Thrift Shopping: the man who redesigned America | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Thrift Shopping: the man who redesigned America

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Raymond Loewy came to the United States from his native France in 1919 to make his fortune; he was a penniless World War I vet who spoke no English. He went to work as a fashion illustrator and wound up fashioning the face of America, designing everything from lipsticks to spaceships over the course of a flamboyant, 50-year career in industrial design.

The great American consumer society was in its infancy when Loewy arrived. New inventions like automobiles and refrigerators were going into mass production looking pretty much like the horse-drawn carriages and iceboxes they were replacing. It was Loewy's genius to know that a revolutionary product that looked revolutionary would have a competitive edge, and to have the guts to pitch good design to industry barons who didn't give a whit about aesthetics.

It wasn't easy. When Loewy approached the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad with a sleek proposal for Pennsy's new steam engine, he was rewarded with an assignment to redesign the trash cans at Penn Station. But he hung on, eventually doing locomotives and nearly everything else on the commercial landscape. Loewy designed Hupmobile and Studebaker cars, International Harvester tractors, Lucky Strike cigarette packages, General Electric toasters, Greyhound buses, and the Shell Oil Company logo, to mention just a few.

In every case, he simplified down to the elegant essence of the thing, insisting that form at least give the impression of following function. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the cool, curvy, streamlined look of American products from the 1930s through the 1950s.

As his assignments multiplied, Loewy hired other designers and opened branch offices, including one in Chicago (on East Huron, then on Michigan Avenue). One of the assignments handled by the Chicago office was dinnerware design for Rosenthal, the fine German china manufacturer. For a few years after World War II Rosenthal couldn't sell its products in the United States under its own name. A new trade name--Continental China--was created for the American market, and Loewy's signature appeared along with it on the back of the dishes his firm designed.

We recently spied eight pieces of "Shadow Leaf," one of the Loewy-Rosenthal collaborations, at the Mount Sinai Hospital Resale Shop, 814 W. Diversey (935-1434). "Shadow Leaf" is luminous white china with a border relief and a simple leaf pattern at its center, tagged by an intriguing, almost ephemeral, shadow. The asking price for these pieces of design history is $3.50 each for four soup bowls; $3 each for four salad plates. The store's open every day, but shop on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday, when Sydney is there, and he may cut you an even better deal. There's a more complete set of another Loewy-Rosenthal pattern, "Threads," at Swank, which opens at 1450 W. Webster Wednesday, October 13; 348-4283. The set, something close to ten place settings, has been brought over from the first Swank, 401 N. Milwaukee; 942-0444. It goes for $650.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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