Brooks Stevens (right) being interviewed by
network television newsman Garrick Utley in a
1991 visit to the Wisconsin Historical Museum
Industrial designer Brooks Stevens (1911-1995) created more than 3,000 products in his
lifetime, leaving an indelible mark on the everyday gadgetry of American life. From his office in Milwaukee, Stevens designed everything from cookware, lawnmowers and company logos to the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. He was also a master salesman and design theorist, teaching and lecturing on the practical applications of industrial design and raising issues about the mission of design that continue to be contentious topics to this day.
Clifford Brooks Stevens was born June 7, 1911, in Milwaukee. His father William Stevens was executive vice president and director of design and development for the Cutler-Hammer Company in Milwaukee, a large manufacturer of electrical motor controls, and had patented the preselective gearshift for automobiles in 1916. Stevens' father actively encouraged his son's interest in design, particularly after he was struck with polio at age eight. Stevens' polio grew so severe that doctors predicted he would never walk again yet his father, never a believer in rest, pushed Stevens to not only walk, but to ride a bicycle and to swim.
Stevens spent much of his childhood accompanying his father to automobile shows, developing a lifelong love of automobile design. After graduating from high school in 1929, he enrolled in the architecture program at Cornell University, but left without a diploma in 1933 after being chided several times by professors for his interest in automobiles. In his later years, Stevens would establish his own auto museum containing both cars of his own design and cars that he admired.
Stevens returned to Milwaukee and began working on a design project for his father's company, including the redesign of the company logo. At the time, industrial design was an emerging profession primarily centered in New York. Stevens, along with a few contemporaries in Chicago, emerged as pioneers in the field, but unlike many of the others, Stevens decided to stay in Milwaukee rather than open offices in New York.
Stevens opened his first design office on July 1, 1935, and by 1939 the company had grown to a staff of five with more than 30 accounts. In 1937 Stevens married Alice Kopmeier. The young couple built their own modern house, designed by Stevens, in Fox Point, north of Milwaukee, which stands today as one of the most significant examples of modernist domestic architecture.
By the 1940s Stevens' firm was designing products for a range of businesses. His early accomplishments include the first electric clothes dryer with a glass window, the first motor home and the first electric steam iron. Stevens was also heavily involved in housewares, electric appliances and the toy industry, designing bicycles, freezers, toy tractors and medical furniture. He was one of the first to break with monochromatic kitchen appliances too, designing refrigerators with blue interiors and cookware with colored handles and knobs.
Meanwhile, Stevens proved himself a master at salesmanship, delivering lectures on "Industrial Design and its Practical Application to Industry." These talks stressed his main selling point, which was that design would pay for itself many times over. The national emergency created by World War II tested Stevens' argument, as market appeal seemed of lesser importance than meeting wartime needs. Although he did design a few products with a military or home front application, Stevens found more success converting military manufacturing into civilian consumer products. He turned the army Jeep, for example, first into a station wagon and then into a touring car known as the Jeepster.
Stevens ignited a firestorm in the design community in 1954 when he declared that "planned obsolescence," a phrase he coined, was the mission of industrial design. To Stevens this meant, "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." Describing design as nothing more than a marketing ploy became immediately controversial, and planned obsolescence continues to be a contentious aspect of industrial design.
At the same time, Stevens became one of the 10 charter fellows of the Industrial Designers Society of America and the only designer from the Midwest. In 1950 he became the first industrial designer ever featured in a museum retrospective, winning rave reviews for the show at the Milwaukee Art Institute. Additionally, Stevens taught classes at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and oversaw the Brooks Stevens Design Research Center, an educational resource for people interested in learning more about industrial design.
Brooks Stevens died on January 4, 1995. His design firm, Brooks Stevens Design Associates, still operates under the leadership of his son Kipp.