Innovative designer left nothing untouched


Raymond Loewy, the "father of streamlining" whose designs for everything from locomotives to refrigerators to lipstick cylinders helped to define an age, left his mark in Baltimore.

Loewy and his colleagues at Raymond Loewy Associates, the New York City design firm he established in the 1930s, touched every aspect of modern life.

"Loewy and his firm changed an astonishing number of objects, from bathroom scales and toasters to cookies and corporate logos," wrote the Los Angeles Times at his death in 1986.

"In fact, it would be hard to spend a day in America - or in much of the rest of the world - without encountering the 'Loewy look.' That look emphasized sleek, clean lines and emblems and colors that stick in the mind."

The Paris-born Loewy's business acumen began early, when after winning a model airplane contest at 14, he established a company to market the model throughout France.

He graduated from the University of Paris in 1910, and studied advanced engineering at the Ecole de Laneau.

After serving in World War I, Loewy immigrated to New York City, arriving with only $50.

During the 1920s, he supported himself by doing fashion illustrations for Vogue and Harpers Bazaar and working as a window designer for Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue.

However, it was the poor design of many mass-produced goods of the 1920s that caught his eye and changed his career.

By the time he came to New York, "Prosperity was at its peak but America was turning out mountains of ugly, sleazy junk," Loewy wrote in his autobiography, Never Leave Well Enough Alone, recently republished by Johns Hopkins University Press.

"I was offended that my adopted country was swamping the world with so much junky-looking stuff," Loewy said in a 1979 interview.

His life and career dramatically changed when Sigmund Gestetner asked him to improve the look of his Gestetner duplicator. Gestetner was so impressed with Loewy's design that his machine remained unchanged for the next 40 years.

Loewy's work also marked the beginning of the era of functional industrial design.

"Industrial design was being born and I worked at it frantically," he wrote in his book.

Sleek, clean lines combined with curves and functional efficiency were the hallmarks of a Loewy design.

"Good design keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended," he wrote.

Loewy's career soared after Sears, Roebuck & Co. commissioned him to design its Coldspot refrigerator.

He also designed the Pennsylvania Railroad's all-welded GG-I high-speed electric locomotive in 1934 for its New York-Washington service. The locomotive appeared daily in Baltimore through the 1970s until Amtrak withdrew it from service.

When George Washington Hill, president of American Tobacco Co., asked him if he could improve the packaging for its Lucky Strikes brand, Loewy bet him $50,000 that he could, and collected on the wager after sales took off.

After World War II, Loewy expanded his repertoire when he began designing stores for Lord & Taylor, International Harvester and California's Lucky's supermarket chain.

In Baltimore, he designed the site plan as well as the exterior and interior of Stewart's department store, which opened in the 6400 block of York Road in 1955. He also designed Stewart's Reisterstown Road store.

"It was essentially a windowless box with white brick, stone and slate accents, and colored awnings," wrote Edward Gunts, The Sun's architectural critic, several years ago.

Many of the characteristic Loewy touches were removed when the building was converted recently into Baltimore County's Drumcastle Government Center. A heavy, yellowish, stucco-like material now covers the once smoothly elegant facade.

Loewy himself was far from humble. "I found it difficult to reconcile success with humility. I tried it first but it meant avoiding the very essence of my career - total exhilaration and the ecstasy of creativity," he said.

The most perfectly designed object, according to Loewy, combining both functional and artistic criteria, is the egg.

"In spite of its thin shell (7/1000 of an inch)," he wrote, "it can support a gradually applied pressure of about 20 pounds without breaking. It is so formed as to create a minimum of friction while progressing through the beast; a good example of streamlining adapted to a slow-moving object. Any other shape - a square, for instance - would make the hen's life intolerable."

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