Raymond Loewy streamlined the century.
*His best design was his own life. As a young World War I French soldier, he redesigned and furnished his dugout and had his uniform tailored. As a famous New York designer, he custom-designed his own car and boat. He built himself multiple houses in Long Island, Mexico, Palm Springs and France. One had a swimming pool that wandered in and out of the living room.
He looked, acted and lived like a movie star, and even died like one this week at 92. In Monte Carlo.
*Loewy may have spent as much time designing himself as the products that made him famous -- the bullet-shaped S1 locomotive, the which-way-is-it-going Studebaker, the Coke-bottle inspired Avanti car. Though far from tall, and built rather like a draft horse, he managed to convey the illusion that he, too, was streamlined.He had a great shock of wavy hair, gray except when the bluing was too heavy. His mustache was suitable for twirling.In his eighties, through exercise or artifice, he looked younger than he did in his sixties.
*In 1975, when he came to the Renwick Gallery to plan the show of his life's work, he was as carefully turned out as if he were to be exhibited. He kept the catalogue of his design in a neatly indexed red leather notebook before anyone had a Filofax.
Lloyd Herman, then the Renwick director, remembers him as "dapper -- tan suit, brown-and-white striped shirt, brown-and-white polka dot tie. He used to talk about MAYA -- Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable design, but he himself reached back to an earlier age, in clothing and manner," said Herman. He looked like a man from the '20s and '30s.
* He was courtly to women, almost a stage version of a Frenchman. But he gave his two wives, especially Viola, his second wife, a strong role in his organization.
*In 1919, Loewy brought to America from his native France an idea fashioned by the 19th-century Paris couturier: the designer as an essential ingredient in a product. At 23, he fell into his first profession as a fashion illustrator, when he donated a drawing to a ship's auction on his way to America. The buyer of the drawing gave him letters of introduction to a magazine editor in New York.
*Loewy claimed to have been the first industrial designer, as well as the first to be sold with his product. Those who grew up in the '40s and '50s remember him, not only as the first designer pictured on the cover of Time, but also in hundreds of photographs, leaning against his creations.
*Loewy, who had designed the packages and logos that made so many products famous, did the same thing for himself. His flamboyant, if streamlined, signature on an object became as prized as "by appointment to the royal family." His favorite motto, inscribed in his wonderfully funny autobiography, "Never Leave Well Enough Alone," was Oscar Wilde's "One must be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
* Today, we are accustomed to the names of Calvin Klein and Bill Blass on cigarettes, chocolates and sheets, as well as underwear. But before Klein and Blass there was Loewy. More than 50 years ago, stores cut the names of designers out of clothes. Industrial designers, if they existed at all, were oil-stained wretches fiddling in the factories.
The Bauhaus designers convinced the critics that good design would save the world. Loewy sold manufacturers the belief that good design sells products.
Much of Loewy's work was decorating or slipcovering existing machines -- though he pleaded once: "Say I was against styling, right from the start."
A member of Congress once accused the Post Office of paying Loewy a great deal of money just to advise turning the eagle's head from left to right on the Post Office logo.
He was once asked why he put the two XX's in Exxon, and he said because people would notice.
He painted a stripe down the middle of the ceiling of the French Concorde to make it seem wider.
Loewy would go anywhere to sell a design. He used to say that creativity was "10 percent inspiration and 90 percent transportation." He rented a seaplane once to pursue the head of Pennsylvania Railroad. Loewy sat down with John F. Kennedy on the floor of the Oval Office and cut out paper decals till they'd decided how to make Air Force One look like a proper presidential icon.
But not all his designs were prettification. He had studied engineering before joining the Army and, he always said, had an intuition about how to make things work. He used clay to model his designs, a quicker, cheaper material than industry's usual wood or metal, as well as an artistic rather than mechanical technique.
Loewy loved speed. At 15, he won a prize in a toy airplane contest and at 16 he had a business making and selling the plane. He was perhaps the first to try to convince Detroit to make compact cars. When he was designing the Avanti, the Studebaker Starlight and Starliner Coupes, he plastered his office walls with signs saying "weight is the enemy." At 70, he took courses in race car driving.
His own favorite commission was the job of making Skylab habitable. He poked the porthole in Skylab so the astronauts could see the universe, made a three-sided table so no one would be at the head, and insisted on private space and time for each crew member.
Train buffs still talk about the way he put locomotives on the fast track. His streamlined trains, especially the S1, are among the most vivid images of the '30s and '40s.
He started in industrial design when the Depression reduced his profits from illustration. He sent out letters proposing to increase profits through good design, and the first to take him up was Sigmund Gestetner, the owner of Gestetner office machines.
He sent out for clay and in three days in 1929 he designed the Gestetner duplicating machine, which was used for more than a quarter of a century. Loewy's Sears Coldspot refrigerator of 1934 may have been the first appliance to be marketed for its looks.
Loewy was truly an international designer. He was influenced by his visits to Japan and in turn, his lectures and his Hallicrafters radio, among other things, inspired Sony's electronics design. In Loewy's last decade, he closed his New York office, moved back to France, and took on a number of consulting jobs for the Soviet Union.
Loewy was certainly not the only industrial designer of his age, nor necessarily the best -- Henry Dreyfuss, Walter Dorwin Teague, who were, with Loewy, the founders of the Society of Industrial Design in 1944, were also notable. But Loewy was the supreme salesman, not only of himself, but of the idea that simplicity is beauty and beauty is necessary.
Loewy had supreme confidence in himself and his work but seldom took himself too seriously. He was immensely proud to have been voted the only industrial designer among the 1,000 people who changed the 20th century. But he always added that on the same list were Winston Churchill -- and a notorious Frenchman named Henri Desire Landru who murdered 11 women