The Brooks Stevens Archives is one of several special Museum Collection archives and was acquired from the Stevens family in 1997. The archive is composed of nearly 20,000 visual materials spanning Stevens’ entire career.
A manufacturer hires an industrial designer to help “style” a product so that it will work better or be more successful in the marketplace. In a way, a well-designed object is its own advertisement. Most companies today have in-house designers on their staff, but in the 1930s the profession was brand new. Previously, engineers had decided how a product should look, and they were usually more concerned with utility than with “eye appeal,” as Stevens put it.
As one of the country’s first industrial designers, he helped to decide how many of the objects that surround us should look. He is particularly noted for his automotive designs-such as the Willys-Overland Jeepster, the Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk, and the Excalibur-but he and his firm created designs for almost anything you can think of: motors, toys, packages, appliances, bicycles, planes, trains, and even clothing. Also, Stevens was a design theorist. He coined the term “planned obsolescence,” which is still the subject of much debate today.
Even as a child Stevens was interested in cars, boats, and trains, and liked to draw them and build them using model kits. His father, an engineer for the local machine tool firm Cutler-Hammer, helped to support these interests. After an unsuccessful stint at Cornell University studying architecture, Brooks Stevens returned to Milwaukee and soon thereafter opened a design office, inspired by the example of the pioneers of the profession in New York City.
The streamlined style of Stevens’ early work owes a great deal to the work of New York designers who emerged in the 1920s, such as Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Norman Bel Geddes. But he was more consciously influenced by a custom automobile designer from Europe named Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. Stevens owned a car (made by the Cord Automobile Company of Indiana) that Sakhnoffsky had customized, and traveled to see the count in Chicago in 1934. Impressed to hear that the elder gentleman made over $300 a day for his auto designs, Stevens resolved to enter the field himself. His early car designs were sometimes quite reminiscent of the count’s creations. Ironically, Sakhnoffsky fell on hard times in the 1950s and came to work for Stevens as a staff designer for a short time.
His process was similar to that of many other industrial designers of his era. After being hired to design (or redesign) a product, he would usually do some quick sketches. These would have the basic lines of the new design and get across the main idea of its look and function. Next, he would assign the project to one of his staff designers, who would take his sketch and make a more finished “rendering” or drawing of it. Sometimes these were beautiful images in their own right, with subtle coloration in airbrush or marker. Usually several renderings, showing various alternatives for the design, were made. Stevens would then meet with the client and decide which version was best. Next, a three-dimensional model (either scale or full size) was made by one of Stevens’s specialist modelmakers. In the early days of his career, this was done by hand using sculpting clay, but during the 1960s the firm began using cast fiberglass. After being formed the model was painted and embellished with metallic tape, glass, and other materials.
No. Stevens did many “prophetic” designs that he never intended for production. Usually these were ideas for the future, which might not be possible or practical to build with today’s technology. Sometimes they were used to give clients ideas for new products. Also, Stevens and his staff did create many designs that they hoped to see produced that never made it. Many of his fully realized plans for Studebaker, for example, never got to the factory floor because the auto manufacturer went out of business soon after he was hired.
He was full of energy, worked almost every day, and most importantly, had many people helping him. When he was in his prime, Stevens was actually more of a salesman for his own firm than he was a designer. He traveled the United States and even Europe drumming up new business and seeing his many schemes to completion. His staff of twenty draftsmen, modelmakers, and engineers did most of the actual design execution, often but not always based closely on Stevens’ original ideas.
Over forty years. Stevens opened his first design office on July 1, 1935, and went into semi-retirement in 1978.
Yes. Brooks’ son Kipp Stevens is the head of the company (which is still called Brooks Stevens Design). You can learn more about their work by visiting brooksstevens.com.
He always said that he stayed in Milwaukee because that’s where the business was, and it was true. Unlike the many designers in New York, Stevens had the advantage of proximity to a wealth of manufacturers.
Many of them did-Allen-Bradley, Harley-Davidson, Cutler-Hammer, and Edmilton were among his early clients in the city. But he also worked for companies elsewhere in Wisconsin, in Chicago, or even in other parts of the country.
It’s hard to compare Stevens’ many market successes. How do you rate a popular car, like his Jeep station wagon, against the Miller Brewing logo--which has appeared on millions of trucks, cartons, bottles, cans, advertisements, and even buildings-or the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, which isn’t sold at all but is an amazingly effective promotional tool?
Its neck was too narrow, so it was impossible to get the peanut butter out of the jar’s shoulders. Stevens insisted on the wide mouth, he said, because he loved peanut butter so much that it frustrated him to waste any.
Stevens usually only worried about the body, or shell, of the cars he designed. The engine and chassis (or frame) were created by the client’s own engineers. Sometime Stevens did his own custom cars, such as the Scimitar, the Gaylord, and the Valkyrie, and in those cases he selected appropriate engines and helped to design the chassis.
Stevens had a very severe case of polio at the age of eight. For a time he was unable to walk without help, but after a regimen of exercise (especially swimming) he regained almost full mobility. He always had a bit of a limp and suffered stiffness and pain in one half of his body. Towards the end of his life, more severe symptoms returned and he was eventually forced into a wheelchair.
Stevens actually is famous, at least in Milwaukee, where most people have heard of him. His name is probably is not as well-known as it should be nationally, however, because he stayed in Milwaukee, out of the limelight. Also, Stevens’ personal papers were not available to researchers until recently, so it was difficult for early design historians to learn much about his career.
No. Product branding is a centuries-old idea. As long as there have been companies big enough to distribute their goods widely, there have been attempts to build up brand recognition and even brand loyalty. The mass media brought an explosion of scientific brand promotion in the twentieth century, and industrial designers were only a small part of that phenomenon. Stevens did, however, do a lot of work with branding. His most ambitious projects were an ongoing series of package and logo designs for Miller Brewing in the early 1950s, and a 1965 campaign for the Minneapolis-based firm 3M, in which his unified package design was applied to over 35,000 different products.
The irony is that more than any of these three things, Stevens was a great salesman. He actually wasn’t very interested in the details of running his own business, which went through some financial troubles now and again. For all his talk of maximizing his clients’ profits, he seems to have been fairly indifferent to his own personal wealth. He also wasn’t necessarily a skilled engineer, and he couldn’t even draw very well. He was an all-around “idea man,” however, and if he needed to help make a decision about engineering or the profile of a particular shape, he could.
Sometimes he suggested titles for his designs. He claimed, for example, to have come up with the name “Wienermobile,” which was originally called the “Wiener Wagon.” But usually his clients already had a name for their product when they came to Stevens.
It has a big storage compartment in the back for carrying promotional items-Wiener whistles, stuffed Wienermobiles, and so on. In the front is a small sleeping area and the cockpit for the drivers.
Stevens did not begin working for Studebaker until 1961, when the company was already in a lot of trouble financially. The auto manufacturer closed its South Bend factory in December of 1963. As a result, the only Stevens designs that Studebaker produced were the 1962 and 1963 Larks and Hawks and the 1963 Wagonaire. He did create several prototypes for other cars, projecting designs for the company all the way out to 1968.
Before Studebaker hired Stevens, they had employed New York designer Raymond Loewy to style their cars. When Stevens replaced Loewy there were hard feelings between the two, and the rift between the two designers never fully healed. Stevens also had competitors in the Midwest, such as Harold Van Doren in Toledo, Dave Chapman in Chicago, and Viktor Schreckengost in Cleveland. Chapman was a rival in the outboard motor field and for a time was hired by Stevens’ most important client, the Outboard Marine Corporation; Stevens also competed head-to-head with Schreckengost in the area of pedal car and tricyle design.
Well, it’s actually hard to say who his most important client was. At various times, Stevens’ design firm was almost overwhelmed with work for a single client. This happened in the 1950s with Miller Brewing and Kaiser-Frazer, and in the 1960s with Studebaker and 3M. But over the course of his entire career, Stevens’ relationship with OMC was always extremely strong, partly because he was a close personal friend of Ralph Evinrude. Stevens’ staff designers (especially Gordon Kelly and John Bradley) executed literally hundreds of designs for OMC’s Evinrude and Johnson outboard motors, Lawn Boy mowers, and Cushman scooters, carts, and motorcycles.
Stevens lived in an era when people were not as conscious of threats to the environment as we are today. All the same, however, he was always careful to say that planned obsolescence was not the same as organized waste. He envisioned “obsolete” products going on the secondhand market, where they could be purchased by people of lower incomes. That way, he reasoned, everyone would have access to more and better goods. Of course, it hasn’t always worked out that way, but perhaps it’s unfair to blame Stevens for that.
Definitely. In Stevens’ day, the designer was a celebrity whose name and persona added dash and style to a company’s public profile. Today, very few designers are famous. Most work within companies’ “in house” styling departments, rather than as independent freelancers as Stevens did. Also, most design today is done on computer. The laborious techniques of hand rendering and modeling are rarely practiced any longer.
Ultimately, Stevens’ philosophy was no different from that of most of his peers-or if it was, it was a difference in emphasis rather than a fundamental philosophical difference. What stands out most about his writings on design is his honesty and directness. He never made any apology for the fact that his main objective was to make the cash register ring. And unlike most of his peers (who also talked about their commitment to the profit motive) he acknowledged the fact that all of his designs were ephemeral. While other designers of his era like Walter Dorwin Teague or Henry Dreyfuss often spoke of perfecting a design so that it could be used and sold forever, Stevens envisioned good design as always changing from year to year, so that it could keep up with new technologies and new tastes. The way Stevens saw it, this “planned obsolescence” keeps the wheels of production and consumption going at full tilt, to the benefit of the whole economy. For better or worse, his pragmatic vision-a design of constant flux that prizes the new above any objective standard of quality- is the kind of design that we live with today.