Clifford Brooks Stevens was born on June 7, 1911, in Milwaukee. He was from the first a person who liked to design and build, and fortunately for the history of industrial design, he never stopped. When he was young his father, William Clifford Stevens, pushed him to pursue his childhood hobbies, especially when the future designer was struck down with a severe case of polio at the age of eight. All of his limbs stiffened and his right arm was rendered virtually useless. Doctors predicted that he would not be able to walk again. Stevens’ father, however, was not a believer in bed rest. He piled sketchpads and model kits next to the boy’s bed and encouraged him to build one miniature airplane and boat after another. He also challenged Brooks to ride a bicycle and then to swim a mile in a pool, promising to buy him a Model T Ford when he succeeded. “They must have hauled me out hundreds of times short of that mark,” Stevens later said. “But I finally got that car. My father knew how to motivate me.”
Stevens first thought he might translate these interests into architecture, and enrolled at Cornell University in 1929 to study the subject. It was the only time he lived outside of Milwaukee, and by his own account, the experience made only a limited impression on him. “If I spent as much time on the bank building as I did on the cars that I drew on the rendering in front of the building,” he remembers his professors telling him, “I could have been a good architect.”
Stevens left Cornell in 1933 without a diploma, and returned to Milwaukee to work as an inventory manager, first for a pair of soap companies, and then for a grocery supply firm called Jewett and Sherman. Bored and restless, he persuaded the head of the company to let him redesign some of the product labels. He also won a contest to redesign the company logo for his father’s employer, Cutler-Hammer. These opportunities proved to be the first step towards Stevens’ career as an industrial designer. He was aware of the early stirrings of this new profession in New York, and decided to pattern himself after such men as Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague. All of these designers had offices in New York City, but Stevens decided to stay right where he was. Milwaukee, he said, was where the business was.
Stevens opened his first office on July 1, 1935, at 340 North Milwaukee St. By 1939 the office had grown to a staff of five, and Brooks Stevens Industrial Design could boast of thirty-three accounts to its name. By the following year it had over fifty. Stevens’ personal life also was marked by a notable addition when he married Alice Kopmeier in 1937. The young newlyweds built their own ultra-modern house in Fox Point, just north of Milwaukee. Designed by Stevens in conjunction with local Fitzhugh Scott, Jr., the building still stands today as one of Milwaukee’s most significant examples of modernist domestic architecture. Alice and Brooks Stevens would go on to live in the home for five decades and raise four children together.
Meanwhile, Stevens was proving himself a master at salesmanship from his earliest days in business. As soon as the firm had its first designs under its belt, Stevens began delivering slide lectures on “Industrial Design and Its Practical Application to Industry.” These talks invariably stressed his main selling point: that design would pay for itself many times over. This argument was tested during World War II, a period of national emergency in which market appeal did not seem to have the same importance as it had during the depression. Stevens did execute a few designs with a military or “home front” application, but his real success during the war was in converting military manufacturing into civilian consumer products. He turned the army Jeep into a station wagon, and then a stylish little touring car called the Jeepster.
Stevens burst out of the war era with a new sense of purpose. Arguing that “an industrial designer in today’s business world should be a business man, an engineer and a stylist, and in that direct order,” he sought out high profile commissions and relationships with Milwaukee’s most prominent manufacturers, including Miller Brewing, Allen-Bradley, the Outboard Marine Company, and Harley-Davidson. In 1947 he unveiled a design for a new train called the Olympian Hiawatha, operated by the Milwaukee Road. Outfitted with a spectacular glass-enclosed observation car called the Sky Top Lounge, the train was one of the last of the great “streamliner” trains that roared across America.
During this time Stevens also became the only Midwestern founder of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID), and the first industrial designer ever to be honored with a one-person museum retrospective. His show at the Milwaukee Art Institute, in 1950, got rave reviews from the local press. “Never before in the history of the Institute has it welcomed an event of this magnitude,” the Milwaukee Sentinel exclaimed. “Never before have such peculiar and violent assaults been made on the classical edifice on North Jefferson Street.” Stevens later created his own Auto Museum, which displayed both vehicles of his own design and those that he admired.
Stevens’ fame gained a touch of infamy in 1954, when he was scheduled to deliver a talk to the local advertising club in Minneapolis. Stevens arrived in the city the night before, and impulsively hit upon the catchphrase “planned obsolescence” as a description of the industrial designer’s mission. Probably without giving the words much thought, he used it as the title of his speech the following day, and the phrase would eventually become his major lasting contribution to design theory. Stevens’ definition of the concept-“instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”-sounded innocuous enough, but his description of design as a marketing ploy immediately became controversial. Planned obsolescence continues to be a contentious and much-discussed aspect of industrial design to this day.
In 1954, Stevens was asked to name his favorite design among all those his firm had handled, and had responded, “none, because every one would have to be restudied for the tastes of tomorrow.” At the end of his career, he had not changed his mind. “Would I change anything now that I did in the past?,” he said. “Hell yes! Everything! Because it’s all outmoded.” By the time he retired, turning the management of his design company over to his son Kipp, he had helped to shape approximately 3,000 products for almost 600 clients over the years. Many of his staffers, who had played such a large role in shaping Stevens’ vision, went on to become successful independent designers in their own right. The landscape of America bears his indelible stamp in ways both big (the original concept of the SUV) and small (the wide-mouthed peanut butter jar).
Brooks Stevens died at the age of 83 on January 4, 1995, the last surviving founder of the Society of Industrial Designers. His passing was, literally, the end of an era. Over the past decade a group of Milwaukee institutions, including the Michael Lord Gallery, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, have created exhibitions and publications that ensure the preservation of Stevens’ memory. The Milwaukee Art Museum is now the custodian of the many archival materials that he gathered throughout his career. Despite these efforts, however, Stevens’ many contributions to design history are only beginning to be measured.