Brain Pickings

Iconic Designer Henry Dreyfuss on Beauty, Serenity, and Shaping Public Taste

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“Man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty.”

The role of the singer, argued Lilli Lehmann in 1902, is to educate people about good music. The role of the writer, argued E. B. White in 1969, is to educate people about good writing. In his 1955 classic Designing for People (public library), legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, mastermind of such cultural staples as the very first answering machine and the once-ubiquitous Hoover vacuum cleaner, considers the role of the designer as a tastemaker, educating the public about what constitutes good design.

Dreyfuss writes:

It is my contention that well-designed, mass-produced goods constitute a new American art form and are responsible for the creation of a new American culture. These products of the applied arts are a part of everyday American living and working, not merely museum pieces to be seen on a Sunday afternoon.

I find no basic conflict between those who appreciate the fine arts and those who respond to classic examples of the applied arts. They are stirred by the same impulse, a desire for beauty.

[…]

Public taste, as used here, embraces a heterogeneous mass of people, not any particular income group or educational level. Some will be moved by a Van Gogh, others will feel elation at the sight of a sleek jet plane. Exposure to a fine piece of sculpture is likely to create in a person an awareness of the excellent lines of a thermos jug or a lamp, and vice versa. Thus, when a good design is mass-produced, its influence is tremendous. This impact will be translated into an improvement in people’s taste when they go shopping. Unconsciously, a person’s contact with beauty quickens and heightens his perception and taste for all forms of art.

Guided by a certain belief in human aspiration and the conviction that “the American people will listen to good music, if given the chance,” Dreyfuss observes the capacity for betterment that technology affords us — a prescient vision for what the internet, too, could empower if used wisely:

It may be recalled that, at the inception of radio, fear was expressed that people would stop going to concerts if they could hear the same symphonies in their homes without cost. Yet concert-hall box-office receipts are proof that radio has educated a huge audience to good music. There is reason to believe that television, particularly color television, will do the same for art, literature, education, history, and the crafts. Already, able critics and teachers are guiding the uninitiated into these provocative realms. A half-hour’s tour through a museum with a TV camera can bring to life a wealth of art and knowledge that could otherwise not be seen in months.

Furthering his faith in the common capacity for good taste, Dreyfuss champions the life-enriching power of beauty:

Most people have inherent good taste, but they can’t be expected to use it if they can’t find good things, Many persons are intimidated by what the stores and advertisements tell them is the proper thing. Many want what their neighbors have. But given an opportunity to have fine things, people generally choose them.

[…]

It would be fatuous to assume that every man is constantly aware of the details of his surroundings. I do not believe this to be true. But I am convinced that a well-set dinner table will aid the flow of gastric juices; that a well-lighted and planned classroom is conducive to study; that carefully selected colors chosen with an eye to psychological influence will develop better and more lucrative work habits for the man at the machine; that a quietly designed conference room at the United Nations headquarters might well help influence the representatives to make a calm and just decision. I believe that man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty. We find our most serene moments in great cathedrals, in the presence of fine pictures and sculpture, on a university campus, or listening to magnificent music. Industry, technology, and mass production have made it possible for the average man to surround himself with this serenity in his home and in his place of work. Perhaps it is this serenity which we need most in the world, today.

Pair this with W. I. B. Beveridge’s 1957 meditation on scientific taste and be sure to treat yourself to Designing for People, indispensable in its entirety.

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