STILL AT THE DRAWING BOARD, DESIGNER RAYMOND LOEWY SHAPES UP RUSSIA'S EXPORTS
March 10, 1975
The sign is lettered in red upon a white metal door:
It apparently decrees an end to a tour through the sprawling mid‑Manhattan offices of an industrial design company. Then, with evident delight, the dandified gentleman leading the way motions his visitor to be patient. Picking up a phone, he mutters a warning to a listener behind the locked door. In a few moments it swings open. "You understand," apologizes the guide, with a shrug toward the worktables which have been hastily draped in canvas, "We couldn't let you see these models before the Russians do. This is the car I mentioned," he says, pointing to one shrouded mystery, "the Moskvich XRL."
As it happens, the last two initials are those of the apologetic guide himself. He is Raymond Loewy, the emigré Frenchman generally regarded as the preeminent American industrial designer of the century, who is today covertly pointing to his latest and perhaps most remarkable assignment. The Moskvich XRL is but one of scores of products ‑ hydrofoils, wristwatches, tractors, motorcycles‑ which Loewy's firm (Raymond Loewy/ William Snaith, Inc.) is designing under terms of an unprecedented contract with the Russian government. At the time it was signed, a little over a year ago, the official Soviet press release hailed it as "the first USSR experiment in international cooperation in this field." For Loewy the undertaking appears to be the capstone of a remarkable career. Loewy was first approached by the Russians as long ago as 1962. "It was politically unthinkable then ‑the Berlin Wall, our Castro‑intestinal disorders, that sort of thing," the pun‑loving Loewy recalls in his well‑preserved French accent. He is quick to point out, though, that to have visited Russia as guests of the Soviet government back then, as he and his wife did, constituted a daring prefiguration of détente. Coolly resisting the temptation to nose around Soviet industrial facilities, the Loewys' only request of their hosts was a visit to playwright Anton Chekhov's home.
Space, speed (the car was modeled in '41) and the fair sex (Mrs. Loewy) are motifs adorning Loewy's desk.
Their diplomatic discretion paid off. After three trips over the next decade ‑only one of them cut short by serious differences at the negotiating table ‑ Loewy signed the two‑and‑a‑half year, nearly million‑dollar contract.
In addition to all the mechanical devices he is redesigning, Loewy recalls, "We wanted to redo their vodka bottles as well." The reply was "Nyet!" though Loewy privately translates the rebuff as "not yet," since the original contract is renewable for another five years. Loewy will be measuring the progress of that protocol soon when he visits Russia to attend an exposition in Moscow devoted to his many design breakthroughs. (The Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in Washington plans a similar tribute next August.)
No one, least of all Loewy, should be surprised at a little Soviet foot‑dragging over a vodka bottle overhaul, or any other aspect of his arcane craft. "Industrial design" has historically meant the enhancing of product appearance and performance to jack up sales. And this kind of tampering, particularly as it sparks demand for needless gadgetry and personal indulgence, is anathema to traditionally spartan Marxists.
Nonetheless, the Kremlin wishes to entice not only increasingly sophisticated Soviet consumers but the spenders of Western hard currency who have previously shunned ineptly designed Soviet products. In asking Loewy to help sell their goods and improve their balance of payments, Soviet leaders are turning to an international designer with an unequaled record of commercial success.
More than any other man, Loewy has packaged the 20th century's industrial culture. It was Loewy who first stretched a smooth skin of rivetless steel over railroad locomotives in the '30s; who sent "Lucky Strike green to war" by fashioning the cigarette pack in its present white‑and‑red bull's‑eye configuration; who incorporated up‑to-the‑minute postwar automotive technology in the startling bullet‑nosed Studebaker of '47 and later the "Avanti"; who designed the habitability components of NASA's Skylab. Amid these memorable accomplishments Loewy paused to design everything from refrigerators to lipsticks, from steamship and airplane interiors to postage stamps and hog cholera tablets. When Standard Oil determined that "Esso" had outlived its usefulness, the trademark "Exxon" was drawn behind Loewy's guarded door.
No product designed by Raymond Fernand Loewy has been more studiously packaged than Loewy himself. But then, though appearance belies it, he has had 81 years to perfect the design. (The Lucky Strike pack, by contrast, took only the better part of an afternoon, Loewy receiving an eventual $50,000 in fees.)
His carefully coiffed white hair is slightly tinged with blue, his moustache a little too dark for the pompadour. Loewy designs his own clothes, leaving the hand‑stitching to his tailor. Though up to the second, his wardrobe suggests the fin de siècle boulevardier, an effect enhanced by his fondness for eau de cologne.
Vanity notwithstanding, Loewy is a shy man. Back in his office, sitting behind an acreage of desk, each sentence is measured out with a lungful tugged from a Sobranie Black & Gold cigarette. As a striking raven-haired woman enters the room, she is introduced as Viola, Loewy's second wife of 26 years and the mother of his only child, Laurence ‑a coed at USC. Mrs. Loewy has been described as "the most attractive package ever to wear the Loewy label," quite belying her age of 54. In the offices of Raymond Loewy/William Snaith, Inc., she is more than a decoration, acting as vice‑chairman of the firm and, since Snaith's death a year ago, undisputed second in command. Her attention to the business side of things frees Loewy's hand for artistry.
Loewy's achievements ‑the precise dates and details of which Mrs. Loewy can reel off‑ earned him a place in a 1969 compendium by the London Times called "The Thousand Makers of The Twentieth Century." Loewy is a trifle embarrassed to be sharing rank with "Hitler and some Frenchman who murdered 12 wives"; but Picasso and Einstein aren't such bad company. With little conviction he disputes the suggestion that his most noteworthy contribution has been the profession of industrial design itself.
At the very least, Loewy must be ranked with such pioneers of his profession as Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss and Harold Van Doren. Industrial design was virtually unknown when Loewy disembarked from the S.S. France in New York City in 1919 with only $40 in his pocket. His facility at design, however, was older than the fraying ‑if custom‑made‑ captain's uniform in which he had been mustered out of the French army the year before. As a 12‑year‑old Parisian, he had won a prize in a contest for distance in flight in the Bois de Boulogne with an unusual rear‑propeller model airplane. He promptly patented the design. His advanced studies in electrical engineering were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.
Loewy peeks at a shrouded mockup of the Moskvich XRL with David Butler, vice-president of the Russian account.
His designer's passion demanded that the 22‑year‑old private create and cut his own uniform rather than go into battle wearing what he considered inferior issue. He also established the best‑decorated dugout on the Western Front. Amid bursting grenades and barrages of poison gas, he carpeted, draped and wallpapered it with soothing materials brought from Paris. Those were not his only sorties from the dugout. For crawling up to German entrenchments and implanting wires for the interception of enemy telegraphy, he received the Croix de Guerre with four citations. Today Loewy's elaborate toilette is incomplete until he pierces his lapel with the red rosette of a commandant in the Legion d'Honneur. He dates his affection for America ‑he became a citizen in 1938 ‑ from his rescue by a U.S. doughboy after being enveloped in poison gas.
Within a decade of his immigration, Loewy was earning his first income as a designer ‑after stints as a fashion illustrator for Vogue and a department‑store window dresser. (Macy's was ready to fire him for his then‑unorthodox uncluttering of a display window ‑he quit instead.)
By 1934, after testing his prowess on the redesign of a British duplicating machine and then on the Hupmobile, his first car, Loewy made the commercial breakthrough. For Sears, Roebuck and Co. he smoothed the contours of their Coldspot refrigerator line. The first year's, sales were 140,000; the next year they hit 275,000.
Today, Loewy‑designed products are to be found everywhere, including outer space. Loewy recently received a request from NASA to rebid on further space work; in the same week, his Paris‑based subsidiary, Compagnie de l'Esthétique Industrielle was commissioned to redesign the French interurban railroad.
While his business earned roughly $3 million a year for decades, Loewy was able to indulge a sybaritic life‑style. In addition to a series of enormous yachts, Loewy at his peripatetic peak maintained lavish residences on Long Island and the Riviera, a pied‑a‑terre in Paris and a château in the suburbs, a Fifth Avenue cooperative, a villa in Mexico and a desert home in Palm Springs, Calif. "Of course, we have very little of all that left," interjects Viola. "You can't get help ‑so you concentrate." The Loewys have kept their Palm Springs house (its swimming pool wanders from the patio under sliding glass doors into the living room; William Powell once fell in fully clothed, only to be handed a glass of champagne by the butler). Then there's a permanent suite at Delmonico's Hotel on New York's Park Avenue, just around the corner from Loewy's offices. The Loewys also retain La Cense, a 16th‑century château situated outside of Paris in a majestic forest. It was once inhabited by a mistress of Henry IV. The Loewys rather like it.
Concentration‑or perhaps streamlining, in deference to the designer's esthetics‑seems also to be the Loewys' dominant business strategy as well. Upon partner William Snaith's death, the couple repurchased his equity in the firm. Initial review of the books left them horror‑struck. "The place was a shambles," barks Loewy. But in the past year they have bucked the recession by engineering a hefty increase in revenues and profits. The name of the firm is being changed to Raymond Loewy International Inc. as of April 1.
Viola and Raymond Loewy prefer working in their Palm Springs home. Lunch allows a cheerful tête‑a‑tête.
In a man of Loewy's vitality, it is no surprise that the 81‑year‑old has a cavalier attitude toward the Grim Reaper. "I cannot improve upon death," he once quipped by way of rejecting an offer to redesign a line of grave vaults. It's the other end of the vital spectrum that leaves this champion of natural form awestruck and a little envious. He considers the breakfast egg the most functionally perfect form. "So beautiful in conception! The symbol of progress! If the egg were any other shape, the life of the hen would be intolerable."