The Rowena Reed Kostellow Fund

Inventing Industrial Design Education

In l933 Rowena went to Europe to study and spent a year on the continent immersing herself in painting and sculpture. She returned to a bustling, industrious city. Pittsburgh was the very heart of the steel industry and despite the depression that ravaged much of the country, chimneys belched, machines bellowed, business hummed. And there were new currents in the air.

A decade earlier, American industry had begun to turn to specialists in the arts for help in designing and marketing products that would appeal to a growing audience of potential consumers. By the early 1930s a small cadre of designers had emerged: Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Gilbert Rohde, Norman Bel Geddes, John Vassos and Donald Dohner among them. These pioneers were staking out a new field, laying the groundwork for what would become the industrial design profession.

Dohner taught at Carnegie Tech. One day he was approached by an executive from Westinghouse, where he was a consultant and, as Rowena Reed told the story, “The man said, “We have something out there in the plant that we don’t quite know what to do with. It’s a new material and we want some ideas about how to use it.” Well, Donald Dohner went out to look and he saw big steel rollers with a rather innocuous material coming off them in sheets. First he said, “Let’s color it,” so they created beautiful Mondrian-like reds, yellows and blues which made the material much more appealing. Then he said, “Let’s spin it.” So they spun some trays — beautiful contemporary trays that people would be delighted to buy. After a while they made them deeper and added a few bowls and other simple shapes. The material was the melamine plastic stuff that now covers all of our homes and all of our lives. They called it Micarta.”

Dohner’s experience convinced Kostellow that the opportunities in American industry were there for the taking. The time had come to formalize design training for a new design discipline. He had already spent years experimenting with ways to bring focus and order to art education, and gaining direct experience as a design consultant to several firms in the area. So he and Dohner went to the Carnegie Tech administration and proposed the establishment of a degree-granting program in industrial design. They successfully argued their case and in l936 the Department of Industrial Design, the first of its kind in the United States, graduated its first students.

The industrial design experiment opened a new world for Rowena Reed. It fired her imagination and focused her interest on three-dimensional design. In l938 she became formally involved in the design venture. Donald Dohner had been invited to Pratt Institute in 1934 by Dean James Boudreau to establish an industrial design department there. He persuaded Kostellow to follow him to Brooklyn to develop the curriculum and teach courses in color and design. He asked Rowena to teach abstraction. Of their early work at Pratt, Arthur Pulos writes: “With Alexander Kostellow representing the philosophical, Rowena Reed the aesthetic, and Dohner the practical, they laid the triangular foundation for Pratt’s program in industrial design.”

They were joined by Frederick Whiteman, Robert Kolli, Ivan Rigby and Rolph Fjelde, and soon after by Eva Zeisel and Victor Canzani.

“In the beginning it was so great because we all spoke the same language,” Rowena recalled. “It was awfully exciting. We were young and inconsiderate — the only way to get things done.”

Their first big accomplishment was the development of a curriculum of study for all first year students in the Art School. It was called, appropriately, “Foundation” and was the first course of its kind specifically designed to address the requirements of the American art student and American society. It grew out of Kostellow’s own experiences with pictorial structure and organizing the axes on the canvas and Reed’s experiments with visual organization in three dimensions. It became the prototype for foundation programs in many other schools across the country.

Alexander Kostellow described the intention of the program. “The goal was to supply students not with disjointed bits of information but rather with an organized approach to the mechanics of design and the necessary inner discipline to carry out assigned problemsÉto develop an understanding of the elements of design, of structure, of the organizational forces which control them, and an ability to apply this knowledge to a variety of situations in designing for self-expression or for industry.”

The program was general in its approach to the visual disciplines because, Kostellow wrote, “Experience proves that specialized courses in design, like other programs devoted to the development of technical skills, restrict the esthetic potential of the student. Practical approaches rarely bring forth creative designers of importance. At best they produce skilled technicians.”

Frederick Whiteman, who taught 2-D courses in the foundation year, saw foundation studies filling a vacuum that the academy itself had created. “Under the old apprentice system students could work on parts of a work but only the master could put it together,” he declared. “The commercial art schools took away the master. Now all students were drawing fragments, but they never learned to put it together, that is, they never learned to design. Foundation taught how it all went together.”

Three years after Kostellow and Dohner established the Industrial Design department at Carnegie Tech, the New Bauhaus opened in Chicago. Mies moved it to ITT in 1938, where it later became the Institute of Design within the Illinois Institute of Technology.) Directed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, it promoted the course of study established by Walter Gropius at the original Bauhaus.

The Pratt and Bauhaus foundation programs were similar in some ways.** Both approaches were rooted in common intellectual and artistic assumptions. Their methodologies drew on modern scientific method and applied it to teaching the fundamentals of art making. They identified elements such as line, shape, form, space and color and systematically investigated each one. Students were expected to have a thorough understanding of the parts before attempting a completed work of art or design.

Both approaches shifted the focus on aesthetic development and teaching to the solving of aesthetic problems. The reason for arranging forms or shapes was taken out of the religious, metaphysical or moral sphere and placed squarely in the perceptual one. And both proposed that there could be more than one correct solution to a problem — in opposition to the classic academic notion — and that such solutions required the nurturing of personal inspiration and individual talent.

In its practical agenda, the Bauhaus attempted to reconcile the aesthetic insights of the artist, the quality workmanship of the craftsman, and the technological advances of the machine. It declared that the artist should design in conjunction with the machine or for the machine. Although Kostellow’s program was not interested in the crafts, it shared the Bauhaus goal to educate designers for an industrial, machine-driven economy.

But there were differences between the two approaches. Kostellow declared: “The introduction of “Die neue Sachlichkeit,” the clarification of functional design, was the closest to an organized approach I had yet encountered. But for what we wanted to accomplish at Pratt Institute, it lacked compactness and basic integration; it possessed some contradictory elements; and in many instances indulged in too lengthy and pragmatic experimentation for experimentation’s sake.” And in response to the Bauhaus dictum that form follows function, he declared “I have never agreed with the premise that function as such gives birth to esthetic expression. I feel that function is an expression of a time, and that esthetic reactions influence man-made form, and we in turn are influenced by them.”

This argument was key to Rowena Reed’s point of view. She was adamant about the primacy of the visual and aesthetic aspects of design. She defined aesthetic expression as the designer’s raison d’être.

The Bauhaus approached the study of form from the perspective of architecture. Kostellow came at it from a different point of view. “Alexander Kostellow was aware of the Bauhaus early on when it was still engaged in diverse experiments and was very dynamic,” explains Craig Vogel. “The stuff was in the air before he left Europe. But he spoke a much wider avant garde language than the Bauhaus. He was dealing with spatial perspectives. The difference was that Alexander wanted to start a design program, Gropius wanted to start an architecture program and Mies (who succeeded Moholy Nagy at IIT) was even more reductive than Gropius. For him, everything flowed from architecture — and that was not what Alexander had in mind.

“Alexander was closer to Peter Behrens, the father of corporate design. (Behrens, a German architect, designed several influential early modern buildings, including the AEG Turbine factory in Berlin in l909. He was one of the first to develop an architecture for industrial buildings based on function and structural character and the first artist to take on the whole range of corporate design, from identity to building fixtures). Behrens work was cut off by World War I, so he was probably not well known to Kostellow who left Europe at the start of the war.

“Kostellow said ‘there’s more manufacturing here than you can shake a stick at and it’s totally undisciplined.’ Like Behrens, his question was how to give technology a face — and that’s still the big question in design today.”

The debate about the relationship between industrial design education and architecture that heated up in the 1940s pitted the Gropius and Bauhaus-based camp, which supported the teaching of industrial design in schools of architecture, against design advocates who saw it more logically taught in schools of art. Donald Dohner defended the latter position for Pratt - and his argument won the day.

There was another essential difference. “Alexander and Rowena introduced the consideration of space, as distinguished from just objects, as an important element in three-dimensional design,” explains Richard Welch, who taught foundation courses at Pratt for more than a quarter century. “The Bauhaus was more interested in the object.”

The differences in educational methodology between the two approaches were not all rooted in philosophy. There was also a radically different understanding of the American context. Kostellow, like Gropius, was rooted in a European perspective but he held an advantage over the German architect in that he had come earlier to this country and he enthusiastically embraced American culture. He lived in large cities but he also traveled and worked in the midwest. (Frederick Whiteman says Kostellow ended up in Kansas City after he was thrown off a train for gambling.) He was open to American experience. He liked the spirit of the place and he understood how it worked. Ronald Beckman who studied with Reed and Kostellow at Pratt in the fifties and now directs the industrial design program at Syracuse University, observes: “Kostellow was not just German, he was also Persian. He was brought up to be comfortable with ambiguity and differences - and to manipulate the ambiguity. America is the most ambiguous place in the world. And he loved it.”

Finally, unlike the Bauhaus, Kostellow approached the challenge of educating industrial designers as a social experiment. He saw art schools filled with talented, enthusiastic young people who needed to earn their livelihoods. And he knew there were few artists slated for greatness (or solvency) among them. It was a matter of supply and demand. Here was the talent — ready, willing and capable of being made able — and there was industry, turning out a steady stream of formally inept products. These young artists could help. They could make a difference in the quality of life for everyone and make a decent living in the bargain. He created a program to make it happen.

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