Ettore Sottsass and Perry A. King’s Valentine portable typewriter and case for Olivetti.
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The Atomic espresso maker for Brevetti Robbiati was designed in the 1950s by an unknown artist.
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The television, the telephone, the blender and even the espresso maker—they are all functional objects that surround us and make our lives easier and more enjoyable. But because they are so ubiquitous, we seldom think about the fact that they were once products that had to be designed for mass consumption. A new exhibition at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center will address the topic of midcentury-modern design and the inherent tension between art/creativity and big business/commodity. Creativity on the Line: Design and the Corporate World, 1950-1975 consists of a wide range of objects, from typewriters to corporate logos, borrowed from museum collections and company archives around the United States. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Wim de Wit, adjunct curator of architecture and design at Stanford, and will be on view from April 26 to Aug. 21.
The idea for the show was inspired by de Wit’s research into the International Design Conference held annually in Aspen. “The conferences of the first 20 to 25 years almost always dealt with the underlying theme of ambivalence that industrial and graphic designers felt about their work for the corporate world,” explains de Wit. The exhibition traces the rise of mass-produced objects following the economic boom in America after World War II. Influenced by the artists and products of the Bauhaus in Germany, where the emphasis was on high-quality goods that could be enjoyed by people of all economic classes, companies like IBM, Mobil Oil and Westinghouse realized that hiring talented and creative designers was good business.
Creativity on the Line includes objects designed by major American figures like Eliot Noyes and Paul Rand (for IBM and Westinghouse), as well as Charles and Ray Eames (for Herman Miller). In spite of the fact that these designers were conflicted about working for large corporations, according to de Wit, his research confirms that none of them ever felt that they gave up their status as artists. Although the exhibition focuses on a specific 25-year period, he believes that the tensions between designers and the corporate world still exists today. He does assert, however, that things are changing. “I think that all the young people who want to be the next Steve Jobs would not worry too much about that problem.” 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford
Originally published in the April/May issue of Silicon Valley