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Mid-century corporate design through 126 iconic objects


The Lettera 22 Portable Typewriter for Olivetti designed by Marcello Nizolli in 1950; the sketchbook page, from 1967, featuring the logo design for Caterpillar Tractor Co; the iconic 1961-IBM Selectric typewriter designed by Eliot Noyes and the Model 500 Telephone for Bell Telephone Company from 1946-48 by Henry Dreyfuss—these are just some of the landmark objects on view at a major exhibition, Creativity on the Line: Design for the Corporate World, at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.


“77 objects are two-dimensional—drawings, sketches, posters, and printed matter, while 39 are three-dimensional, such as product design, furniture, models, colour-chip book for IBM Selectric, and more. The exhibition includes five books as well,” says Wim de Wit, adjunct curator of architecture and design, Cantor Arts Center.


It’s interesting to see a narrative emerge about the relationship between the designers of the 1950s-70s with the top management of large corporations. To establish these connections, de Wit went through the archives of the International Design Conference in Aspen, from 1951 to 2004. The conference was founded by Walter P Paepcke, of the Container Corporation of America, as a way to share with other companies the idea that good design was good for the business. The initial goal was to promote better understanding and partnerships between designers and representatives of the corporate world.


“Through careful reading of the announcements, minutes of board meetings, proceedings of the conferences, especially those of the 1950s and ‘60s, I realised that there was often a hidden message in the presentations, that one could summarise as an expression of fear for selling out to commerce,” says de Wit. At the same time, no matter how ambivalent the designers felt about this work, they tried to create the best products possible.


It is to showcase these thoughts and feelings, that the curatorial team has reserved one wall in the gallery space for quotes by these designers. For instance, there is a quote by American architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes, from a speech given at an IBM Design Seminar (1957), which has been showcased. It reads: “Design must be a function of management, attentive to but not controlled by sales or engineering departments.”


There’s another one, from 1960, by George D Culler, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art: “The future of the designer will depend on how well [management] can solve the problem of corporate adaptation, of [finding] a way (…) to achieve innovation within order, freedom within useful discipline.” One can see these quotes as soon as one enters the exhibition gallery. “In a way, they are hovering over the designs, so that one can experience the interaction between the two,” says de Wit.