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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Brooks Stevens created iconic designs

His transportation-related projects still look great!

Industrial designer Brooks Stevens was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 7, 1911. He became a successful industrial designer, and many of his designs were transportation-related. 

Polio

Poliomyelitis (polio) infections began during prehistory, but major polio epidemics were unknown before the 20th century. In the 1900s, major polio epidemics began to occur in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world. By 1910, frequent epidemics became regular events throughout the developed world – primarily in cities during the summer. At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyze or kill over half a million people worldwide every year.

Brooks Stevens drawing while recovering from polio. (Photo: mam.org)
Brooks Stevens drawing while recovering from polio. (Photo: Milwaukee Art Museum)

On June 17, 1916, an official announcement was made that there was an epidemic polio infection in Brooklyn, New York. That year, there were over 27,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths due to polio in the United States, with over 2,000 deaths in New York City alone.

Early life and career

Brooks Stevens was one of those stricken with polio as a child, and his illness was pivotal in shaping his life and career. While he was bedridden dealing with (and ultimately beating) his polio, he was encouraged by his father to use the time to practice drawing. His father furnished him with supplies throughout his convalescence; Stevens spent hours drawing and refining his artistic skills. He pursued his artistic talents further while studying architecture at Cornell University from 1929 to 1933.

Stevens returned to Milwaukee to work as an inventory manager, first for a pair of soap companies, and then for Jewett and Sherman, a grocery supply company. Bored and restless in his job, Stevens persuaded the head of the company to let him redesign some of the labels of the company’s products. He also won a contest to redesign the company logo for Cutler-Hammer, his father’s employer. These opportunities were the first steps in Stevens’ career as an industrial designer. 

The field of industrial design was just beginning and most early industrial designers were located in New York. “I had to fight my way in to talk to anybody in the 1930s,” he said later. “I had to not only justify myself but justify my profession.” He patterned himself after early successful designers such as Raymond Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague. 

Stevens opened Brooks Stevens Industrial Design on July 1, 1935 in Milwaukee. By 1939 the firm had a staff of five designers, servicing 33 accounts. By the following year, the firm had over 50 clients. 

Stevens was not only proving that he was a successful industrial designer, he was also proving that he was a born salesman. He began delivering lectures on “Industrial Design and Its Practical Application to Industry,” which spread his reputation and his main sales point – that good industrial design would pay for itself many times over. 

In 1944, along with Raymond Loewy and eight others, Stevens formed the Industrial Designers Society of America. During World War II there was less need for industrial design and market appeal, but Stevens and his firm executed a few designs with a military or “home front” application. However, after the war he was very successful converting military manufacturing ideas into civilian consumer products. For example, he turned the military jeep into a station wagon, and then a stylish touring car called the Jeepster.

An early Jeepster design, which Stevens developed from the World War II Jeep. (Image: Milwaukee Art Museum)
An early Willys Jeepster design, which Stevens developed from the World War II Jeep. (Image: Milwaukee Art Museum)

Post-war success

After the war, Stevens had a new sense of purpose. He stated that “an industrial designer in today’s business world should be a businessman, an engineer and a stylist, and in that direct order.” He sought relationships with Milwaukee’s most prominent manufacturers, including Miller Brewing Company, Allen-Bradley, the Outboard Marine Company, and Harley-Davidson. 

Stevens redesigned the logo of the Miller Brewing Company. He also convinced the company’s leaders to switch from traditional brown bottles to clear bottles to make its products stand out from those of its competitors.

Stevens redesigned the Miller logo and recommended that the company use clear bottles. (Photo: mam.org)
Stevens redesigned the Miller logo and recommended that the company use clear bottles. (Photo: mam.org)

Stevens also became the only Midwestern founder of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID).

He was the first industrial designer ever to be honored with a one-person museum retrospective. His 1950 show at the Milwaukee Art Institute received excellent reviews, including, “Never before in the history of the Institute has it welcomed an event of this magnitude,” stated the Milwaukee Sentinel.

The designs that Stevens developed for homes and kitchen appliances were very popular. He is credited as the originator of the robin’s-egg-blue phase of 1950s kitchen appliances, and Formica’s iconic Skylark laminate design.  

A focus on transportation 

Stevens made innovative contributions to a number of transportation-oriented companies during his long career.

Stevens designed the Skytop observation/lounge cars that ran on the Hiawatha-named trains of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. These cars went into service in 1948. This photo shows two of the cars in the original Milwaukee Road color scheme. The Skytop railcars in the photo were part of the Morning Hiawatha and Afternoon Hiawatha trains. (Photo: Jim Boyd/Audio Visual Designs)
Stevens designed the Skytop observation/lounge railcars that ran on the Hiawatha-named trains of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. These cars went into service in 1948. This photo shows two of the cars in the original Milwaukee Road color scheme. (Photo: Jim Boyd/Audio Visual Designs)

In 1947 Stevens unveiled a design for a new train for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (also known as the Milwaukee Road). Called the Olympian Hiawatha, this passenger train operated from 1947 to 1961. Stevens’ design included “distinctive all-glass observation cars known as Skytop Lounges.” His design feature gave passengers traveling on the train between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest the opportunity to more fully view and appreciate the scenic landscapes en route. The Olympian Hiawatha was one of the last of the “streamliner” trains that carried passengers across America.

For Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson, Stevens designed the 1949 Hydra-Glide Harley, helping create the new suspension forks in the front, bucket headlight, and the streamlined design. All Harleys since are based on Stevens’ iconic designs. Over seven decades later, his design continued to be used for Harley-Davidson motorcycle models.

Stevens also developed multiple designs for the recreational boating industry. For example, with Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), he had a “major role in the introduction of automotive styling to leisure vessels.” In fact, a 1957 Sports Illustrated article characterized the boats he designed as “high-seas hot rods.” In addition, he styled the Evinrude Lark and Johnson Javelin outboard motor series for OMC, as well as designing the Evinrude Lark concept boat in 1970, which was eventually produced as the Cadillac Sea Lark. 

Stevens (right) being interviewed about the 1970 Evinrude Lakester. (Photo: motorcities.org)
Stevens (right) being interviewed about the 1970 Evinrude Lakester. (Photo: motorcities.org)

The company’s design staff created a unique model called the “Evinrude Lakester.” The model offered a unique design combining a dune-buggy and speedboat. The model was designed for the 1970 Lakester project, which was sponsored by the Chicago and San Francisco consumer boat shows. In the water, the Lakester could turn into a 14-foot fiberglass boat, powered by a 50-hp outboard motor. It could drive on land or water. At boat shows that year, the Lakester was a big hit among consumers.

Other work Stevens did in the marine industry included designs for Owens Yacht Company and Cutter Boats, as well as a line of stainless steel marine hardware for the Vollrath Company.

He also designed engines for Briggs and Stratton.

Contributions to the auto industry

Perhaps his biggest contributions in transportation were in the automotive industry. Stevens loved automobiles, and he made notable contributions to that mode of transportation. Stevens’ automotive clients included Packard, Willys, Studebaker, Excalibur, American Motors and many others. 

In addition to the previously mentioned work for Jeep, Stevens designed the Jeep Wagoneer, which was first introduced in 1963 by Willys-Jeep. The model was so popular that it was offered in the same basic form by Jeep’s subsequent owners, including Kaiser Jeep, AMC, and finally Chrysler, until 1991. While originally marketed as a station wagon, the Jeep Wagoneer is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest sport utility vehicles. 

Stevens redesigned the 1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk coupé on a tiny budget.  The fast and elegant GT retained Stevens’ design elements until the end of its American production run. Stevens is also credited with styling “three innovative products for family car use for the 1964-66 period” for Studebaker that were never manufactured.

Stevens modernized the Aero-Willys sedans that were sold in Brazil in the 1960s. The bodies of the cars looked very similar to his Studebaker Hawk design.

He is also credited with restyling the front end of the Volkswagen 411, which was then marketed as the 412 model.

Stevens also designed a series of “Excalibur” racing sports cars in conjunction with Kaiser Motors. In the mid-1960s he and his sons began production and marketing of the retro-styled Excalibur, which was modeled on 1920s-era Mercedes-Benz SSK roadsters. More than 3,500 Excalibur automobiles were built.

Stevens behind the wheel of a car he designed and built – the 1964 Excalibur. (Photo: motorcities.org)
Stevens behind the wheel of a car he designed and built – the 1964 Excalibur. (Photo: motorcities.org)

Brooks was involved in the creation of the iconic vehicles that were part of the Milwaukee-based Oscar Mayer Company’s advertising, which included the Wienermobile and the popular 1930s design for the Oscar Mayer Wisconsin Ice and Coal Company, featuring a streamlined design called the “house car” that became popular among store owners. (See photo at top of article.)

Stevens also redesigned the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, an American pop-culture icon, in the 1950s. The original vehicle resembled a hot dog on a bun and dated to 1936. In the late 1980s, the Oscar Mayer Company sought a new-and-improved version of the Wienermobile that would be driven around the nation by recent college graduates as part of a large-scale promotion program. Stevens’ firm  designed the new version of the classic Weinermobile.

The Stevens-designed Oscar Mayer Wienermobile in the 1950s. (Photo: motorcities.org)

Stevens created and opened his own Auto Museum in 1959. The 12,500-square foot museum displayed vehicles that he had designed as well as those that he admired. In the late 1980s the museum became the production facility for the Wienermobile fleet that Stevens designed. 

Planned obsolescence

Stevens is incorrectly cited as the “inventor” of the concept of planned obsolescence, which is the practice of artificially shortening a product’s lifecycle to influence the buying patterns of consumers in favor of manufacturers. 

While Stevens did not invent the concept, he did popularize, or broaden the usage of the term. Stevens defined planned obsolescence as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” His outlook was to make the consumer want something new, rather than create poor products that would need replacing. 

Stevens’ developed the term in 1954. Scheduled to deliver a speech to the Minneapolis advertising club, he coined the catchphrase as a description of the industrial designer’s mission. He used the phrase as the title of his speech, and the phrase eventually became his lasting, if controversial, contribution to design theory. To this day, planned obsolescence continues to be a contentious aspect of industrial design.

Brooks Stevens, early in his career. 
(Photo: motorcities.org)
Brooks Stevens, early in his career.
(Photo: motorcities.org)

Legacy

Stevens was asked in 1954 to name his favorite design among all those created by his firm. His response? “None, because everyone would have to be restudied for the tastes of tomorrow.” When he retired, he had not changed his mind. “Would I change anything now that I did in the past?”, he asked. “Hell yes! Everything! Because it’s all outmoded.” 

When he retired, Stevens appointed his son Kipp to manage the design company. By then he had helped to shape approximately 3,000 products for almost 600 clients. He made changes in ways both big (the original SUV concept) and small (the wide-mouthed peanut butter jar).

Brooks Stevens died on January 4, 1995, at the age of 83. He was survived by his wife Alice, sons Kipp, William, and David, a daughter, Sandra A. Stevens, and five grandchildren.

When he died he was the last surviving founder of the Society of Industrial Designers. Interviewed by the Associated Press about Stevens’ passing, Terrence J. Coffman, president of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, said, “This was a man who overcame polio in his youth and never allowed it to stop him. He continued to travel throughout his life, to promote quality design, to produce great design products that have touched all of our lives.”

The New York Times said Stevens was “a major force in industrial design.”

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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