Q&A with the curator of the Cantor Arts Center’s exhibition Creativity on the Line

The exhibition and catalogue showcase mid-twentieth-century design for the corporate world.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Kurt Hickman

Wim de Wit, adjunct curator of architecture and design at the Cantor and curator of Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, discusses the new exhibit.

With product design an integral part of business today, it’s perhaps surprising to realize that just a few decades ago, the union of design and commerce was largely dismissed in the corporate world.

A new exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center explores the sometimes-rocky collaboration between artists and businesses. Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, 1950–1975, on view at the Cantor Arts Center through Aug. 21, 2017, explores the groundbreaking work of major American designers such as Eliot Noyes and Paul Rand for IBM and Westinghouse, Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller, and Ivan Chermayeff for Mobil Oil. European designers, including Ettore Sottsass and Marcello Nizzoli for Olivetti, and Dieter Rams for Braun, are also represented.

While these designers have been highly regarded for their innovations in classic works of modern design, this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue focuses on the relationship between the designers of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s and top management in the large corporations for which they worked. On display are some of the highly prized objects created by these designers, including Eliot Noyes’s Selectric Typewriter for IBM and Lester Beall’s logos for Caterpillar.

Wim de Wit, curator of the exhibit, “Creativity on the Line,” at the Cantor Art Center. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Also on display as part of the installation design are large quotes on the end wall of the gallery, telling the viewer more about what the designers thought about their work for the corporate world. They demonstrate the designers’ fear of “selling out” to commerce.

The richly illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition includes scholarly essays that expand on subjects related to the exhibition’s main theme. Among them, an essay by Wim de Wit, adjunct curator of architecture and design at the Cantor and curator of the exhibition, examines the ambivalence of graphic and industrial designers in their relations with the corporate world. Another essay, by Steven McCarthy MFA ’85, professor in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, discusses design education at Stanford in the post-war period. Profiles of the major designers and corporations represented in the exhibition are also included.

De Wit responds to questions about Creativity on the Line.

Was there a head of a corporation who had particularly enlightened attitudes toward design?

There is one CEO who gets a lot of attention in the catalog and exhibition, and that is Walter Paepcke, the founder of the Container Corporation of America. He had seen in his own company’s advertising campaigns how business could profit from collaborations with modern artists. He therefore founded the International Design Conference in Aspen in 1951 as a vehicle for bringing together corporate managers and designers, who through those meetings could gain a mutual understanding. Paepcke was a truly enlightened entrepreneur, as was Adriano Olivetti, who after World War II hired numerous great designers to re-design not only the Olivetti company’s office machines and its advertising, but also its factory buildings and workers’ housing.

Henry Dreyfuss (U.S.A., 1903–1972) and James Conner (U.S.A., 20th C.), “The Swinger”, Land Camera Model 20 for Polaroid, 1965. ABS plastic, PVC, cellulose acetate butyrate, and steel. Private collection, L.33.3.2016

Is there a specific object in the exhibition that bridges this mid-century era to the past or the future?

There is one object that is the perfect bridge between the past and the future, and that is the Altair 8800, designed by H. Edward Roberts for Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry, or MITS, in 1974. It is the first computer designed for mass production and is therefore the link between two very different parts of computer history: one, the workstation-and-main-frame computer arrangement (shown in drawings in the exhibition) that until then had been used in office settings but had not been produced on a really large scale; and two, the personal computers that we now all own.

Comment on one of your favorite objects and logos from the exhibition.

There are many objects in the exhibition that I really like, but my favorite one is the Selectric typewriter designed by Eliot Noyes for IBM in 1961. I like it so much because Noyes and the IBM engineers were able to completely rethink the typewriter, replacing the mechanical keys with an electrically driven ball that holds all the letters and that can move much faster inside the typewriter than the keys ever could. At the same time, Noyes was able to design a much more compact casing around the inner mechanics, as the typewriter no longer required a carrier that moved the paper back and forth.

My favorite logo is Lester Beall’s logo design for Connecticut General Insurance of 1958 because of the way the artist combined the company’s initials, C and G, into one eye-catching form, reminding the viewer of the art of the Pacific Northwest.

There is a grouping of chairs in the exhibition. Is there a standout for you?

Yes, for sure, it is the PK 24 Chaise Longue by Poul Kjaerholm, a Danish designer (1929-1980) who created this chair in 1965 for the Danish company E. Kold Christensen. I selected this object for the exhibition because of its amazingly graceful form that is totally organic in the sense that it comfortably follows the shape of the human body. People therefore call the chaise sometimes the “hammock chair.” I also admire the chaise for the designer’s choice of materials, especially the contrast between, on the one hand, the hard, stainless steel sub-structure, and on the other hand, the natural cane and leather used for the seat and headrest.

Ettore Sotsass (Italy, b. Austria, 1917–2007) and Perry A. King (England, b. 1938), Valentine Portable Typewriter and case for Olivetti, 1969. ABS plastic, metal, and rubber. LA County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, Gift of Daniel Ostroff, L.31.4.2015

The chaise is shown in the exhibition next to three other chairs from the same decade (by Charles and Ray Eames, Joe Colombo, and Verner Panton), which have in common that they use synthetic materials that were new at the time. Even though these materials are very different from the ones used by Kjaerholm, the chairs do have in common with his PK 24 Chaise that, thanks to the malleability of plastics, they could be shaped to create organic forms that are comfortable for the human body to sit on.

What do you think about corporate design and designers of today?

Today’s designers build, of course, on what their predecessors did in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. But the circumstances in which they work are very different. Designers no longer feel the same kind of ambivalence about working for the corporate world (although as artists they would probably still not want to be accused of selling out to commerce).

Is there a contemporary logo that you particularly like?

One of my favorite, more recent (i.e., after 1975) logos is the one for FedEx, designed by Landor Associates, a San Francisco firm, in 1994. The letter type is very strong, and the colors are very modern (the same kind of red and blue that modernist designers have used since the 1920s and that one can see in many objects in the exhibition), and when you look carefully at the negative space between the E and the X you will see an arrow, a symbol that is very appropriate for a company that moves packages all over the world.