• 06.24.13

Watch: A 2-Minute History Of American Industrial Design

The design movement that revolutionized consumer goods, explained.

Watch: A 2-Minute History Of American Industrial Design

If you were born after a certain year, then buying toothpaste that doesn’t come with the promise of whitening your snappers is unthinkable.


As explained by the animated short from The Open University‘s series on 20th century design, it’s thanks to the American industrial design movement that such little bits of commercialism are woven into our lives. When the post-Depression years left shoppers skittish and merchants without much business, manufacturers had to innovate and devise new ways to jolt the economy back to life. And so began the beginning of an era that is still aggressively alive today: consumerism. New materials like vinyl, chrome, aluminum, and plywood excited customers again, and products became sleek and attractive in ways they hadn’t been before.

So how did we get from there to here? In part because of Norman Bel Geddes, who was the first to frame industrialization as utilitarian art. His Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair forecast an America in the 1960s, with glittering skyscrapers and superhighways. While Geddes predated more acclaimed industrial designers like Raymond Loewy, he got the philosophical effort off the ground in that he believed in a streamlined physical future that could improve consumers’ lives–exactly what all brands aspire to do to this day.

As we now know, the scheme worked: “Advertisers suddenly had lots to talk about, and personal taste could be expressed through things you bought,” says a narrating Ewan McGregor. Designers, like Ray and Charles Eames, created “not just desirable products, they created desirable lifestyles.” Tools that previously held only utilitarian value could now be purchased to improve your looks, emotions, and the ways in which others perceived you. Such as ultra-whitening toothpaste.

The hero of the movement is Raymond Loewy, who gets a nod for decorating the cover of Time magazine in the 1940s. But the cartoon’s narration glosses over some of the most critical ways in which Loewy shaped the consumer landscape as we know it. In particular, he did so with the Coca-Cola bottle. The industrial design movement imbued personality into all our belongings for the first time, and it had a huge ripple effect on other industries such as advertising and product branding.

Which has brought us to where we are now–with myriad options of the same basic product. The Coca-Cola bottle, though, is a lasting fingerprint of the American industrial design movement. It remains intact and revered. In a constantly shifting world of interactive and social marketing, it’s still an icon.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.