The Face of Design

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , advertising , Voice

Today in product advertising, it’s not uncommon to see the face of the designer behind the object: a roguishly scruffy Philippe Starck beside a new faucet for the German firm Hansgrohe; the affably awkward Sir James Dyson demonstrating his bag-free vacuum in his own 30-second TV spot; the pink and white-clad Karim Rashid, musing on the form of a Samsung television; or the golden-haired, scarf-swaddled Yves Béhar, who as a rule does not appear in ads for his clients like Puma and Herman Miller, but does, however, actively promote the products he designs, frequently appearing at press conferences and events.

Establishing their own images through distinctive personal effects like clothing, accessories and hairstyles, these designers have reinforced their individual brands, becoming recognizable, memorable figures, and as such, attractive spokespeople. The designer more than the design becomes the sought-after subject for magazine covers, personal profiles and awards. And, in what amounts to an echo chamber of advertising and editorial—the effects of which are only amplified by social media—individual designer images become codified. It becomes almost impossible to distinguish recognition for achievement from recognition for being recognizable, or in other words, celebrity—a state reached, said the historian Daniel Boorstin, when someone becomes “known for his well-knownness.”

Through the production and distribution of “the designer face” by clients, the media, and designers themselves, today celebrities are minted more quickly than ever. And with celebrity comes power. “I truly believe we’re about to enter a second golden age of design,” Yves Béhar told The New York Times in December 2010. “The first one was in the ’50s and ’60s, when designers like Raymond Loewy, Charles Eames, George Nelson and Dieter Rams were shepherds of the brands they were working with. They had influence over the products and how companies communicated and promoted themselves.” Maybe this is true—surely the new breed of designers are emulating and referencing the past—but the real question for consumers as well as the design media may be: what are you actually buying into?

Raymond Loewy was the first designer in America to exploit his own image with measurable success. Gaining attention in the mid to late 1930s for his work on the Broadway Limited locomotive for the Pennsylvania Railroad, his design of the Coldspot refrigerator for Sears, and his styling of new models for Studebaker, Loewy may have made one of his most enduring marks on the public consciousness with his futuristic visions for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Loewy designed transportation-themed exhibits for the Chrysler Motors Building and also created promotional renderings of transport modes of the future that appeared in the New York Times (with his byline) leading up to and during the 1939 opening. It was through the Fair that Loewy also met and hired Betty Reese, who would be his in-house publicist and co-creator of his public image for the next three decades.

Reese helped engineer Loewy’s triumphal PR trifecta of 1949, which culminated in an illustrated portrait of Loewy on the cover of the October 31, 1949 issue of Time magazine. Wreathed with sketches of his most famous designs, Loewy looks directly at the viewer, an icon of a beatified consumption with an industrial strength halo. The October Time cover followed two articled in the highest circulating magazines in the United States at the time. In August of 1949, a profile of Loewy appeared in the issue of Reader’s Digest, this piece being a condensed version of an extravagant feature on Loewy in the April 1949 issue of Life magazine entitled “The Great Packager.”

Up until 1950, Loewy’s name was touted heavily in client ads—most notably those for his redesign of Gimbel’s that ran in the New York Times—but following the public relations blitz of 1949 a new type of promotional iconography appears. As smart as the Rue de la Paix, as elegant as coq au vin!” boasts a 1950 ad for the Parisian, Air France’s first non-stop flight between New York and Paris. Inaugurated on April 7 of that year, the Parisian promised a taste of the City of Lights within the pressurized cabin of a Lockheed Constellation aircraft. Air France fitted out its fleet of “Connies” in the utmost comfort for the twelve-hour transatlantic jaunt, promising sky lounges with reclining chairs and an exclusive selection of aperitifs.

To promote its new service to Americans—for whom, in the years following World War II, Paris meant Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and the height of glamor and sophistication—the company ran a series of weekly advertisements in The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. Many of these ads featured public figures endorsing the Parisian, and one of the first spokespeople to appear in them was not a famous actor, entertainer, or athlete, but an industrial designer: the French-born Loewy.

An ad from October 1950 states: “At least once a year Mrs. Loewy and I fly round trip via Air France to visit my office in England and our homes in France. We prefer Air France because of the food, the service, the exceptional courtesy of everyone and the sense of luxury on board.” The quote runs underneath a bust-length photograph of a middle-aged man wearing a suit jacket and tie, whose mustachioed face registers an enigmatic expression that falls somewhere between suave and smirking, solemn and seductive. He is identified as “Mr. Raymond Loewy, well-known Industrial Designer.” The photograph is the same one on which a year earlier Reader’s Digest had based an illustrated portrait of Loewy that it put into mass circulation. With his credibility and importance firmly established by Time, Life and Reader’s Digest, Loewy was bumped up from the role of designer to celebrity endorser, for both brands at large like Air France and his own clients.

Between 1957 and 1960, Raymond Loewy Associates designed the so-called Cosmopolitan line of fabrics and wallpapers for Schumacher Fabrics. To advertise the new products, Schumacher created a new type of designer ad: the designer’s image coupled with the designer’s signature. Sitting behind a desk, the dapper Loewy wears a suit (cufflinks visible) and tie, and maintains the same black mustache seen in the Air France ad, although in the for Schumacher color photography reveals hair noticeably graying at the temples. Directly above Loewy is his signature, represented as part of the firm name “Raymond Loewy Associates.” The signature, a literal endorsement often associated with artists and the idea of authenticity, here connotes the value of an affiliation with the now-famous Raymond Loewy.

Loewy died in 1986, but his reputation and by association his image continued to be a draw for advertisers. In 2005, Coquelle, a division of Le Creuset, celebrated the company’s 80th anniversary by reissuing a limited edition of the Coquelle Oven, originally designed by Raymond Loewy in 1958. In the 2005 ads, an illustration of Raymond Loewy’s headshot (notably the same one included the 1949 Reader’s Digest article) appears along with the designer’s signature.

In a world of mass production and mass communication, the signature—the evocation and evidence of the person behind the machine—carries enormous visual power. Karim Rashid and his clients understand this, making sure that not one of his mold-made plastic creations ever hits the shelf today without his name attached, either on the tag or on the object itself. And because of the new communications platforms enabled by technology, the traditional subdivisions of marketing, advertising and public relations, are becoming evermore blurry. Yves Béhar told the audience at the 2008 TED conference that “advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal,” meaning that a truly good product doesn’t require a hefty sales pitch. Béhar’s face may never appear in a formal ad, because today it doesn’t have to—you see it beside his every tweet. 


About the Author: Molly Heintz is the managing editor at The Architect's Newspaper and a co-founder of the editorial consultancy Superscript. Her research and writing focuses on the intersection of design and media. She has led communications departments at Gensler and Rockwell Group and co-edited the book Spectacle by David Rockwell and Bruce Mau (Phaidon 2006). As a fellow at the Philip Johnson Glass House she helped launch the interactive site She holds an MA in the History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University, and an MFA in Design Criticism from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her article "The Face of Design" is part of a larger body of research on designers and the creation of public identity.