SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Going Public: Creation and Dissemination of the Designer’s Identity – SVA MA Design Research

Molly Heintz

Going Public: Creation and Dissemination of the Designer’s Identity

From immigrant illustrator to spokesperson for Rolex, advertising alone reveals Raymond Loewy’s head-spinning trajectory to fame in the mid-20th century. His rags-to-riches tale appealed to clients, the media, and consumers themselves. Loewy’s status in fact had less to do with the products he designed and more to do with the appealing aura that he created around them—and around himself—in a period when mass consumption and mass communication became co-dependent. Today these same kind of designer “myths”—stories and images that are repeated and exponentially amplified, particularly through social media—generate a form of celebrity that often clouds a critique of the designer’s work. In addition, designers who have achieved recognition beyond their profession have a disproportionate platform, not only becoming de facto representatives of the industry but also gaining unparalleled access to power.


While even the most famous industrial designers are not quite household names, they are what public policy scholar Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calls “relative celebrities.” To people in the design field as well as those who care about designer products, Raymond Loewy, Karim Rashid and Yves Béhar are de facto celebrities, and the same methods of analyzing celebrity creation apply. As Currid-Halkett argues, celebrity often has less to do with talent than with what she terms “residual celebrity,” a term that borrows from historian Daniel Boorstin’s definition of a celebrity as someone who becomes “known for their well-knownness.”

Talent may put a designer on the map in the first place, but it is a host of other hard-to-define qualities that elevate someone from simple fame (being recognized as a leader in his or her field) to celebrity. These traits may be cultivated by the designer, deployed by the client and amplified by the media—all of which results in a powerful public identity. As such, the industrial designers considered here are part of a system in which they have moved beyond their role in the basic system of mass production and consumption of objects to a new place in the system of mass production and consumption of images.

Raymond Loewy’s memoir Never Leave Well Enough Alone (NLWEA) received mixed reviews. Some found Loewy’s firsthand immodesty hard to stomach. “The book is instructive, brash, cocksure, occasionally funny, sometimes vulgar, and always honest,” wrote an unattributed review in the New Yorker. Peter Blake, editor of Architectural Forum at the time, penned a longer review for the New York Times that was grudgingly positive about Loewy but skeptical about his new book: “Mr. Loewy is, among other things, an accomplished salesman, and in this packaged 100,000-word after-dinner speech he is selling himself.”

While Loewy openly courted publicity throughout his career, with NLWEA, as Blake suggests, Loewy threw down the gauntlet. It’s clear that this book was not intended for his industrial design peers, editors like Blake, or even New Yorker readers, although its says something about Loewy’s notoriety that his book was covered in that the New Yorker as well as the New York Times. With his Horatio Alger-style tale, Loewy was emerging from behind the scenes of manufacturing to seduce the client of his client: the consumer.

“No product designed by Raymond Fernand Loewy, the world’s most successful industrial designer or packager, has ever been more studiously packaged than Loewy himself,” begins an article by John Kobler in a 1949 feature on Loewy in Life magazine. Loewy cut a distinctive, elegant figure that set him apart from some of his tweedier colleagues at the time, like the Cranbrook clique of Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, or the down-to-earth Henry Dreyfuss. Throughout his career, in any published image related to his work, Loewy wears a suit (always with carefully creased pants), a white shirt with a tie, cufflinks and a pocket-square. His black moustache is closely trimmed, his hair parted on the left and slicked back into waves with pomade. Over the years, the pompadour shifts from dark to light (although the moustache remains aggressively black), his girth widens a bit, but otherwise the image of Raymond Loewy remains remarkably consistent.

The Life article offers one reading of Loewy’s signature look: “middle brow.” On his chart of high-brow to low-brow, writer Russell Lynes places the signature Loewy look beside monogrammed towels, bourbon and ginger-ales, and the card game bridge. (The “high-brow” category of the chart is the vicinity of Eames plywood chairs and Kurt Versen lamps.) The chart is of course, tongue-in-cheek, much like New York magazine’s back page “Approval Matrix” today. Yet it does illustrate an important aspect of the Loewy image: suave, yes—but suave according to popular taste.

The twist that made Loewy fascinating and exotic—in branding terms, what “differentiated” him—especially in the 1940s, was his Gallic origin: he hailed from the land of Charles Boyer, Christian Dior and Chanel No. 5.Notably, Loewy never lost his French accent. And while Loewy was foreign, he made himself thoroughly familiar to the American consumer, much like Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman or Cary Grant, with whom Raymond Loewy shared a place on the American Fashion Guild’s 10 Best-Dressed Men list in 1952.Loewy’s much-published home in Palm Springs, Tierra Caliente, helped established the designer’s celebrity status, creating a stage set—complete with a swimming pool that spanned from the living room to the outside patio—to play out the ultimate chapter of the American Dream.

Through his design work, Loewy developed the concept of “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—the MAYA principal. The idea behind MAYA was that the public needed something recognizable to latch onto in order to accept a new, progressive iteration of a design. It was a balance of the commercial and the creative. After considering Loewy’s own “package,” one might argue that Loewy was applying the MAYA principal to himself. On the one hand he was presenting himself in an accessible yet intriguing visual language—the foreign-born designer of the everyday—while on the other he pushed the limits of the designer image: Loewy was designing himself into a celebrity.

Design is rarely the work of one individual and the case of Loewy’s image is no different. His main collaborator on the project was his in-house publicist, Elizabeth Reese, known as “Betty.” Reese spent almost 30 years in the office of Raymond Loewy and acted as a behind-the-scenes liaison with media that published and broadcasted Raymond Loewy into a design legend.

 

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No designer to date may have his name physically attached—through tags affixed to the product or stamped directly into the product itself—to as many products as Karim Rashid. These include everything from the Oh chair for Umbra (now a featured product of the Container Store), to manhole covers for the City of New York to shoes for the Brazilian company Melissa, to soap dispensers for Method, to the Bobble, a reusable clear plastic water bottle with a carbon filter, displayed prominently for a time in the windows of American Apparel.

Thanks to the distribution of these products in the world by his clients, the “Karim” signature has become a logo in and of itself. Rashid’s first name has become more than just a series of letters identifying a person—it has become an image and a symbol of a brand, appearing (in pink) in every email that is sent out by his staff.

For all the slick and other-worldly aspects of Rashid and his projects, that he prefers a color that in the West is traditionally associated with little girls, that he now uses his first name only, and that he consciously deploys a distinctive handwritten signature—complete with an “x” over the letter i, commonly used to symbolize a kiss in correspondence—as a logo, add up to an accessible and highly consumable public identity, presented in a way that mitigates any distant created by Rashid’s perceived outsider status.

With the diffusion of the “Karim” name, it’s almost impossible to evaluate how much Rashid is known for his work or simply, in Boorstin’s words, “known for his well-knowness.” To Rashid, this distinction is irrelevant. He sees public recognition as an integral part of his personal mission as a designer: “I am a celebrity, and it affords me [the opportunity] to make design a public subject. I have been perceived as a showman because I have a lot to say, and I feel that to really change the world design is not just about physical objects or space, but it’s also about philosophy, vision, and communication.”

 

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In his book Nobrow, critic John Seabrook is blunt about the way it worked with celebrity profiles in the 1990s at the New Yorker, when Tina Brown was editor: “If you wrote about a pop star, or a designer, or an athlete, you were necessarily borrowing some of your subjects celebrity and using it to sell your story. And if you thought you could get away with that—with taking their Buzz and not giving up some of your creative independence in return—well, brother, you were kidding yourself. There was always a transaction involved.” And, one might imagine, the greater the star power, the greater the price of the transaction.

Historically, the kind of quid pro quo that happens between journalists and publicists has stayed behind the scenes—off the record phone conversations negotiating access, agreements to switch out a recent photo for a more flattering headshot. But in a new era of digital communication, that old system has been upended to some degree; one wrong move and the negotiation itself could quickly become fodder for a story. In the age of Wikileaks, the notion of transparency has changed the playing field between publicists and journalists. Image-crafting has become more nuanced, a trend represented by the way Yves Béhar and fuseproject work with their clients to present a seamless image to the public, which in their definition, includes the media.

Logan Ray, fuseproject’s director of strategy, tells a story about a new client who recently sent out a “ramshackle” press release without consulting fuseproject—a major no-no in Ray’s book. “We say, be sure to control your own story, be sure to control the reception. We curate all the photography, we select and provide those images to the press; we curate the messaging and we work with the PR firms to parse out the message.” Ray notes the example of the recent debut of the Herman Miller’s Sayl Chair designed by fuseproject, where different media channels each got different aspects of the story.

For a firm that presents such a happy-go-lucky face to the world, it’s a remarkably strategic approach. In fact, even the way Béhar talks about storytelling evokes Loewy’s MAYA principle:

Storytelling serves the purpose of communicating the core idea of a project. Every project attempts to communicate an idea via storytelling, and the experience of the product and brand.A good story is one that takes a relevant issue in people’s lives, and takes what may have been a theory into the actualization of an idea. In doing so I believe it accelerates the adoption of ideas about new ways of living and new ways of consuming.

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Over the course of her career, Betty Reese seems to have gained more and more control over editorial, often having the opportunity to edit articles about Loewy before they went to press. In 1958, the editor of American Automobile, a trade magazine published by McGraw-Hill, asked Reese to approve the text of an article, according to the editor’s memo, already “screened to keep Loewy out of trouble”; the piece was based on an interview in which Loewy had made some off-the-record comments, and Reese made significant line edits to the proofs. In 1967, Guy Henle, an editor at House Beautiful magazine, sent Reese proofs of an upcoming article about Loewy with a note attached giving her the opportunity to make changes, and she requested several minor fixes. Allowing the subject of an article see much less change text, is not a common journalistic practice for consumer publications, and today often strictly prohibited by editorial policy. Betty Reese had remarkable insider access to the media.

Reese didn’t only mediate messages related to Loewy’s design work, but she also worked to promote the aura of the Loewy lifestyle. She fed newspapers like the New York Post small “items”—gossipy bits of news—proposing, for example, a story about Loewy’s “surprise birthday party “ (Reese pitched the Post in advance of the actual event) at the Four Seasons restaurant. She helped coordinate a United Press International (UPI) photographer to follow Loewy and his second wife Viola on a trip to Egypt, much as if they were Hollywood celebrities.

 

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“I used to sign my full name, but always with the “x” [replacing the dot on the “i”]. As I became more well-known and as I worked casualization [sic.] more into my life, I started signing only my first name. It saves me hours at book signings,” joked Rashid in an email exchange. Indeed, the designer has had many books to sign in the last decade: Karim Rashid: I Want to Change the World (2002), Karim Rashid: Evolution (2004), Digipop (2005), Design Your Self: Rethinking the Way You Live, Love, Work, and Play (2006), and he’s currently at work on a new book composed of his more recent sketches. Three of these books (all but Digipop) have Karim Rashid in effigy on the cover, either a photo or his profile in silhouette; Design Your Self has a clear vinyl dust jacket that provides a sensory experience too—the smell of fresh plastic.

While Karim, as he prefers to be called today—à la Madonna or Cher—may have been one of the first contemporary designers aggressively to deploy a signature on products of his design, there are notable precedents. Russel Wright’s signature was emblazoned on the bottom of each piece of American Modern tableware produced between 1939 and 1959. In the 1950s, the Germany company china company Rosenthal put Raymond Loewy’s signature on the underside of every cup, plate and saucer he designed for them. The client promoting the designer name through advertising and marketing materials goes back beyond Loewy and Wright to the beginnings of industrial design, when the well-known Berlin-based architect Peter Behrens was tapped to redesign the products of the German utilities company AEG, a move AEG heavily publicized.

Like Loewy, Rashid seems to be attempting to connect directly with the consumer through an approach one could argue is informed by the MAYA principle—Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. And like Loewy, Karim Rashid often appears in ads for his clients’ products. “I made it my mission 20 years ago to do everything in my power to propagate design. Endorsing well made products and great brands falls into this.”

It’s a lesson that Betty Reese seems to have understood well later in her career, one that Tina Brown acknowledged and capitalized upon during her tenure at Condé Nast, and one that Béhar has clearly mastered: mass media is a business.