The round, Honeywell thermostat on your living room wall.
The Trimline, push-button telephone in your den.
The Big Ben alarm clock near your bed.
It's easy to become convinced that these ubiquitous, unobtrusive objects have existed since the dawn of time. That is part of their success: They streamline our lives. They make each day a little easier. They are easy to use and to ignore.
But these objects and the thousands of others that began as luxuries and now seem essentials did not spring into existence ready-made. They did not begin their lives discreetly round and polished, or with a comfortable grip, or clean-lined and compact. They had to be invented and improved upon, again and again.
Many of them owe their efficiency, their comfortableness, to a man of great and useful vision named Henry Dreyfuss.
Beginning in the early 1930s, he designed for mass production an extraordinary series of functional objects, some of which are still in use. Dreyfuss, perhaps more than any other individual, in that way changed how professionals view industrial design: from exclusively a matter of style to "fitting machines to people."
About 200 of his sketches, prototypes and production models are on exhibit through August 31 at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York -- a display that reminds us that objects ranging from kitchen spoons to locomotives require design.
Born in New York in 1904, Dreyfuss showed a flair for proportion and balance from the time he adorned his mother's hat with fresh fruits and vegetables stolen from the icebox. He never went to college, began his career in stage design, worked in the studio of Norman Bel Geddes and then founded his own.
He designed sets for Broadway and then objects for mass production, such as General Electric's Flat-Top Refrigerator and Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s Toperator washing machine. He created tabletop carafes for American Thermos, kitchen implements for the Washburn Company and Birtman Electric Co.'s "Visible" toaster, a marvel that allowed you to watch the slice of bread turn brown. The coiled cord on telephones is by Dreyfuss.
His fondness for efficiency permeated his life. Dreyfuss wore only brown, a strategy that eliminated deliberations about which shoes or what necktie to use. Whenever he visited New York, he stayed at the same hotel, the Plaza. He always ate at one of two restaurants, the Plaza's Oak Room or "21." (He eventually designed the interior of the Plaza's Persian Room.)
He was also a bit of a showman. He perfected the technique of drawing upside-down, wooing and astonishing clients. He loved shopping, often surprising his wife, Doris, with whimsical gifts, which she would later return to the stores.
That mixture -- a penchant for streamlining and a fondness for people -- may have informed his greatest insight: that the products he designed should comfortably fit the needs of people who use them.
Dreyfuss designed Shakespearean costumes, John Deere tractors, bathroom fixtures, vacuum cleaners and, for a time, McCall's magazine. He died in 1972, committing suicide with his wife when she fell ill.
His influence is still with us, in almost every room of every house.
Pub Date: 7/08/97