I.D. Magazine, 1954–2009
I.D. Magazine, 1954–2009
I.D. Magazine, 1954–2009
By Ralph Caplan January 5, 2010

Remembering my time at I.D., first as a staff writer, then as editor-in-chief, later as an editorial consultant and columnist, triggers a rich flood of memories that can bring me to tears of nostalgia. Because they would bring you to tears of boredom, I will spare you those, but after 55 years some obituarial record seems in order.

Before launching I.D. Charles Whitney, the publisher of Interiors magazine, ran into the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss on the street. “Henry,” he exclaimed, “I'm about to start a magazine for industrial designers.” “That's great,” Dreyfuss replied. “There are 14 of us.” Charlie loved to tell that story, and while I was skeptical of most of his favorite tales, I never questioned that one. The small number of professional designers (actually, there were 15, originally) was for some time and for some designers a point of pride. In 1944 they had won a court battle in New York establishing industrial design as a profession.

Cover of first issue of Industrial Design magazine and the envelope it was mailed in.

In February 1954 the first issue of I.D. appeared, co-edited by Jane Mitarachi and Deborah Allen, the two young women who had been largely responsible for the section of Interiors that covered industrial design. The great Alvin Lustig was art director. Lustig was already well known to the designers in I.D.'s target audience; the co-editors were less so. But they were superb choices. Jane, who had worked under Philip Johnson at MoMA, had a rare understanding of design, plus a relentless drive to get information no one was eager to share, and a journalistic prescience for seeing prospective developments that would make good story subjects. Deborah Allen was a gifted writer able to infuse seemingly arcane subjects with common sense, and her criticism of automobile design quickly became celebrated both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Early on she wrote a series on what Americans then called “human engineering” (only the British called it “ergonomics”) that laid out the design significance of that emerging field.

Each of the early issues broke fresh ground. Articles explored the automotive industry, product planning, the operations of design offices large and small, and the operative differences between consultants and in-house designers. The first issue carried a publisher's postscript, expressing the hope that I.D. would “serve as a creative stimulus for many years to come.” It did last for many years to come, but it was always a struggle. Enormously successful with Interiors, Whitney had high hopes for supporting I.D. with comparable advertising revenues. They didn't come. For one thing, industrial design was new and not easily understood by corporations—a fact that plagued all design firms. Few people really knew what designers did. Ironically, Charlie was not one of those few. He was never able to accept that I.D.'s readers, however important they were to their clients and to industry generally, did not often specify particular products. Interior designers did: They specified the carpets, flooring, wallpaper, paint and furniture that their designs called for, which was why purveyors of such things bought space. But although an industrial designer might specify that a product be made of aluminum, he was not empowered to choose Reynolds or Alcoa.

Tractor case study from second issue of I.D. featuring illustration by Andy Warhol.

I.D. was from its inception committed to preserving the distinction between design and styling, and perhaps for that reason the second issue featured a long, densely informative article by Jane on the development of the tractor as an example of a product that rarely can be improved by a face lift. Illustrated with a gatefold by Andy Warhol, it was exemplary of the case studies that became standard I.D. fare. “The case study is a very good means of getting a lot of facts into a small space,” Deborah explained.

I.D.'s first issue carried an article by Ladislav Sutnar, and the magazine regularly featured graphic designers as well as product designers. Paul Rand, Will Burtin, Leo Lionni, Lou Dorfsman, Saul Bass, Sister Corita, Tomi Ungerer, Lester Beall and Quentin Fiore are a few of those whose work was the subject of major articles.

In 1957 the humor magazine I was working for had folded, and I learned through the friend of a friend that there might be an opening at Industrial Design. I called the magazine and made an appointment with Jane, who asked to see samples of my writing about design. I had none, but had written some satirical articles about computers (which few citizens had ever personally encountered at the time), illustrated by a young graphic artist named Bob Guccione (yes, that Bob Guccione). I think Jane was more taken with the illustrations than with the articles, but after a series of trial assignments and interviews I was hired.

By this time Deborah Allen was no longer co-editor but consulting editor, having moved to Washington, D.C. But she was still very active in the magazine, coming once a week, meeting with the staff, leaving with a suitcase full of manuscripts and outlines, and returning the following week with a load of revisions and comments.

I.D. already had a pretty well-hewn editorial philosophy, one premise being that it was not a trade magazine because design was not a trade. During my job interviews I had been asked to suggest ideas for appropriate articles. I had recently read a newspaper article mentioning an ice cream container that could be used as a purse; desperate, I muttered that there hadn't been much written lately about reusable packaging.

Spread of article on industry in film by Ralph Caplan in I.D. vol. 7 no. 4, April 1960.

So for my first assignment at I.D. I wrote an article about dresses made of flour sacks; cigar boxes that, when empty, made perfect toy stages; oil drums that became musical instruments in Jamaica; and, of course, an ice cream container that could serve as a purse. No one in particular had been assigned the packaging beat, so I became by default the editor in charge of packaging.

Staffing at I.D. was largely by default. As the first publication in a new field the magazine had no pool of experienced writers to draw on. Only the art director had any design training. Specialists of the kind a design magazine needed were scarce. The technical editor was Arthur Gregor, a widely published poet from Austria who had a degree in engineering but no interest in it.

The ambience of those years is best understood by looking at the TV series Mad Men. The stereotypical two-martini lunch was no joke. It was de rigueur. In the decade of the two-martini lunch, however, Charlie Whitney had three. That made an enormous difference, for it meant that no business could be transacted in the afternoon. Editorially this didn't matter much, for Whitney astutely kept his hands off what the editors wrote. But he insisted on strict approval rights of the cover, which meant that any given cover might require a full afternoon's defense. Also, while he rarely questioned, or even saw, any copy we were about to publish, he would regularly discover that we weren't making money (we weren't) and call the editors into his office for a lengthy lecture.

Our chronic lack of money led me to what I think of fondly as my most daring editorial innovation as editor-in-chief, although it had nothing to do with either design or journalism. Almost every day corporations launching new products held press parties to announce them. We received several invitations each week that looked too interesting to turn down. But sending an editor to attend them was costly, entailing not only an editor's time away from the office, but if alcohol were served, as invariably it was, the additional loss of the editor's productivity when and if he or she returned (one didn't). So I.D. officially eschewed many parties, but we needed the press kits for pictures and information.

October 1960 cover of I.D. by Peter Bradford (left) and, from the interior, the first page of an article on Henry Dreyfuss.

I can't think why, but for the first few years I lived in New York I happened to know an unusually large number of actors, who spent their days auditioning. They did rounds. Doing rounds meant presenting themselves at casting calls to be judged. This humiliating daily drill required that they be well dressed and well groomed. Being broke and hungry was not required, but they usually were. Moreover, they were attractive, personable and articulate. I had generic business cards printed, identifying the card carrier as an associate editor of I.D., and distributed them to actors I knew, asking them to occasionally attend events as representatives of the magazine. All I asked of them was that they bring me press kits. What they got in return were free drinks and free lunch. True, lunch frequently consisted only of cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. But these events tended to be lavishly catered affairs and the snacks were substantial.

The actors loved it. After all, they were role-playing, which was the business they were in. And I.D. developed a reputation for having an uncommonly large and spectacularly good-looking staff.

News of I.D.'s demise leads to thoughts of some of the contributors who nourished its pages over the years: George Nelson, Jay Doblin, Ada Louise Huxtable, Eric Larrabee, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Reyner Banham. And of staff members, many gone but some of whom continue to enrich the field. Jane Mitarachi, now Jane Thompson, heads Thompson Design Group, an architectural planning firm in Boston. She is the creator of a soon-to-be-published book on Design Research, the Cambridge design store founded by her late husband, architect Benjamin Thompson. Steven Holt is the Distinguished Professor of Industrial Design at California College of the Arts. Bob Malone is an expert in robotics and automation, and the author of The Ultimate Robot and other books on the subject. Photographer Maude Dorr is in Bhopal, India, documenting the still contentious aftermath of the 1984 gas-leak disaster. Chee Pearlman directs the editorial and curatorial design consultancy Chee Company. Julie Lasky is the editor of Change Observer, the branch of Design Observer concerned with societal innovation. Fifty-five years ago an industrial design magazine run by two women was a curious presence in a field that was entirely masculine. By the time Annetta Hanna, Chee Pearlman and Julie Lasky were individually at the helm, that was no longer an anomaly.

Some I.D. editors left to win distinction in other fields. John Gregory Dunne became a screenwriter and novelist. His death six years ago was the subject of the book The Year of Magical Thinking by his widow, the author Joan Didion. Jim Mellow, former editor-in-chief, won international renown for his biographies of Gertrude Stein and other writers of the Lost Generation.

It began as a professional magazine named Industrial Design but called I.D. Originally published every other month, its frequency fluctuated through the years from monthly to bimonthly and even eight times per year. As its coverage expanded, the name was changed to International Design. Not everyone noticed; it was still called I.D.

For a magazine or a newspaper to cease publication is not unprecedented in these times. And not surprising. But beyond the sentimental attachments there is reason to mourn I.D.'s passing, to speculate on what further losses that portends, and, more important, to think of what might take its place. One of the validating marks of a profession is a journal to steadily examine and interpret it. That function cannot be fulfilled by official organizational publications. It is hard to think it could be fulfilled now anywhere but on the internet; but it is equally hard to see the form that will take.

As for reflecting on the life of this magazine, I've been here before. In 1988 I was asked to review 35 years of I.D. Here's what I said in conclusion:

I.D. got off to a better start in life than any child has a right to expect. My impression—and it is only that—is that the magazine went through a difficult middle period, when both it and the professions it served were unstable, unsure and unsurely perceived. There were the usual weight problems, acne, confusion about identity, uneven growth and flashes of brilliance. During that period I sometimes felt pangs of disappointment, even going so far as to ask, “Where did we go wrong?” My impression—only that—is that today the magazine has an enviable inner strength, self-confidence and direction. I don't know that I have any right to take pride in that, but I do.

Twenty years later I don't feel much different.

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