People hearing without listening

I’m writing a long piece on how the automobile world’s ’50’s Tailfin Frenzy came about and disappeared, and the research has been interesting. I came across the following image and quotation on a website called viz., a blog belonging to the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin and maintained by members of the Visual Rhetoric Project Group:


It’s Bel Geddes design for the Toledo Scale Factory Machine Shop. What’s so striking about the design is its focus on aesthetics. This isn’t surprising, of course, given that in most everything Bel Geddes ever designed, function follows form. – (on 6/13/13)

I think this is a clear lesson about distortion through repetition, the old parlor game of “telephone.” Referred to as the seminal work on industrial design in the US, Norman Bel Geddes authored a book titled “Horizons” in 1932. As part of my writing project, I located and have read the text. It is particularly important to my project because it marks a point at which automobile design becomes more and more “modern,” or more properly, streamlined.

Somewhere along the line, an historian (or two, or three) noted that Bel Geddes began his career as a theatrical set designer and concluded that his works, therefore, concentrated on illusion and the superficial. A certain number of his creations support this conclusion without question, but these do not include the Toledo Scale Company project, improperly titled here the “Toledo Scale Factory Machine Shop.”  The machine shop (the circular building) is actually located next to the laboratory building (in the forground); the factory itself is a separate building, not pictured in the illustration from the viz. website.

While the outside of Bel Geddes’ machine shop has a fantastical aspect, a reading of his description of the project from Horizons reveals that it was the functional aspect of the work done in the machine shop that dictated the shape and layout of the building. The circular shape is a nod to future expansion of the machine shop beyond the initial needs of the company. The finned “hat” on the center of the building is the roof over the space to be used immediately following construction. The roof would expand outwards as more space was required.

While the viz. article says that the design was presented to the Toledo Scale Company board by its president with a warning concerning its likely cost and unusual appearance, Bel Geddes claimed that he had priced out his design and that his design came in at a lower cost per square foot than conventional designs. Further, he claimed, the savings that he had designed into the building by virtue of improving systems of lighting, supply, and waste removal would make his design even more economical.

What was it that attracted the president of the Toledo Scale Company to Bel Geddes? According to Bel Geddes it was his functional design of a hand-crafted india-ink fountain pen that he used daily and kept on his desk. The design of that useful implement stuck in the president’s mind and caused him to call Bel Geddes in to design a campus for his company on their 80-acre site outside Toledo.

Once a stereotype is strongly attached to a person or event, it is difficult to dislodge it. Yes, Bel Geddes got his start as a theatrical set designer. But to assume, therefore, that in everything he did “function follows form,” is to neglect the lengths that he went to in order to incorporate function into his designs. This makes his designs neither good nor bad, simply more complex than can summarized with a three-word cliché.

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