Thursday, February 02, 2006

Designing History: Henry Dreyfuss

America's secret affair with Henry Dreyfuss

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, August 6, 1997 -- "Industrial Design? [Image]
Oh yeah, I know. It's, like, building factories,
right?" That's the unfortunate response I've often gotten
when telling people what I do. Sometimes I wouldn't even
wait for an answer before going ahead with my stock
descriptions: "It's architecture on a small scale; it's
graphic design, only in three dimensions; it's in between
engineering and art."

Of course, industrial designers know about industrial
design, and graphic designers and architects often know
about industrial design. Modern art fans sometimes know
about industrial design, and trend-following furniture
collectors know as much about industrial design as they
need to make a profit. The general population, however,
often doesn't realize that someone else besides an
engineer was involved in conceiving of and creating the
lamps, furniture, electronics, kitchen tools, vacuum
cleaners, automobiles and train interiors that they use
everyday.

Lately I've been pleasantly surprised to overhear many
people talking about their experiences at the Henry
Dreyfuss Exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt National Design
Museum, Smithsonian Institution, in New York until August
14. "The Henry Dreyfuss Exhibit?!" I thought my ears had
deceived me. The name of this unsung hero of American
industrial design from the '30s to the '60s was the new
catchphrase of mainstream New Yorkers. Angels sung
Handel's Messiah above my head. Yesss! My day had come.
People were finally recognizing the work of industrial
designers. Well, some people, anyway.

Henry Dreyfuss, also known as "the man in the brown suit"
for his business-like demeanor and respectability (and,
of course, his wardrobe), was a pioneer in the field of
ergonomics, thinking about utility, safety and "fitting
machines to people" before focusing on external
aesthetics. This pope of pragmatism is credited with the
redesign of the Westclox "Big Ben" alarm clock, irons,
kitchen tools, Hoover vacuum cleaners, John Deere
tractors, Honeywell thermostats, and the interior of the
20th Century Ltd. train. But perhaps the work that has
most affected the life of the average American is the
Model 500 telephone, introduced in 1949. It's the
traditional black phone with a clear rotary dial and the
receiver with a chunky rectangular middle. Between 1959
and 1982, more than 93 million units of this model
[including my first phone -- Ed.] were produced and, like
Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Rodin's Thinker, it has become an
image imprinted on our minds. It's an icon and a valuable
part of American history [which is why I still have it.
-- Ed.]

It was shiny, black, and heavy. While dialing, you felt
the resistance of the wheel against your fingers and the
solid reminder of the finger rest (that little
comma-shaped piece of metal that sits in the 4 o'clock
position), followed by the sound of the click, click,
click of the dial spinning back to its original spot.
Think of how much easier it was to make an angry phone
call, inserting a finger into the hole, gesturing with
the entire arm to bring the dial around, then ending it
abruptly, removing the finger, and repeating the motion
with a sneer. Banging the receiver down onto its cradle
released a remnant jingle of the bells inside. [After
those mechanical bells made me jump out of my skin one
too many times, I stuck subscription blowout cards
between them and their ringers to control the clangor.
Now the phone gently purrs. -- Ed.] The push-button
touch-tone cordless phones of today may be elegant, but
they don't offer the same joys of physical interaction.

Besides being an important tool for home and office, the
telephone plays other roles in our culture. As a prop in
movies, plays and television programs, its often rings in
critical plot twists and segues. It represents our
connection with the outside world and our ability to
communicate globally. Henry Dreyfuss's original Model 500
phone served as the basis for all modern telephones --
many designs today retain elements of this early design,
even when that form is no longer entirely appropriate
(see Carla's Corner: Cutting the Cord). The details of
the experience of this particular object are shared and
remembered by many. Its designer is finally getting the
acclaim he deserves.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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