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Consumer Democracy by Design : THE AMERICAN DESIGN ADVENTURE by Arthur J. Pulos (The MIT Press: $50; 433 pp., illustrated)

June 26, 1988|Ross Miller | Miller writes frequently on architecture and design. He is the editor of "Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture." and

From the time of the clipper ships to the development of jet planes and rockets, Americans have been consistently inventive. Design in this culture has not been the province of an aristocracy nor a privileged elite. The aluminum beer can, not the Faberge egg, has been the emblem of a society more interested in efficiency and mass-production than in exclusivity. Good design has been an inventive part of our form of democracy where the material and imaginary are entwined. Arthur J. Pulos' richly illustrated follow-up volume to "The American Design Ethic" discusses all aspects of design since the 1940s.

Pulos' study properly begins with the New York World's Fair (1939). For a century, Americans observed their material and cultural progress in these great expositions. Sandwiched between the Depression and World War II, the New York Fair was escapist utopian theater. A group of 100 architects, planners and designers planned the exhibits. Recently made aware of the fragility of their economic and social system, Americans needed not only to celebrate productivity but to "address contemporary social problems." Lewis Mumford, the urbanist and social critic hoped that the Fair would "lay the pattern for a way of life which would have an enormous impact in times to come."

To a large extent, Mumford's hopes were realized. Visitors to General Motors Futurama, designed by Norman Bel Geddes, got an accurate preview of the real lives they would be living in the 1950s. Streamlined cars, clover-leaf highways, automatic transmissions were to be their everyday reality. Everything from furniture to fashion was modeled and built in prototype. The future in America was not abstract or speculative. It could be seen in all its details in Flushing, New York.

If Americans were not yet ready for the most radical examples of industrial design like R. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House, which abandoned the home's conventional iconography and was little more than a high-tech tepee with a central mast supporting a conical roof, they were exposed to the best of American design in their daily lives. War shortages of critical materials had placed greater emphasis on the appearance of objects. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Office of Price Administration imposed price ceilings to stabilize domestic markets. Manufacturers were made to compete solely on the basis of how their products looked and the quality they delivered. By the time the war ended, producers and advertisers were already used to competing through design. Consumers learned to appreciate appliances that conserved steel during wartime. Streamlining, which began as the rounding of hard edges for conservation, later became an established style. Enduring design seems always to live beyond some forgotten necessity.

Pulos details the connections between the retooled post-war economy and cultural institutions that established design's fundamental economic and social roles. For example, New York's Museum of Modern Art had annual exhibits of "Useful Objects." Its Department of Architecture collected particularly beautiful industrial products and put them on permanent display. In 1949, it commissioned Marcel Breuer to build a house in the museum's sculpture garden. Breuer was given the challenge to "design a moderately priced house for a man who works in a large city and commutes to a so-called 'dormitory town' on its outskirts where he lives with his family." Pulos demonstrates the similarities between Breuer's house and other experiments of the time combining prefabrication with on-site architecture. Aside from his signature "butterfly roof,"

Breuer's work was like Donald Desky's Sportshack and the Walker Art Center's (Minneapolis) Idea House II.

The major influence on contemporary design became housing to meet the needs of returning GIs who chose to live in suburbs rather than back in congested cities that could not accommodate the unprecedented demand for affordable housing. Baby-booming out of small apartments, new families needed space. Their exodus to the suburbs was accompanied by increased activity in the retail trades. Large department stores joined museums as advocates of good, affordable design. The home of the '50s with its electric range, dishwasher, washing machine and midget screen television was a Futurama realized.

"The American Design Adventure" records these remarkable changes in great detail. Two views of mass-production eventually came together in the 1950s. The first was museum-and-patron-sponsored, the second populist and determined by the market. John Entenza, editor of the influential California magazine, Arts and Architecture and later as a private patron of modern architecture, invited eight architects to design individual houses on a five-acre site in Santa Monica.

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