In the past 20 years, industrial designers have become a self-conscious coterie, well paid and well content with their mission : to save mankind from ugliness in man-made products. The work of such men as Henry Dreyfuss, Ward Bennett and Raymond Loewy in Manhattan and Eero Saarinen (who is both architect and designer) in Detroit has raised industrial design from a mechanical slough of vulgarity. For in the early years of mass production, the sound design of artisans gave way to the cheaply pretentious. The craftsmanlike simplicity of early American furniture was displaced by curlicues and overstuffing, and bathtubs took on lion feet in a move to look ancient.
Yet good design has always been good and cannot be dated. Though the myth of stylistic obsolescence keeps dress and car manufacturers in business, it remains a myth. This basic truth was thoroughly documented in last week's retrospective show of designed products at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. Among the many chairs, for example, in the Modern Museum's show, perhaps the handsomest was an Austrian rocker, designer anonymous, manufactured back in 1860. And yet that ancient rocker, tendriled like a vine from the wine-heavy hills around Vienna, had a brisk, bald-bottomed rival in Charles Eames's up-to-the-minute en try in molded Fiberglas and wire. An art nouveau desk (circa 1903) by Hector Guimard that looked as sinuous as weeds under water held its place against a rigorously rectilinear chair by Le Corbusier.
The museum's collection, said Design Department Director Arthur Drexler, "includes very few of those mass-produced objects supposed to be characteristic o; our 'high standard of living.' There are no television sets, no refrigerators, no telephones, not because such objects are intrinsically unworthy but rather because their design seldom rises above the vulgarity of today's high-pressure salesmanship."
With eleven products in the museum's haughtily thoughtful collection, and four in the show itself, Designer Charles Eames dominated the scene. The great Finn, Eliel Saarinen (Eero's father), took
Eames under his wing at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy 20 years ago, and from then on Eames climbed a ladder of his own designing, as tall as the one which he keeps in his own living room so that, on impulse, he can hang something new from a ceiling, or rearrange objects on a wall.
At 51, Eames argues soberly that "to the designer, the chair provides an area where he can follow through with an architectural concept and test it directly in terms of human scale and function." But the man whose chairs stand in over 1,000,000 homes unabashedly admires the old along with the new, perches himself on a stub-legged Indian chair in the house he designed for himself in Venice, Calif. His dining room (background] is furnished with his prize-winning 1944 chair. And, his black leather chair near by frankly owes a great deal to the Victorian functionalist, William Morris. The leather cushions have built-in wrinkles, Eames concedes, "but that is a clue that spells comfort to come, like a well-used first-baseman's mitt."