Today, another look at form and function. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a curious picture book, Industrial Design: A-Z.
The authors describe work by scores of designers -- from the late 18th century up
through the late 20th. And, as we read this book about design as art, a peculiar message
It's arranged alphabetically, so we begin with the first A -- the Allgemeine
Elektricitäts Gesellschaft or AEG -- and we continue to the closing
Z for Zeppelin. As soon as Edison demonstrated his version of the light bulb,
a group of Germans bought his license and formed AEG. Then they began making all
kinds of electrical equipment. Our Z designer, Count Zeppelin, began building great
dirigibles two decades later.
Neither of these evoke design as we imagine it, but look at the pictures: The art
nouveau images of bare bulbs and motors reveal those items, not so much as we
might know them in the world around us, but as creatures of their makers' imaginations.
Likewise, the Zeppelin image might've been rendered by Maxwell Parish, buoying just
over the golden tip of a cloud-enveloped skyscraper.
So we ask: Was the beauty put there by the artist or the technologist? Of course, the
book is full of creations by Buckminster Fuller, Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and
the other famous designers. Beauty is what we expect of such people and beauty is
what we get. But we're caught off guard when we find the Wright Brothers' airplane,
and Chester Carlson's XeroX machine.
Then we look at the grace and balance of the Wright airplane. As pure art it simply
outclasses Buckminster Fuller's failed Dymaxion automobile (that awkward streamlined
ugly duckling!) The fine clean lines of Carlson's first commercial XeroX
machine settle one's psyche (never mind the paper blizzard it created.) John Deere's 1837
self-scouring steel plough has that same effect. Balance is beauty and just seeing his
plough is pleasure.
Designer Henry Dreyfuss gave us remarkable items. His 20th-century Limited
locomotive was wonderfully dramatic with its gladiatorial prow and Cyclops headlamp.
But he also designed the familiar telephone set used by AT&T from the late 1940s
until 1984. That was the familiar dial phone that held the receiver horizontally
above its base. Now there was a design with staying power!
So the book goes: Sony, Olivetti, Chrysler -- Bosch and Boeing. And when we're done,
it dawns on us that it's very hard to create the machine that truly serves us and
not find beauty in it. Something would be very out-of-whack if it were otherwise.
Perhaps that becomes clearest with this book's oldest designer, in this book -- Josiah
Wedgwood. Few people realize that Wedgwood's main product was cheap white china made
for the tables of working people. All that fancy china was only a sideline. Wedgwood
china is so overwhelmingly beautiful just because it emerges from that fine world of
pure unadorned function.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
C. & P. Fiell, Industrial Design: A-Z. (Köln: Taschen, 2003) (Images above by JHL)
An original 1959 XeroX machine (Houston Printing Museum, Photo by JHL)
Henry Dreyfuss' Model 300 telephone (Museum of 20th-Century Technology, Wharton, TX. Photo by JHL)
Example of Wedgwood's common china (Traveling antique sale. Photo by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.