This post was re-published with the kind permission of Peter Stevens, one of Britain's most well-known and sought-after automotive and industrial designers. For more of his insights head over to his Facebook page.
Little known American designer Olive Dennis was born in 1885 in Pennsylvania but grew up in Baltimore. She gained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Goucher College in 1908, and a Masters degree in mathematics from Columbia University the following year. She then obtained a civil engineering degree from Cornell University!
She was initially hired as a draughtsman by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company as a bridge designer, but just six months later, the president of the railroad, impressed with her abilities, promoted her to "Service Engineer". He said that since half the B&O's passengers were women, upgrades to the rolling stock would be best handled by a female engineer.
Among the innovations that Olive Dennis introduced on passenger trains were seats that could partially recline; stain-resistant upholstery in passenger cars; larger dressing rooms for women that were supplied with free paper towels, liquid soap and drinking cups; ceiling lights that could be dimmed at night; individual window vents (which she patented) to allow passengers to bring in fresh air while trapping dust; and, later, air conditioned compartments. So successful was her streamlined Baldwin ‘Cincinnatian' that the design was sold to Indian State Railways for their Southern Railway in 1949.
"No matter how successful a business may seem to be", she said, "it can gain even greater success if it gives consideration to the woman's viewpoint". Olive Dennis' unique perspective as a traveling woman with training as a technical engineer influenced the travel industry nationwide even after her death in 1957.
Paul Phillippe Cret (October 1876 - September 1945) was born in France and studied at the École des Beau-Arts in Cret and then at the Atelier Jean-Louis Pascal in Paris. He arrived in America in 1903 where he took a teaching job at the University of Pennsylvania. Whilst visiting his family home he was trapped back in France by the outbreak of the First World War. He enlisted and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery.
On returning to the US he opened an architectural practice that was very influential in introducing a new simplified classical form to his buildings. In 1931 he designed a master plan for the University of Texas in Austin and built the Beaux-Arts Main Building (1934-37). He was retained by the Burlington and Quincy Railroad to design their ‘Burlington Zephyr' trains, he used a very modern fluted polished aluminum exterior finish which came to represent the world's view of what a modern train should look like. He followed this design with another for the Santa Fe ‘Super Chief'. One of his most impressive contributions to American railways was his design for the Cincinnati Union Railway Terminal dominated by a stunning clock on its main face.
It is inevitable that French-born American, Raymond Loewy, would feature heavily in this piece. Loewy (November 1893 – July 1986) was born in Paris and, even as a young man, quickly gained a reputation as a talented designer. He designed a very successful model aircraft in 1908, winning the Gordon Bennett cup and then commercializing the little plane.
He served in the French Army during the First World War as a captain and was given the Croix de Guerre. After the war Loewy emigrated to America and started work as a window dresser for department stores such as Saks and Macy's. He quickly set up a design studio with partners A. Baker Barnhart, William Snaith and John Breen.
They gained their first commission from Gestetner for a duplicating machine. This was soon followed by work for Westinghouse, and the Hupp Motor Company for the styling of the Hupmobile, but he is probably best known for his work with long time client Studebaker (enough for another complete story).
His impressive client list included Coca Cola, for the famous bottle, Electrolux refrigerators, Lucky Strike packaging, Farmall Tractors, Greyhound Lines for the ‘Scenicruiser', Le Creuset kitchenware, the US Postal service and even the interior of the Air France Concord aircraft. His work with the Baldwin Locomotive Company for the Pennsylvania Railroad included a number of modernist streamline styles; the K4, S1 and T1 steam locomotives, and later the GG1 electric loco.
Loewy was never one to miss a photo opportunity. He was a brilliant self-publicist and a great ambassador for his company, he liked good living, attractive women and his self-designed house in Palm Springs. His success did not endear him to all his competitors who were sometimes inclined to describe Loewy as a ‘stylist' whilst characterizing themselves as ‘designers' (does this still sound familiar!). He retired in 1980, at the age of 87, and moved back to France where he had a house in Monte Carlo. He died there in 1986.
The British don't come out of this period too badly; we designed some great looking and technically advanced streamlined locomotives in the past, the P7 Pacific and of course the famous A4 class ‘Mallard' – holder of the world speed record for a steam powered train at 126 mph (202kmh), and yes I know that there are some who say that the record should be attributed to another locomotive from another country but 202kmh seems rather convincing to me!
What is particularly interesting about Loewy, Cret, Kuhler, Dreyfuss and Dennis is the wide range of skills and interests that they all had. Today it is very difficult to work on a broad range of projects as a designer; specialists are what industry thinks it wants and narrow specialists are what design colleges are obsessed with turning out. Within a design consultancy, designers are expected to be specialists, or if one becomes the design principal of one's own consultancy it is all too easy for your specialization to become one of team manager. Something I have been lucky enough to mostly avoid!