Why Teague Matters

photo courtesy of Syracuse University

Walter Dorwin Teague, Sr., was the most important figure in the professionalization of industrial design in the United States. Although Norman Bel Geddes also entered the realm of industrial design in 1927 and Raymond Loewy had a more flamboyant persona, neither of these contemporaries could equal Teague’s ability to finesse client relationships and see them into long-term accounts. Only Henry Dreyfuss, the youngest of these “Big Four,” could compete with Teague regarding the latter, and he took many pages from the older man’s book. What Teague accomplished between 1927 and 1941 was unprecedented in scope. He assembled a consultant design firm that offered a full range of services from architecture to graphic design—with the demonstrated practice to back that claim up. Often the vehicle for persuading Americans to embrace modernism was Teague’s own profound understanding of America’s design heritage itself. While he greatly admired Le Corbusier’s writings and architecture, it was his own tempered approach—always with the general public in mind—that made him perhaps the critical figure in modernism’s success in the United States.

Teague was conservative in every outward manner, including his demeanor and dress, and sold the services of his design agency to equally staid clients, including Consolidated Edison, Ford Motor Company and U.S. Steel. The best assessment of the regard in which his contemporaries held him was his impact on the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, where he not only served on the Board of Design, but was also responsible for nine different corporate displays.[i] Bel Geddes may have been the author of the Fair’s greatest success, the “Futurama” (properly the “Highways and Horizons” exhibit for General Motors), but the Teague firm’s fundamental investigations into exhibition design during the 1930s can be seen as a forerunner to this quintessential demonstration of the industrial designers’ prowess.[ii]

Teague, along with Loewy and Dreyfuss, found even greater success following World War II. He served as the test case for the legitimacy of industrial design in 1940, when, with the support of these others, he successfully defended the assertion that industrial design was a profession (by citing its contributions to the public good) before the appeals court in New York State, setting a national precedent. For this and other accomplishments, he was named the first President of the Society of Industrial Designers (today the Industrial Designers Society of America) by his peers in 1944.

Teague’s personal story was one of travail and triumph; from his modest background, it is hard to extrapolate the sophistication he was to show in his work later in his career. Born in 1883 in Decatur, Indiana, his father was a circuit-riding Methodist minister who later became a full-time tailor. The Teagues had six children and lived in Pendleton, Indiana, in straitened circumstances, with little money but many books. Walter went to work for the local newspaper at 16 as a Jack of all trades, and may have provided some illustrations for the publication in addition to serving as a reporter. He later claimed that an unspecified book on architecture inspired him to pursue art as a career (he would later attempt and eventually succeed in having himself licensed as an architect in New York). Following high school, he worked at a variety of jobs and in 1903 left Indiana with $70 secreted in an overcoat sewn by his father. Upon his arrival at the Manhattan Young Men’s Christian Association, he checked hats to defray the cost of his room. There he met one of his future assistants, John Brophy, who would prove essential in running the office’s daily affairs. Studying at the Art Students’ League, Teague worked as a sign painter and illustrated mail order catalogues, while refusing to become involved in fashion illustration. It was through the Art Students’ League that he met his first wife, Celia Fehon, a fellow artist.Shortly thereafter, he was hired by advertising impresario Walter Whitehead to work at the Ben Hampton Advertising Agency. When Whitehead left for the larger firm of Calkins & Holden, Teague went with him, and from 1908 was ideally situated to observe the dynamics of the contemporary American marketplace. Earnest Elmo Calkins, convinced that advertising could elevate public taste, recognized Teague’s abilities to reconcile the art of the past with the means of production of the present day. Teague’s later rhetoric of design as the leading edge of popular taste had much to do with Calkins’s own beliefs. Calkins, who proclaimed beauty as “the new business tool,” was prescient in his predictions regarding the emerging consumer economy in the United States.

By 1911, Teague was active as a freelancer, working first in typography and subsequently in decorative design. He probably shared offices with well-known typographers Bruce Rogers and Frederic Goudy, and became one of the founders of Pynson Printers. Teague became known for using abstractions of Renaissance and baroque frames for advertising art, simplifying them for the high-volume printing presses of the day. Teague designed the ornate frames for the Arrow Collar advertisements of the 1920s with illustrations of the idealized square-jawed young man by American illustrator J. L. Leyendecker (1874-1951). These and others for prominent clients resulted in further assignments and a steady and increasing income. The sobriquet “Teague borders” became generic, referring to frames of a certain type, whether Teague designed them or not, and were the essence of good taste in the popular arts during the 1920s.

The influence of E.E. Calkins’s thinking and Teague’s own experience in advertising may have contributed to the latter’s increasing involvement with three-dimensional design. One of the greatest influences on the emerging industrial design profession in the United States during the second decade of the 20th century was the advanced state of advertising versus the products it promoted. Seeking help from advertising agencies, manufacturers hired firms like Calkins & Holden for advice, and these agencies eventually set up their own departments for handling the job of glamorizing clients’ products. For example, beginning in 1929 Egmont Arens (1888-1966) was appointed head of the Industrial Styling section of Calkins & Holden. Arens was later well known in his own right as an industrial designer and as the creator of packaging for A&P Stores (the graphic design for the Eight O’Clock Coffee bag was just one of dozens of Arens’s revolutionary designs) and the Hobart “Streamliner” meat slicer of 1940. Yet Arens, like many other of Teague’s contemporaries, would never achieve his prominence or standing as an authority on industrial design.

Among his peers, Teague was regarded as an intellectual with sophisticated taste. How he came by this reputation is difficult to assess, but he was one of many who found New York City a living classroom. By the mid-1920s, he became aware that the demand for border designs was declining and that something was afoot in European design that he should investigate first-hand (no doubt reports from the Exposition in Paris intrigued him). On June 30, 1926, claiming to forsake graphic design, he sailed for Europe. There he visited the architectural creations of Le Corbusier and acquired some knowledge of the work by Germany’s Bauhaus from an exhibition he saw in Italy (he probably did not visit the institution in Dessau). Throughout his life he would make much of his knowledge of design currents in Western Europe, and, following the proper introduction, would have his suits tailored on Savile Row in London, repeatedly placing him on the “Ten Best Dressed” list during the 1930s. To the British design establishment following World War II, Teague was an important example of American success in bringing design to the mass marketplace. He would accept an honorary Royal Designers for Industry Award in 1951 and address the Royal Society of Arts in 1959, the year before his death.

Teague’s most important personal contact in business during the 1920s was Adolf Stuber, son of Eastman Kodak’s president. Teague met Stuber through Richard F. Bach, who served both as professor at Columbia University and curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. An important proponent and promoter of industrial design during the post-war period, Bach displayed Teague’s work at the museum consistently throughout the 1920s.[iii] Through this association, Teague became a personal advisor to Stuber and helped redesign the interiors of his Rochester home in the modern manner, probably his first commission in interior design. The Kodak account would be crucial to the start of Teague’s career, and began modestly with a leather carrying case for a folding camera already in production in 1927. This foot in the door allowed him to begin facelifting items in Kodak’s existing line (such as his well-known “Constructivist” appliqué for the lens surround, back, and package of the 1A Gift Camera of 1930), and the first new and “all plastic” Kodak, the Baby Brownie of 1934. A huge success, the Brownie sold for 95 cents in the Sears, Roebuck catalogue, and returned Kodak to its roots in low-cost popular photography with vigor.[iv] At the same time, however, more advanced cameras were in the works, such as the “Bantam Special.” Generally regarded as a standout among Teague’s designs from this period, the Bantam was an advanced camera meant to compete with European (notably German) contemporaries: it even made use of German components until British naval forces sent the final consignment of parts to the bottom of the ocean early in World War II. Teague defended his design skillfully against aesthetes such as Alfred Barr and Lewis Mumford, stating that the horizontal “speed lines” (not an appliqué, but the actual metal body of the camera) provided a surer grip for the user and reduced the likelihood of the black enamel finish between becoming chipped, thus punching a hole in their argument that Teague was a mere stylist. The office would go on to design the “Super Kodak,” which incorporated an early form of automatic exposure control, and following World War II, the first of the commercial Polaroid Land cameras, the Model 80. Such projects began the office’s appreciation of what would become known as human factors (so called ergonomics in Europe) following the war.

As there were over 100 employees in the Teague office in the later 1930s, it must have been a whirlwind of activity in the run-up to the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. In addition to the usual ranks of young men in shirtsleeves seated before drafting boards, there would have been a model shop of major proportions as well as the necessary office staff to keep client relations (and billings) running smoothly. It was the assembly of this team and its management that was the key to Teague’s success. He quickly left the role of designer for that of salesman to the firm’s array of talents, combining this role with a self-proclaimed expertise in matters of popular taste. Such bootstrapping was critical to the first years of the industrial design profession and was the norm rather than the exception. In fact, Teague was the pioneer, exploring the mass psyche in articles such as “When Will Radios Be Styled?” The answer became: “when Walter Dorwin Teague styles them.” staJohn T. Moss was probably Teague’s first employee and his primary one, from 1929 to about 1934, when he left the fledgling firm to begin working at Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago. This followed his commercially successful silks imprinted with images of landmarks of the 1933-34 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair and the 1934 “Classique Moderne” range of pewter tabletop objects. These objects, with their unthreatening and softened art deco lines, are characteristic of the progressive aesthetic Teague espoused, at once reconciling their forms and manufacturing to mass production. This translation of French modernist aesthetics (almost always based in craft) to an American mass market and factory production was the principal success of the firm’s early years and carried through to the World’s Fair work, becoming more overtly American in subject matter along the way. Moss brought a range of talents to the firm in this seminal stage, including his facility with the airbrush, which proved crucial to the creation of the seamless image cultivated by the first generation of American industrial designers. Robert Ensign, another early member of the Teague staff who for some time held the second highest position in the office, was effectively in charge of product design except when pre-empted by the boss’s son, Dorwin Teague (formally Walter Dorwin Teague, Jr.). Ensign designed the Westinghouse “Diadex” mobile X-ray unit in 1936, a signal event that showed that industrial design’s ability to add a look of quality, and even tactile appeal, even to the worlds of medical and scientific equipment, which had been thought of as the preserve of a pure functionalism, or more accurately, the “engineer’s aesthetic” with few concessions to human capabilities.

Robert Jordan Harper, a Cornell University graduate in architecture, was largely responsible for the appearance and logical layout of the Texas Oil Company’s (Texaco) service stations that made their debut in the mid-1930s. Celebrated as a success from their inception for creating a near-instant corporate identity for an upstart petroleum refiner hoping to go national, Harper’s analysis of the challenge is regarded as a masterpiece of advance planning. Rather than relying on a single layout, Harper created five models that were suited to a range of situations from a dense urban street corner to the splendid isolation of rural locations. They were perhaps the first structures to be considered from the vantage point of a moving automobile—a criterion much celebrated in Robert Venturi’s later commentary on the “duck versus the decorated shed.” C. Stowe Myers, an architect who had worked for John Russell Pope and subsequently for Norman Bel Geddes, came to the firm in 1934. Myers rendered the line drawings for Geddes’s book Horizons (Boston: Little, Brown, 1932) and for the proportional scheme of the Parthenon that appeared as an appendix in Teague’s Design This Day: The Technique of Order in the Machine Age (Harcourt, Brace, 1940). One of his first projects for the office was a Kodak showroom in Paris, for which the largest photomurals then available were made, foreshadowing the later gigantic displays once seen in Grand Central Terminal. Harper and Myers were made partners by Teague in 1939, the first workers in any of the offices of the “Big Four” industrial designers to achieve this distinction. And finally, there was the boss’s son Dorwin, incredibly precocious, often at odds with his father in matters of taste, and undeniably gifted. It was Dorwin who was responsible for the Marmon “16,” the last gasp of a fabulous automotive company in 1932. It is considered a collectible today just below the level of the greatest Duesenbergs, in spite of it being Dorwin’s first major design. Dorwin’s ability to fuse engineering and aesthetics was characteristic of the next generation of industrial designers; certainly none of the founders of the profession shared this capability. Dorwin also played a major role in the design of Bryant oil heaters and furnaces, the “Model 96” Mimeograph duplicating machine for A.B. Dick, the crawler tractor for Caterpillar, and the “Model 100” National Cash Register, an iconic design that was the company’s most successful product. An internal grinding machine redesigned for the Heald Company in the late 1930s further illustrated Dorwin’s application of engineering principles to industrial design. The fact that machine tool firms such as Heald sought the services of industrial designers was an acknowledgment by manufacturers that engineering staffs alone could not solve all of the problems posed by such complex machinery, and that even this type of equipment, distant indeed from what might be described as a “consumer item,” was sold to buyers on the basis of its appearance as well as its dependability and robustness. [In 1912, the Allgemeine Elecktrizität Gesellschaft's (AEG) marketing director Paul Jordan had cogently observed, "A motor must look like a birthday present."] Other participants in the assignment were Robert Nowland and his brother-in-law Peter Schladermundt, later partners with Harold Van Doren in Van Doren, Nowland & Schladermundt. This too was an important premonition of the direction industrial design would take in America following the war.

Teague took an active interest in American antiques, and modern design was supposedly banned from his farmhouse and weekend retreat in Flemington, New Jersey (he maintained an apartment at River House in Manhattan as well). He decorated the “boys’ rooms” at the Clara and Edsel Ford home in the modern style, however, and an examination of the corporate lounges created for Ford for the decade’s major expositions ran from the rampantly circular, as seen at the Chicago “Century of Progress” Exposition of 1933-34, to an aesthetic that could be compared favorably to contemporary Gilbert Rohde by the end of the decade at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.

By the late 1930s, having put together such an enviable team, Teague was loathe to part with this pool of talent following the rapid drop-off in business following the opening of the New York World’s Fair. He went to Washington, D.C., in search of work on war contracts, seeking assignments “engineers couldn’t handle or didn’t want.” While some of the younger members of the office scoffed at what they saw as a fool’s journey by the man they dubbed “the Great Engineer,” they were no doubt surprised when Teague returned with contracts, and soon the office was deeply involved with war work. In this too he played the role of a pioneer and industrial design’s involvement with military projects would grow astronomically during and following World War II. But that is another story.

For all his pronouncements about modern design in the press and in his various writings, Teague is perhaps the most challenging of these first industrial designers to identify with. A Republican in his politics, he was more comfortable in the boardrooms of his clients than in the bullpen with his designers. He shared with many of his contemporaries the delusion that he was, in fact, somehow the “author” of these many hundreds of designs. And yet, as we cannot talk about the American automobile without discussing Henry Ford, it’s impossible to talk about American design without acknowledging Teague and becoming involved with his aesthetics, for the path he pioneered would become the mainstream. Following World War II, the firms established by Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss would become as important as Teague’s, while Bel Geddes would fade from the scene. Teague stands astride the decade of the 1930s as an unacknowledged colossus.


i These were the Ford Motor Company, National Cash Register, Consolidated Edison, U.S. Steel, etc.

ii See Roland Marchand, “The Designers Go to the Fair: Walter Dorwin Teague and the Professionalization of Corporate Industrial Exhibits, 1933-1940,” Design Issues 8, no. 1 (Fall 1991), 4-17. The following issue deals with Bel Geddes and the Futurama.

iii Indeed, Teague even created the poster announcing the Met’s “Contemporary Exhibition of Weaving and Glassware” in 1929, in which a young woman is portrayed examining a piece of modern glassware (which is in fact a preserves jar designed by Teague for the Turner Glass Company, one of his very first assignments outside of graphic design).

iv The original Kodak Brownie’s introduction in 1900 had been themed around popular cartoon characters known by the same name created by Canadian Palmer Cox in the 1880s. This campaign (“You push the button and we do the rest”) was an important step in taking photography out of the realm of the professional and serious amateur and into the world of the snapshot.

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