Abstract: European Immigrants and Commercial Design in the United States: Transnational Exchanges and Transfers in Graphic and Industrial Design, 1920-1960

Jan Logemann


Midcentury American commercial design is widely regarded as a hallmark of a uniquely American brand of consumer culture that became a global success in the postwar decades. The story was more complicated than that of an "American innovation" exported abroad, however, as this paper will suggest. I trace the careers of Ferdinand Kramer and Herbert Bayer as examples of the a vast number of industrial, product, and graphic designers who found their way from Europe to the United States between the 1920s and the 1940s. Many of them would have a profound impact on American industrial and consumer design during this formative period and helped shape the look and appearance of American postwar affluence. Studying their careers, this paper will suggest, helps to qualify conventional narratives of the emergence of professional industrial design during the 1930s as a quintessentially American story of streamlined consumer goods, of designed obsolescence, and of rapid style changes. Instead, mid-twentieth century commercial aesthetics were shaped by a constant and complex transatlantic back and forth.