designers specified furniture, carpets, flooring etc. but industrial designers didn’t and so advertising revenue never worked.
This lack of budget then made it very hard to be critical.
This lack of budget then made it very hard to be critical. I was about to publish a critical piece about the Eames’  exhibition “Mathematica.” Somehow Charles [Eames] had got to see it and was angry. I stood my ground and said I had a right to publish someone’s opinions. He said that he had a right not to let me use his photographs. And he was right.
We were always in a bind. We had no travel budget. If we wanted someone to go and write about Detroit we’d have to have a car company pick up the tab which of course limited what we could say about them.
AT: I am interested in the letters/responses that were published in I.D. There was quite a lively dialogue going on. An idea I’ve been pondering about design criticism is that, to be complete, it has to be received and “met” and argued and engaged with by an audience.
RC: “Met” is the right term, I think. It’s a matter of engagement but you don’t have to agree. The letters in I.D. are very good gauge but remember they are also edited and selected.
AT: Can you tell me about the editorial process behind I.D., and how did it change while you were there?
RC: Quite soon after I started, Jane got married and moved to Bennington, Vermont. She tried editing from a distance but it was impossible. So, a group of us were temporarily appointed as “Directing Editors” (a title I think we stole from the Brits).
Eventually we decided that co-editing was a bad idea and I became the editor and so that’s how I really began. I didn’t have much to go on. I used some things that I had picked up in previous roles. I got other people who I knew in other fields involved; I got the theatre critic Harold Clurman to write about set design; I met a guy called Danny who was a kind of hippy auto mechanic and I made him automotive editor and he wrote funny pieces about car shows; I hired a Judith Ransom Miller because she sent us a manuscript with photographs titled “The History of Boys Socks,” which was a marketing theory based on her experience as a parent buying socks from Sears, it was very well written and so she became our West Coast representative.
As for the design of the magazine, when Jane has been in charge, every editor was responsible for gathering their own visual material. Then, you’d go and meet the art director and do the layout with them using what you had. Afterwards, when an Italian architect became the art director, he looked at what we brought in and he said ‘Fuck! We make big!’ and we blew up all the images. And he was right.
AT: So he was looking with a more visual eye… I always thought the layout of Deborah Allen’s articles were very interesting. Was she still there at this point?
RC: Deborah had been the co-editor with Jane. She was a good writer and very quirky. I think she may have written the first article ever on ergonomics and engineering. It was a very important article as it was about planes and the dangerous design of the pilots cabin. At the time, ergonomics was a called “human engineering” in the US.
She couldn’t work full time, though, because she had four or maybe six kids and I think her husband was an editor and they moved to Washington. She used to take the copy for I.D. in a suitcase on the train every week to Washington, which was very precarious because, back then, we didn’t have copies of anything. The whole magazine was out of the office for a week sometimes.
AT: Tell me about the editorials you wrote every issue which have now been republished in Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and its Side Effects. It seems to me that that is where your opinions and philosophy about design came through the strongest.
I interpreted design very broadly because I didn’t know enough to define it narrowly.
RC: The editorials were often about design but they also often weren’t. I interpreted design very broadly because I didn’t know enough to define it narrowly. I loved writing and I was able to use that to attract the reader and often writers.
AT: There is a strong sense in some of them about the moral duty of the designer, you never say it as bluntly as that but that is the undertone…
RC: At that time, not many people were saying anything like that and the ones who were, interestingly, were students. People doing low-cost housing weren’t architects but architectural students who often didn’t get past that stage. I learnt a lot from students and from conversations.
I learnt a lot from students and from conversations.
For example, a designer once told me that the industrial designer’s role is to be the conscience of industry. I wrote an editorial about that suggesting that the one thing that designer couldn’t outsource was conscience. I said that designers needed to help the industry find its function.
Another time, I remember meeting with a designer called Brooks Stevens who was a highly educated, cultivated industrial designer originally trained as an architect. He prided himself on taking on the low-end design jobs. We were talking about the responsibility of the designer and morality. His press agent said I don’t know how you can introduce morality into a discussion about business. So I got an editorial out of that too.
AT: Were there any particular articles that sparked an unusual flurry of letter or responses?
RC: We [journalists and editors] like to think we don’t make a difference to anybody and at the time, industrial design was a very small profession so it felt true sometimes. But we also felt that industrial design had to be a matter of concern for more than industrial designers. If it was important in the world, it had to be important to people who weren’t doing that themselves.
There was once incident which really brought home the fact that journalists and editorial content can have a real effect. Jane, who was still consulting for the magazine, suggested we did more profile pieces—not on the top designers, but on lesser-known individuals in a firm. I wanted to change the way we did profiles and allows journalists to spend real time with that person, but also with that person’s wife, psychologist, tailor etc., like how the New Yorker did profiles.
It made me think that what I write and publish has a consequence.
So for the first profile we looked at the firm Raymond Loewy. Raymond himself was an easy figure of parody because he was the slick, egotistical, wholly intuitive designer who would walk through a studio and say “make it blue!” but he also had a big office. His managing partner was called William Snaith and his thing was marketing. He was a know-it-all but he really did know it all. So we profiled Snaith and my in-depth idea for the piece meant we needed a very good writer. John Gregory, or Greg, travelled all over the place with Snaith and even cruised on his boat with him. Greg really went after this piece. There had been nothing like it before.
Raymond Loewy’s public relations expert, Betty Reese, had been the go-between for this profile. When it was published, she came to me and said “I want to invite you to the Loewy Christmas party.” Now this was a party strictly for Leowy people only, no clients, nor press or anything. At the party Loewy announced that after all these years of refusing to share billing with anybody or anything, that they had decided to change the name of the organisation from “Loewy” to “Loewy-Snaith.” Because, after that article, Snaith was able to say to Loewy, now everybody knows how the business works and what I do. I realised that the reason I’d been invited was to see what we had done. It made me think that what I write and publish has a consequence.