Most journalists believe in their heart that they “have a book in them.” Too often, however, events and circumstance prevent most reporters from digging into that compelling story. Reporting assignments pile up. Your editor says, “Leave of absence? Are you joking?” The entire media industry experiences massive downsizing and journalists are suddenly writing press releases instead of releasing a best-seller.
The story behind Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Imagemaking in the Age of American Industrial Design begins at a newspaper. I was the main feature writer at the Altoona Mirror in central Pennsylvania in 1987 and the subject of a profile had a book on his desk open to a photo of a huge streamlined locomotive. The caption in agate type was “S-1 locomotive, built in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Designed by Raymond Loewy." Since all news is local, to mangle a Tip O’Neill phrase, I wrote a 1,500-word story on the design and construction of the S-1. I spoke to almost two dozen retired railroaders and read Raymond Loewy’s “Industrial Design” and “Never Leave Well Enough Alone.” Then I moved on to other things.
But Loewy’s story nagged at me. Before I worked at the Mirror I had been a business writer at a national news magazine in Washington, D.C. I covered advertising agencies and design firms. I became fascinated by why people buy things. What makes them buy a certain car, a particular product or a brand of beans. As I read more about Loewy, I realized no one had written a popular biography of him. There were a few monographs and essay compilations, but nothing that delved deeply into Loewy’s legacy.
When I started my project, I knew Loewy had archives in the Library of Congress and the Hagley Museum. As I dug into Loewy’s two books, it dawned on me that the term “unreliable narrator” might have originated with Loewy. His breezy, but fact-lite biography, “Never Leave Well Enough Alone,” was described as “a 100,000-word after-dinner speech” and his career-capping “Industrial Design” serves more as a photo album with very detailed captions complementing a few longer essays.
And so began a long period of reading as many books as I could find on Loewy, design, advertising, consumer culture, and the automotive industry. With each chapter read, the more I realized that the history surrounding the designer repeated the same stories over and over. In addition, patterns emerged in Loewy’s own descriptions of his commissions. He’s constantly critiquing consumer products to CEOs and walking away with a design assignment; completing—often during travel on trains—design sketches on napkins, menus, and scrap paper; and challenging executives to create their own designs with scissors and rubber cement.
Soon—without the aid of craft supplies—I was able to construct a narrative structure for Streamliner. While documenting Loewy’s accomplishments I was able to trace his use of media to construct his public persona – in effect “streamlining” his own personality to create a personal brand. Another narrative focus was establishing Loewy’s contributions as a designer. Early in his career, Loewy was much more involved in studio design, particularly with his work for Sears and the Pennsylvania Railroad. But very quickly he dispensed with everyday design to concentrate on being the firm’s rainmaker. I wanted to find out if he was, as many critics have said, equal parts charlatan or self-promoter, or a pioneer and founder of industrial design.
Finding concrete evidence of Loewy’s design legacy became problematic. His archives are not extensive—particularly the Library of Congress holdings—and are heavily weighted toward his company’s work after the 1950s. The Hagley holdings are more extensive but much of the material is publicity-oriented rather than revealing. Researchers can see how Loewy viewed clients, but there is precious little on the clients’ view of Loewy. The most well-documented part of Loewy’s career is focused on his work for Studebaker and thanks to long hours spent reading automotive designer interviews in the Automobile in American Life and Society archive at the University of Michigan, I was able to confirm Loewy’s credentials as a designer.
In the process, I was able to establish my authorial bona fides and realize a lifelong ambition. I won’t say it was particularly easy and I thought the process would move somewhat faster than a glacier, but in the end, like the designer, I refused to leave well enough alone and produced the most advanced, yet acceptable version of Raymond Loewy.
John Wall, a former journalist, spent 23 years as a higher education public relations specialist at Penn State University and Juniata College. He is the author of Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of American Industrial Design.