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Second World War

In the decade which followed the Second World War, industrial society became characterized increasingly by the role that the mass media played in determining the nature of its institutions, its organizations, its consumption patterns and the life-styles of its populations. More than ever before, the effects of the press, the radio, television and the cinema entered the lives of practically every individual in the industrialized world, providing new sources of information, creating new expectations and suggesting new values. Inevitably, within this changing cultural climate, design took on new guises and performed new roles.

New forms of communication

These new forms of communication had already, in the years before the Second World War, begun to intensify their impact. The oldest of them, the press, had existed in some form or another ever since the early days of printing in the sixteenth century but, with the advent of steam printing in the early nineteenth century and, in 1853, the abolition of the tax on advertisements, it expanded rapidly throughout the end of the last century and into our own, paralleling as it did so the expansion of adult literacy. The first wireless was patented in 1896 but it was not until the 1920s that the full effects of that medium were felt and, while TV had been introduced first into Britain in the 1930s, it failed to become a truly popular medium until after the war. Critical opinions about these developments varied enormously. While the American social commentator, Marshall McLuhan, was convinced that the impact of radio and television was, along with that of the other products of the electronic age - the telephone and the computer - an extremely radical one and that their role in the transformation of the world into what he called a 'global village' was irrevocable, in Britain (Barthes, 1967).

Raymond Williams, the cultural historian, was critical about the impact on the content of TV, which he considered to be part of the highly undesirable upsurge of the masses against 'high' culture: 'Isn't the real threat of "mass culture" — of things like television rather than things like football, or the circus — that it reduces us to an endlessly mixed, undiscriminating, fundamentally bored reaction.’ (Baudrillard, 1968). The notion of discrimination, of making choices, underpinned all the cultural debates of the postwar period; debates which, inevitably, touched the question of design, albeit only at their periphery (Baudrillard, 1968).

Postwar period

During the early postwar period, which was one of economic, social and cultural reconstruction in the industrialized world, design played a crucial, although usually silent, role. It became an important factor within two areas of postwar life; the first as part of the need to create a national identity for products on the international market and the second in the formation of mass culture — both of them highly significant aspects of the world history of the post-1945 period (Bonsiepe, 1965).

The question of international trade was one to which all the countries emerging from the Second World War, whether victorious or defeated, were eager to address themselves. Their first requirement was to turn their economies back to full production for peacetime needs and, where a number of countries were concerned, US financial aid was necessary if this was to happen. As a direct result of the loan scheme that was initiated, a number of countries, including Britain, France, Italy, Japan and West Germany, were soon busy re-establishing their peacetime industrial manufacturing. The trade tariffs which had been imposed by the USA before the war were gradually being abolished and the way was soon open for the resumption of free, international trading. Recovery was slow at first but once begun, it accelerated rapidly thus initiating a period of unusually fast economic growth which, in North America, Western Europe and Japan, was sustained for two decades (Williams, 1968).

Economic Rebirth

Within this economic rebirth the manufacture and trade of goods played a major role. Between 1945 and 1958 world manufactures increased by 60 per cent, while between 1958 and 1968 the figure rose to 100 per cent. These rises were paralleled by a growth in export figures over the same period and by 1957 the world trade in manufactured goods exceeded that in primary produce for the first time ever (Toffler, 1971).

The reasons for this resurgence were complex but the strongest stimulus, in addition to the numerous social and economic changes that occurred in these years, was the rapid development of technology. Many advances had been made during the Second World War, including the development of radar and work in aircraft production which, in Britain, was sustained into the 1950s. Perhaps the most significant development of the late 1940s, however, was that of the transistor which made possible the miniaturization of electronic equipment, including computers, which in turn were to play such a central role in the postwar period, both in the automation of production and in information retrieval (Stearn, 1968).

Social, economic and technological

As a result of the numerous social, economic and technological changes that took place in these years, manufacturing expanded rapidly and provided industrial designers with their major challenge. In several of the countries participating in international trade, design became the means by which goods were distinguished from those of competitive countries and made more desirable for the purchaser, both at home and abroad. The lesson presented by the prewar USA example that ‘design sells' was learnt and digested and became one of the major strategies in most countries' programmes of industrial reconstruction and within international trading in the postwar period (Rogers, 1946).

This was particularly true of Italy which involved designers in its assault on the world market very early on in the postwar years. Italy industrialized relatively late and many of its manufacturing companies in the areas of furniture, electrical equipment and household goods did not emerge until the 1950s. The companies Artemide, Arflex, Azucena, Flos, Kartell, Brionvega and Tecno were among the many which were born in the two decades following the end of the war, the period during which manufacturing formed a central part of Italy's programme of reconstruction. This rebirth was not limited to the economic sphere, however, but embraced culture as well. As Ernesto N. Rogers, the editor of Domus magazine at that time, wrote: 'It is a question of forming a taste, a technique, a morality, all terms of the same function. It is a question of building a society.' (Patrix, 1973)

The Cisitalia coupé

The Cisitalia coupé, designed by Carrozzeria PininFarina in Turin, was the first of the great postwar Italian car designs. Its form was based on aerodynamic principles and consisted of a smooth, rounded metal skin over a compact tubular frame. The beauty of this car lies in the attention to compositional detail of the necessary features like the windows, doors and wheels and in the avoidance of any unnecessary extras. There are no square forms in the whole design and the low hood combined slipstream stability with maximum visibility and a visual emphasis on its length which was also emphasized by the fender shape over the rear wheel. The Cisitalia's sculptural qualities made it a natural choice for the permanent design collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. tectural accessories for them, along the lines of their prewar US counterparts. The primary motivation behind the numerous marriages that ensued was one of creating a visual impact on the world market that was specifically Italian in character, and it was not long before a number of observers, like the designer F. H. K. Henrion (q.v.), were remarking on the emergence of a 'family likeness' 6 among Italy's consumer goods. The products he isolated for comment, as early as 1949, included Gio Ponti's (q.v.) coffee machine for La Pavoni of 1948; the Vespa motor-scooter of 1946; and PininFarina's Cisitalia car [32], all of which manifested the same elegant, streamlined curves which were as expressive as, but much more restrained than, their transatlantic equivalents (Nelson, 1957).

Postwar Italy

Postwar Italy demonstrated two distinct advantages in its position in world trade, both of them brought about by its late arrival. First, by the 1950s the concept of the designer had become a known, international quantity and, secondly, by that time new machinery to work the new materials, among them plywood, aluminium and plastics, had become commercially available. Also, because most Italian manufacturing companies were craft-based, and therefore relatively small, they remained highly flexible and were able to make rapid modifications to their production, following the changing demands of the market (Maldonado, 1976).

Design in postwar Italy was quick to develop into a highly sophisticated marketing exercise. Because its products were aimed from the beginning at a small, wealthy, international market, Italy was able to focus on quality and aesthetic innovation as the two defining characteristics of its consumer goods. This inevitably placed a strong emphasis on the role of the designers, giving them the sole responsibility of finding the right visual formula for the product. For the most part, disillusioned with prewar Rationalism because of its associations with fascism, they took their cue from contemporary fine art incorporating into many of their designs sensuous curves directly inspired by the abstract, organic sculpture of artists like Henry Moore, Hans Arp, Alexander Calder and Max Bill (qq.v.). The Turinese furniture designer, Carlo Mollino (q.v.), took this expressive aesthetic to an extreme in what he called his 'streamline surreal' tables and chairs. As a result of this pioneering work Italy, in particular Milan, soon became a centre for debate and discussion about progressive attitudes towards design, and the postwar Triennales, three-yearly exhibitions of design which had been initiated in the 1920s (Huisman and Patrix, 1968).

Italian postwar furniture

Mollino was the most idiosyncratic of the Italian postwar furniture designers. Based in Turin rather than Milan where most furniture designing went on, he developed a personal style which he described as Streamlined Surreal and which derived, he claimed, from natural phenomena like branches of trees and antlers' horns and from the curved paths of downhill skiers, a sport at which he was adept. This little table, which is made out of organically shaped laminated plywood and glass joined to each other by small wooden pegs, is typical of Mollino's forms and represents Italian postwar sculptural design at its most extreme. It resumed in 1947, and turned into a necessary pilgrimage for enthusiastic young designers all over the world (Hopkins, 1964).

Finland postwar design

Finland was among the other countries which presented a unified and exciting image of postwar design at the Triennales of 1951 and of 1954. Although late in starting its onslaught on the world market, and in spite of being well behind its Scandinavian partners which by 1939 had established both Swedish Modem and Danish Modem as significant mid-century design styles, Finland's impact, when it came, was both more dramatic and more immediately effective. Like Italy, Finland focused on exclusive products aimed at the top end of the market and evolved a highly expressive style which had little in common with Sweden's and Denmark's socially democratic approach to design. Instead, Finland's postwar programme was a sophisticated, well‐ executed exercise in public relations and marketing which earned that country a unique position in world trade. The names of Finnish designers, in particular those of Tapio Wirkkala (q.v.) and Timo Sarpaneva (q.v.), were associated closely with their products. These were among the first of the European 'superstar' designers who were marketed along with their products and whose very names were enough to render a product more desirable than its anonymous competitors (Hebdige, 1981).

Another country to make an impact at the Triennales of the mid-1950swas West Germany which was by then making a rapid recovery from the setbacks it had received during the war. West Germany created its particular postwar image for the product on the basis of a superrational aesthetic which was manifested most clearly in the design of its electrical and electronic consumer goods. This represented a deliberate return to the pre-Nazi, 'ideologically acceptable' days of the Bauhaus and, by the 1960s, West Germany had re-established itself as a leader in world trade, largely on the basis of this rigorous approach to design and its commitment to technological research (Henrion, 1969).

Finland's experiments in glass design in the early postwar period laid the seeds of a new Finnish design wave. It was characterized by elegant, expressive, organically shaped forms which implied luxury and exclusiveness. Trained initially as a sculptor, Wirkkala was one of the main exponents of this new glass style and this vase was among his first projects for the littala Glass Company. It won him a prize in an littala competition held in 1947 and another at the Milan Triennale of 1951 and helped pave the way for much of the Finnish design produced in the postwar period. Like so many of the early postwar designs to come out of Japan, the appearance of this product was dictated by its functions rather than by any abstract notion of styling. Shigeru Honda's little motorized bicycle, which began life with a 50 c.c. engine but later acquired a 100 c.c. one, was a step-through model designed to go across rice-field trails and through the narrow alleys in Japanese cities. Honda needed a low-priced, light, manoeuvrable bike with a small but powerful engine which he situated under the bicycle-style seat so that it could be cooled by the breeze. A platform was put on the back for the delivery boy. Through clever promotion, Honda succeeded in capturing a large US market for his design (Dorfles, 1974).

Although it was not yet obvious at the Triennales of the 1950sJapan was also beginning to recognize the benefits of a positive design policy. Like Italy and Finland, Japan had industrialized late and very rapidly but unlike these countries commitment to craft-based industries concentrated its energies on products of a more technical nature such as cameras, hi-fi equipment and motor-cycles. In the early stages of Japan's onslaught on the world market the combination of advanced technology and low price was sufficient to secure a ready place for these goods, but as the wealth of the industrialized world increased, and Japan sought to expand its markets, it began to think about the importance of design, not simply as a necessary element within production, but also as an aid to sales. Like so many countries before it, Japan turned, first, to the US model for inspiration, emulating that example as a means of encouraging its own indigenous design profession. With its traditional cultural emphasis on the team rather than the individual, however, Japan was keener to emphasize the name of the company than that of the designer who became, as a result, an anonymous but none the less essential element within the manufacture and sales of Japanese consumer products (Caplan, 1982).

Postwar emphasis

The postwar emphasis on design as a means of promoting a national identity within international trade meant a significant shift of definition for the concept. It became in fact a kind of product signature in a world where mass communication made it possible for, and indeed inevitable that, goods produced in one country were very quickly available and desirable in another. Many products were, in fact, made only for export and were never seen by the home market. This resulted in the emergence of a select group of exclusive 'designed' objects which attained an international status and seal of approval. This was encouraged by the professional magazines, exhibitions, competitions, museum collections and other forms of mass communication and propaganda which specialized in design and which served to form an international consensus on the subject. The design collection at the Museum of Modem Art in New York, for example, consisted of the same products - most of them from Scandinavia, Germany and Italy — which filled the pages of the Italian magazine Domus and the British magazine Design in the postwar period. In the late 1950s an international concept of 'good design’ emerged and the objects which earned this label achieved the status of super-products. Even in Japan the 'G' mark was evolved as an award granted by the Japanese body concerned with exports - JIDPO - to those international products which merited the description of 'good design.’ Among the goods they selected were machines manufactured by Braun and Olivetti (Douglas, M., and Isherwood, B, 1980).

While one facet of design in the post-Second World War context was characterized by this exclusive, international, establishment-promoted 'high cultural' phenomenon which played a significant role within world trade, its other major manifestation in the period, which was equally dependent upon the role of mass communications media for its dissemination, was within the context of mass culture.

As a result of its early realization of the alliance between design and the popular imagination, the USA were well in advance of Europe in its acceptance of design as part of mass culture. By the 1940s and 1950s, in the streets outside the exclusive objects housed in the Museum of Modem Art, the USA were pioneering an approach to design in which object symbolism, obsolescence and overt consumerism played a fundamental role. The products involved were aimed at a different sector of society from the one which consumed 'international, good design’ and, visually, they had very little in common with it.

US economic presence in Europe

The US economic presence in Europe during the early postwar years encouraged a process of 'cocacolanization' which, in turn, began to influence the nature of European production and consumption. This did not go without opposition, however, and there was strong resistance from some representatives of the old 'minority' culture. In Britain a number of people condemned the new culture which was beginning to invade Britain, including Raymond Williams who wrote in 1962 that: 'In Britain, we have to notice that much of this bad work is American in origin. At certain levels, we are culturally an American colony. But of course it is not the best American culture that we are getting', and by the early 1950sarticles about the evils of streamlining had already begun to fill the pages of Design magazine.

In spite of such misgivings, mass culture on the US model did infiltrate Western Europe during this period, encouraged by the mass media, particularly advertising and popular magazines, and by the mass consumption of products whose design was aimed at instant gratification. During the 1950s Europe was flooded with the sudden abundance of the same consumer goods that the USA had experienced in the 1920s and, as a result, the commercial emphasis moved firmly into the sphere of electric and electronic goods rather than any other consumer durables. By 1957, for example, 'One in every three middle-class and one in every five working-class homes in Britain had an electric washing machine'.

One reason for the sudden availability of the new products was technological, as automation had brought with it expanded possibilities for manufacturing. Socially, the growth of mass consumption was, in Britain for example, encouraged by an increase in general wealth in the period up to the late 1960s. This, in turn, was a direct result of government policies of full employment and healthier balance of payments figures. New phenomena, like the extension of hire purchase and other credit facilities, and the increasing wealth of most young people also helped to expand the market enormously, as did the growing number of working wives. Much of the advertising for consumer products was in fact aimed at women who had both more money to spend than ever before and a large say in what went into the home. In Britain this was reflected in the introduction of the concept of design into popular women's magazines like Woman and Woman's Own which, in addition to general articles about 'how to furnish your sitting room' and indications as to where to buy which items, also included references to 'contemporary' design in their short stories, hinting at the instant social status that accompanied the purchase of such items. The do-it-yourself movement was also imported from the USA in these years and illustrations on the covers of Do-It-Yourself magazine in the 1950s showed married couples busy at work building cupboards and stripping walls together.

The availability of so many new consumer goods in Britain in the 1950s acted as an agent of social change along with other manifestations of the mass media. These changes were as visible in the office and the street as they were in the home. The new postwar youth cults, for example, were becoming highly consumer-oriented and the consumption of certain items - among them the Vespa motor-scooter, the fast motorbike, the record-player, the 'transistorized' pocket radio and the tape-recorder - became necessary entry requirements into certain subcultural groups.

Vespa motor-scooter

The Vespa motor-scooter serves as a prime example of the way in which products' meanings can change as they become appropriated by different cultural groups. It is also an interesting instance of the way in which consumption and use can modify, if not dramatically alter, the symbolic and iconographic intentions of both the manufacturer and the designer. The Vespa was developed in Italy by the Piaggio engineering works after the Second World War as a result of prewar experiments, wartime technological discoveries, and as a means of utilizing production machinery which would have otherwise remained unused. From the start it was intended to meet the needs of the female motor-cyclist. When it appeared in 1946 the Vespa represented a radical design breakthrough inasmuch as it provided a completely new image for a piece of transport machinery. It became one of the visual symbols of Italy's economic and cultural reconstruction after the war and it developed quickly into a familiar 'wasp-like' appendage of the urban environment, used both by men and women as a practical urban tool for short-distance rides. For many it functioned also as a political symbol for the new democracy and the break with prewar fascism. With its introduction into Britain in the 1950s, along with the espresso coffee bars and Italian suits, it soon developed, however, into a cult object, used almost exclusively by young male members of the subcultural avant-garde.

By the early 1960s this subcultural group had become more specific and regimented and its members were known collectively as Mods who stood, ideologically, in opposition to the Rockers for whom the motorbike, rather than the motor-scooter, was a sacrosanct object. The Mods adorned their Vespas with aerials, hung with furry tails and flags, and covered the fronts with mascots and badges - decorative and symbolic additions which D'Ascanio, the Vespa's engineer back in 1946, could never have envisaged. This variability of significance is typical of products which become absorbed into mass culture through mass consumption and turn into the ritualized appendages of the life-style of different social and cultural groupings and subgroupings (Francastel, 1956).

In his book Future Shock, the American Alvin Toffler has pointed out that whereas in the first stages of mass production, standardization of parts and products was both the norm and the ideal, with the advent of automation and differentiated markets within mass consumption it has been superseded by 'endless variations'. This allows consumers to purchase, in the case of a car for example, a basic design and then to add, or simply pay for, as many extra, personalized spare parts as they wish. It also encourages the production of small batches of varied models rather than large runs of undifferentiated designs.


With the expanded market of the postwar period, eclecticism became increasingly inevitable and mass culture succeeded in exerting not just one new set of values but several. As Susan Sontag has pointed out: 'The new sensibility is defiantly pluralistic; it is dedicated both to an excruciating seriousness and to fun and wit and nostalgia.' Although the USA continued to influence Europe where mass culture was concerned throughout the 1950s, the early 1960s witnessed a reassertion of Europe over the USA in terms of cultural hegemony. The Pop revolution of those years was predominantly a British phenomenon but its influence was worldwide and, by the middle of the decade, the products of Swinging London were reaching an international audience [27]. The mood changed dramatically, however, in the early 1970s when the curve of economic expansion began to drop significantly downwards for the first time in twenty years and inflation became a worldwide reality (Hoffenberg, 1977).

Pluralism and complexity have remained the norm, however, where design is concerned. With the ever increasing growth of the mass communications media, and its accompanying democratization of information, products are visible in popular magazines almost as soon as they are picked up by the specialist press and while the avant-garde is busily borrowing images from mass culture, the commercial world is also quick to take ideas from subcultures and to mass produce them. By the end of the 1970s, along with advertising and TV, the 'admass' society had appropriated design as one of its major communicative forces.


Barthes, R., Mythologies (Paris: Senil, 1967). A text which analyses popular culture from a semiological perspective. The articles on the Citroën car and Plastics are most relevant in this context.

Baudrillard, J., Le Système des objets (Paris: Gonthier, 1968). A sociological analysis of consumer objects within a capitalist economy.

Bonsiepe, G., Teoria epratica del desegno industriale (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1975). A general discourse on the nature of design in contemporary society.

Caplan, R., By Design (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982). A series of essays which examine fairly lightheartedly the tradition of modem design in a US context.

Dorfles, G., Introduction à l'industrial design (Paris: Casterman, 1974). A general essay on the meaning of modem design.

Douglas, M., and Isherwood, B., The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1980). A study of consumption, which does not mention design by name, but which places consumer objects into a context of human demand rather than of economics.

Francastel, P., Art et technique (Paris: Editions Densel, 1956). A useful, but somewhat dated, study of the relationship between art and technology.

Hoffenberg, A., and Lapidus, A., La Société du Design (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1977). A dense, sociological analysis of modem design.

F. H. K. Henrion, 'Italian journey', Design, no. (January 1969), pp. 7-10.

D. Hebdige, 'Object as image: the Italian scooter-cycle', Block, no. 5 (1981), pp. 44-64.

H. Hopkins, The New Look: A Social History of the Forties and Fifties (London: Secker & Warburg, 1964), p. 231.

Huisman, Denis, and Patrix, G., L'Esthétique industrielle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1961). A short analysis of the development and function of modem design.

Maldonado, T., Disegno industriale: un riesame (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1976). An account of the meaning and function of industrial design.

Nelson, G., Problems of Design (New York: Whitney, 1957). A dated but perceptive account.

Patrix, G., Design et environment (Paris: Casterman, 1973). A critical study of the role of design in contemporary society.

E. Rogers, 'Editorial', Domus, no. 60 (January 1946), p. 3.

G. E. Stearn (ed.), McLuhan Hot and Cool (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1968), p. 295

A. Toffler, Future Shock (London: Pan, 1971), p. 247.

R. Williams, Communications (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1968), p. 99.


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