This week, on what felt like the hottest day in San Francisco, EVER, I limped from the Stockton Garage to the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design to see the exhibit on industrial designer Raymond Loewy, dragging my feet the whole way. And what a relief to get inside, where the concrete floor keeps the place cool.
I entered the museum not knowing much about Loewy, or so I thought. But he's the guy who designed the coolest cigarette package I've ever seen or been seen with -- you know, Lucky Strikes? Besides that, he pretty much invented that peculiarly American look where everything is streamlined and seems like it's moving fast as a bullet into the future, from refrigerators to pencil sharpeners to locomotives to Skylab to. . . well, to too many things to list. For Loewy, it was all about the combination of packaging and function; he knew so intimately that products had to be simultaneously practical and aesthetically appealing. Though what appeals to mass culture depends on what is going on in that culture at the time, meaning that what appeals to most people is apt to change with the weather, Loewy had an uncanny ability to suss out what looked sleek and modern to most people at any given time.
And here I'm contradicting myself a bit, because I still find his designs incredibly appealing -- and I'm sure I'm not alone. Which is a testament to something in his own aesthetic that has stood the test of time, because his stamp is everywhere. The lean silhouette of the dog on the side of the Greyhound bus line, the yellow-and-red shell at the Shell sation, that triangular wedge at the top of your box of Nabisco shredded wheat -- it's all Raymond Loewy, and you'll likely experience this uncanny, familiar feeling at the exhibit. Because Raymond Loewy is the culture.
While there were many items worth drooling over at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design, the one that appealed to me most was the Elna Lotus sewing machine (1968), the first compact sewing machine of its kind, meaning that the case and all of its accessories were integrated into the unit -- the case opens up like a Lotus to provide a smooth ramp for the fabric the user slides beneath the chrome foot as they sew. It looks like something one might place in the overhead compartment on a jet to Milan. And I'm talking Milan in the spring, when the weather is cool. If I tried to lift my old Kenmore machine over my head in a crowded airplane, chances are I'd accidentally crack someone's skull open. Though I noticed the drawings of the Avanti, with its curved windows and long, blunt nose, was much more popular with the rest of the crowd. As much as I love my car, there's no way I'd turn down the Avanti. But my first choice? The sewing machine.
That day, Loewy's design sensibility was having a strong effect: I wanted the Elna Lotus, and I wanted to feel like I was going somewhere exotic. But it wasn't for sale, and the security guard wasn't about to turn his head long enough for me to steal it, so I left the exhibit empty-handed. I noticed, however, that during my walk back to the Stockton garage I felt a little racier, a little less sweaty and dull. I got into my car and rolled down the windows so I could feel the wind in my hair. As I sped up Sutter Street, beating the yellow lights, I pretended that I wasn't driving a dirty Nissan with leaky tires; instead, I was in something that slices through the air like one of the speedboats Loewy designed. And for a while there, it seemed as though every hill I crested was a brand-new symbol of the future, filled with pencil lines that symbolize rushing air, the forward movement of progress.
The Raymond Loewy: Designs for a Consumer Culture exhibit runs through August 27, 2006 at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design, 550 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Phone: 415.773.0303.