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A Total Theory of Design

Everything is connected to everything else.

How much impact did Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus theories have on the world of 20th-century industrial design and corporate design programs?

One might argue that Gropius’ greatest contribution as an architect can be found in the early buildings of his career in Germany, and not in his American period. But there is no doubt that his Bauhaus influence laid the groundwork for a generation of American designers and architects whose credible, intelligent design programs have used architecture, design, and art to create all manner of products and identities that reflect the Bauhaus “total theory of design” and “less is more” philosophies.

Surely Steve Jobs felt the influence. In his biography of the computer genius, Walter Isaacson writes of the Apple CEO’s devotion to Modernist design. “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much,” Jobs said. “It was the original vision for Apple. That’s what we tried to do with the first Mac. That’s what we did with the iPod.”

Jonathan Ive, who was lead designer for much of the Apple product line, often points to Dieter Rams (product designer for Braun) as a mentor, but Jobs took his Modernist influences from many sources. He regularly attended the annual International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado — an incubator for Bauhaus theory launched in 1951 by Walter Paepcke, the famous American industrialist and philanthropist, and Herbert Bayer, Gropius’ Bauhaus colleague. This Modernist ethos is reflected in Apple’s corporate ideology: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

But wait. Let’s go back a little further in the annals of American design. Whether or not Gropius influenced the creation of the iconic Apple computer, his theoretical fingerprints are all over another icon of American design: the IBM Selectric typewriter. For those of you who have only seen the Selectric in Mad Men, let me remind you that, in its time, the machine’s type-bearing “golf ball” and immovable carriage were as much a symbol of masterful American design as Jobs’ sleek iPad.

The Selectric was designed in 1961 by Eliot Noyes, a onetime student and colleague of Gropius. An accomplished architect, Noyes was also a pioneer in the development of comprehensive corporate design programs that integrated design strategy with business strategy. He considered himself the “curator of corporate character” for all his clients — IBM, Mobil Oil, Westinghouse, Cummins — and he always claimed Walter Gropius as his mentor.

Gropius’ influence on Noyes actually started well before the German designer set foot on American soil. When Noyes began his architecture studies at Harvard in 1932, he found the school’s Beaux-Arts curriculum geriatric. “None of this seemed to make much sense,” Noyes wrote. “It certainly wasn’t related to the problems of the 20th-century world.”

As part of Noyes’ search for contemporary thinking, he read Le Corbusier’s writings over and over while also applying to the Bauhaus (unfortunately, just as the Nazis closed the school). As Noyes returned to reading the few books coming out of Europe, the University of Chicago asked him to travel to Persepolis (in what is now Iran) and document with drawings and paintings a trove of archeological findings. When Noyes returned to the Harvard design school two years later, Gropius and his design partner, Marcel Breuer, had joined the faculty, and Noyes was delighted to study with them.

After graduating, Gropius and Breuer hired Noyes to work in their design firm; however his employment was brief because Gropius recommended Noyes to Alfred Barr, Jr., to be the first industrial-design director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Noyes accepted. During his years at MoMA, Noyes ran a series of famous design competitions. He curated shows about “Good Design” using American products that demonstrated Gropius-inspired tenets: Good design must fulfill its functions, respect its materials, suit its methods of production, and all of the above must be combined intoan imaginative expression. Moreover, Noyes spread the Gropius gospel by running design education programs and reinvigorating the museum’s permanent design collection. All of this was very much inspired by Gropius’ zeal for education and his total theory of design.

Eventually, Noyes felt a need to get out of the museum environment and participate in the real world of architecture and design. He had settled in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the 1940s, where he was identified with a group of architects known as The Harvard Five. They included John M. Johansen (Gropius’ son-in-law), Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, and Noyes. Four had been students of Gropius; Breuer had been his design partner. Eventually, those architects designed more than 100 Modernist homes in New Canaan, a number of which are now open to the public.

In his last public speech, Noyes recalled that time: “I had been, through my schooling and my contact with Gropius, interested in the notion of getting industry involved in recognizing its opportunities and even its responsibilities in relation to architecture and design and the public generally.” He set out to persuade companies that using design effectively would benefit their image and their bottom line.

Noyes’ first conquest was with his Army Air Force gliding buddy, Thomas Watson, Jr., the CEO of IBM. The designer convinced the businessman that his company not only needed good design, but he needed to make design a corporate goal. “It had to be treated as a function of management and could not be subordinated to engineering, marketing, or manufacturing functions, but rather be interlocked with them as a normal part of the company’s business operations,” the designer explained.

From 1957 to 1977, Noyes was the consultant director of design for IBM. He united the design spirit of architecture, interiors, displays, products, packaging, printed material, and fine art procurement. Noyes’ first piece of advice to Watson was “Everything goes with everything,” which was, essentially, the core of Gropius’ total theory of design.

Noyes told IBM executives: “A cardinal point about design is that nothing exists or is used only itself. A typewriter sits in a room in a building. There must be a sense of their relationships in the design of each of these. Good design, whether of a building, an office machine, or a company’s operating statement, derives from the nature of the problem: When the design problems have been solved, the end products will have in common clarity and appropriateness of form and this will often be coupled with invention.”

IBM soon became a model for other major American companies such as Westinghouse, Mobil Oil, and Cummins Engine Company: Noyes played multiple roles at all of them as consulting design director. To achieve his goals, he selected key talents to work independently with corporate design staffs and with architects and industrial designers in his own office. Noyes chose consultants such as Paul Rand for graphics and Charles Eames for exhibits and film for IBM and Westinghouse. For Mobil Oil, he worked closely with Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, who designed Mobil’s famous graphic program. For extended architecture programs, he selected Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen, and Mies van der Rohe, while for his fine-art programs he commissioned Calder, Noguchi, and many other notable artists.

“All of us — Rand, Eames, Geismar, and many others — have been part of a generation or two of designers who grew up with many shared convictions and common ideals,” Noyes explained of his Modernist fellow travelers. “It hasn’t always been easy to explain to these companies, however, just what it was that we were doing for them beyond just design.”

Fred Noyes, Eliot’s youngest son and an architect, remembers Ise Gropius saying that Walter believed “Eliot was the only student who had actually gone beyond the teachings and extended the architectural thinking into broader contexts. Instead of taking lessons of what Modernism or design was about and continue to make buildings, which were in that spirit, he had really taken the conceptual framework and used it to extend the whole thing.”

Today, we would not be able to talk about companies such as Apple or IBM — companies that have developed great corporate design programs — without Noyes and others who embraced the “total design” goals of the Bauhaus. If we are looking for the impact of Walter Gropius on American Modernism, we need look no further than these many disciples.