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The Man In The Brown Suit

Fall 1997 | Volume 13 |  Issue 2

NEW YORK, N.Y.: Good industrial design comes in two varieties. The first one turns mundane items into works of art, revealing the potential for beauty in something as humdrum as a wastebasket or pencil sharpener. The second one goes to the opposite extreme, merging form and function so completely that the object’s appearance seems ordained by nature instead of thought up by a man at a drawing board. In the best cases one might just as well ask who designed the sunflower or who designed Niagara Falls.

In a career lasting more than four decades, Henry Dreyfuss (1904-72) created many such canonical designs: the round Honeywell thermostat (1953), the black Bell desk telephone (1949), the Big Ben alarm clock (1930s), the John Deere tractor (starting 1937). He even made the round Mason jar square. An exhibition at New York City’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, running through August 31, traces Dreyfuss’s work from the 1920s, when he was an apprentice stage designer to Norman Bel Geddes, through the Polaroid SX-70 camera of 1972. In between he worked for scores of companies large and small, from the New York Central Railroad and Bethlehem Steel to the Doughnut Corporation of America and the makers of Higgins Vegetable Glue.

A museum exhibit shows how the quiet, elegant designs of Henry Dreyfuss endure as ubiquitous classics of functional beauty

A section on the development of the Big Ben reveals Dreyfuss’s attention to detail and tells how he learned an important lesson in marketing. Dreyfuss was proud of the way he revamped the Big Ben line for Westclox in the early 1930s. He simplified the hands and numerals, making them easier to read through half-open eyes. He altered the alarm to start out quiet and then get louder, writing a snappy slogan (“First He Whispers, Then He Shouts”) to describe this feature. He designed attractive Art Deco boxes and a counter display for the entire line. And he made the clocks thinner to give an impression of elegance and mechanical excellence.

Dreyfuss arranged to work behind a counter where his new clocks were being sold. He saw a woman approach the display, examine the Big Ben and a competing model, compare their weights in her hands—and then buy the other, heavier clock. Depression consumers, Dreyfuss realized, equated lightness with flimsiness and had a visceral need to get as much as possible for their money. In his next redesign he put back the extra ounces he had so painstakingly shaved off, just as bridge designers of the day sometimes built massive masonry towers to make their insubstantial-looking spans seem more solid.

Though Dreyfuss liked to emphasize the practical side of his work, with an accent on “integrity” rather than style, he did produce a number of showoffy designs. For instance, his Birtman Visible Toaster (1932) resembles nothing so much as a skyscraper from Fritz Lang’s futuristic 1926 movie Metropolis . It’s called the Visible Toaster, rather than (as would be more fitting) the Conspicuous Toaster, because of its glass windows through which you can watch the toast turn brown—unexciting, perhaps, but it’s all that some of us are capable of in the morning. Other artifacts of their particular eras include the flying Convair Car (1947) —a bulbous 1940s automobile, reshaped with a vague nod to streamlining, to whose top an airplane could be attached—and a Sputnik -like bowlingball cleaner from 1960.

The Cooper-Hewitt, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, is housed in a 1901 mansion built for Andrew Carnegie. The building’s ornate furnishings provide a fitting counterpoint for the sleek modernist items on display, though the aptness of the setting might be lost on Dreyfuss, who once said, “There are only three museums I am interested in—Macy’s, Marshall Field, and the May Company—and I don’t want to be a permanent exhibit in any one of them.” The CooperHewitt National Design Museum is located at 2 East Ninety-first Street, New York, NY 10128 (telephone: 212860-6898). A handsome book, Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit, by Russell Flinchum (the subtitle is a reference to Dreyfuss’s lack of flamboyance), has been published by the museum and Rizzoli International in conjunction with the exhibition. It is available for $50.

FAYETTEVILLE, ARK.: There’s really nothing obsolete about stereo photography, but it has an unshakable air of quaintness nonetheless. Any time you see the word stereoscope , it’s a safe bet that parlor and Victorian will soon follow. Yet nothing that’s come along since the days of antimacassars and Thomas Carlyle is any better for viewing a three-dimensional image. Stereo photography has been relegated to antiques shops anyway, probably because the most interesting thing about it is the simple fact that it can be done. Recently, though, University of Arkansas researchers have combined this mid-nineteenth-century technology with late-twentieth-century computer modeling to record and preserve artifacts from eras long past.

The basic idea behind stereo photography is simple. An average person’s eyes measure two and a half inches from pupil to pupil. If you photograph something through a pair of lenses that far apart and look at the resulting images simultaneously, each through a single eye, your brain will combine the two into a single three-dimensional image, just as in normal vision. The effect can be strikingly realistic.

Binocular projections actually began before photography. In the 1830s Sir Charles Wheatstone, who in the course of a long and varied career invented the concertina, an early telegraph, and many electrical devices, experimented with a low-tech process that used two drawings made from slightly different perspectives. (The same technique is used in today’s 3-D comic books.) Results were unimpressive because the drawings had to be done very precisely. In the 1840s photography offered a solution to this problem. While the daguerreotypes of the day were too shiny to be useful, the calotype, which made prints on treated paper, worked quite well.

Stereoscopy was a hit at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London (even Queen Victoria bought a viewer) and soon became a craze throughout Europe and America. Fads lasted longer in those days, so interest did not start to wane for about twenty years. It has been revived periodically ever since, including once around the turn of the century and most recently in the 1950s as the View-Master.

The physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., foresaw the establishment of large libraries filled with stereo slides. He designed a convenient hand-held viewer and predicted in 1859 that “before another generation has passed,” stereoscopy would bring “a new epoch in the history of human progress.” It didn’t, partly because the limitations of the form restricted its utility. Now computers may begin to make Holmes’s prediction come true.

Three-dimensional computer imaging is not a particularly new technology either, but it has always required pricey, specialized equipment, such as lasers and high-resolution scanners, as well as extensive training. These restrictions put it beyond the reach of many potential users. Now, using inexpensive apparatus and readily available software, researchers can make fairly accurate three-dimensional images of artifacts and store them in digital form. That way the artifacts can be returned to their original location (as federal law now requires with Indian artifacts, for example) and scholars can still have access to the information. Stereo photogrammetry, as the process is known, cannot always provide measurements precise enough for archeologists to use at a cost lower than standard techniques—not until the price of such necessary equipment as high-resolution scanners drops. Even without such equipment, the method can be useful for making a fast, approximate three-dimensional record, which can be processed later.

To use this method, an artifact—a piece of pottery, say, or a bone fragment—is photographed stereoscopically in front of a translucent frame shaped like a miniature bandshell. The frame is scored with lines to provide a reference for distance calculations. The Arkansas researchers found that an ordinary camera and some simple lighting equipment will take good enough photos. The pair of stereo pictures is scanned and manipulated digitally, and the resulting threedimensional image can be examined and analyzed just like the physical artifact. For objects around an inch in diameter, the calculated depths are usually within 7 to 10 percent of measured depths, which is close enough for many purposes. Larger objects require better cameras and lenses, but the procedure can still be faster and less expensive than traditional three-dimensional imaging.

Like plates in an art book, digital imaging, however detailed, will never be a substitute for the real thing. But it can make artifacts accessible to a wide audience without the need to handle them physically. In so doing, it will restore stereo photography to its status as a museum piece—but this time as part of the preservation process, instead of as an exhibit in a display case.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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