Henry Dreyfuss Associates LLC
Henry Dreyfuss Associates LLC
Incorporated: 1929 as Henry Dreyfuss & Associates
Sales: $37.5 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 541420 Industrial Design Services
Henry Dreyfuss Associates LLC is one of the oldest and most esteemed industrial design consultancy firms in the United States. The company has created a wide range of products, logos, and packaging for such clients as AT&T, Deere & Co., Polaroid Corporation, and American Airlines. Some of its designs are still in production more than a half-century after their introduction, and the firm continues to follow founder Henry Dreyfuss’s philosophy of creating timeless styling that take “human factors” into account.
Company founder Henry Dreyfuss was born to a poor immigrant family in 1904 in Brooklyn, New York. His childhood was a difficult one, but in his teens Dreyfuss’s artistic talent was recognized by a teacher, who recommended him for a scholarship to the Ethical Culture Society’s private Arts High School. After graduation in 1922 he served as an apprentice to Norman Bel Geddes, a New York stage designer who was beginning to branch out into the then-new field of industrial design. In 1924 Dreyfuss began working on his own, designing sets for some 250 vaudeville and movie prologue productions at New York’s Strand Theater, and then for productions on Broadway or out of town.
Like Bel Geddes he also began take an interest in industrial design, and he opened an office in 1929 to handle commissions for products such as children’s furniture and glass containers. He had chosen to work independently after being offered a staff designer job with the Macy Company, deciding instead to design products directly for their manufacturers.
Needing a business manager, in 1930 Dreyfuss contacted his old high school for a recommendation and soon hired Doris Marks, the daughter of the former borough president of Manhattan, who had many social and business connections. They had an immediate personal chemistry and were married not long afterward.
During 1930 Dreyfuss moved his office to the more visible location of 580 Fifth Avenue from West 48th Street, as he began to attract more assignments ranging from package designs and hardware items such as hinges, to consumer goods such as toasters and pianos. Meanwhile, he continued to do theater work such as the highly praised cellblock set for The Last Mile, a 1930 production starring Spencer Tracy, and also took assignments for theaters themselves, completing several movie houses for RKO Orpheum.
Dreyfuss’s approach to creating products was based on a logical functionality that he would call “human factor” (or ergonomic) design. He believed strongly in melding form and function elegantly in a timeless, rather than trendy, fashion, and his best designs established a format that became the template for a product’s appearance for years to come. One such example was a refrigerator designed in 1933 for General Electric which took the refrigeration unit from the top of the machine and moved it to the bottom, radically improving its look and functionality. Others of the era included the model 150 upright vacuum cleaner designed for Hoover in 1936, the model 302 (popularly known as the model 300) handset telephone introduced by Bell Laboratories in 1937, and the Westclox Big Ben alarm clock of 1939. Dreyfuss had begun working with Bell in 1930 after the company sponsored a competition for a new handset design and asked him to enter. He had refused, preferring to work directly with the engineers on his design, but when the competition ended the company called him back, beginning a decades-long relationship.
During the mid-1930s Dreyfuss also began to take on more ambitious projects such as interiors for corporate airplanes and the Twentieth Century Limited passenger train, which ran from New York to Chicago. His first effort was the streamlined “inverted bathtub” model of 1936, which was updated in 1938 with one of the most iconic designs of the era. The new model featured a bullet-nosed silver engine with lighted drive wheels and elegantly-styled interiors, with even the menus and other graphics produced by the firm.
In 1939 Dreyfuss and his staff designed a number of exhibits for the New York World’s Fair, including one for AT&T and the futuristic Democracity, a vision of the United States in the year 2039. By this time, the firm was charging its clients a retainer fee of about $25,000 per year.
DEERE ACCOUNT WON IN 1937
In early 1937 Dreyfuss’s offices (later relocated to New York’s Madison Avenue) were visited by Elmer McCormick, an engineer of Iowa-based tractor maker Deere & Co., who was seeking advice on improving the appearance of the firm’s machines. The following year the Model A Deere tractor was introduced, and like many Dreyfuss successes it used logical, elegant concepts to greatly improve the functionality and appearance of the machine. Its unified radiator cover and hood were subsequently patented, and the firm began to do a model-by-model revision of the entire Deere line.
With the coming of World War II, the Dreyfuss office was asked to work on a variety of government projects, many of them secret. The best-known was the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Situation Room, which included a 13-foot-high globe that was able to spin easily, duplicates of which were also provided to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. Commercial work continued during the war as well and included the Eversharp company’s popular Skyliner fountain pen.
In 1945 Dreyfuss moved to California and opened a second office near his home in South Pasadena, and the following year William F. H. Purcell was made a partner. Seeking to raise the firm’s profile in the media, Dreyfuss engaged a publicist at the fee of $25,000 per year, which helped him win prominent coverage in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Forbes over the next several years.
Work continued in the postwar era for new clients as well as many the firm’s established ones. In 1949 Dreyfuss updated Bell’s Model 300 telephone with the model 500, which would become the first phone to be offered in a color other than black beginning in 1954. It would ultimately go on to be the most popular phone ever made, with more than 160 million units produced over a half-century.
Another iconic Dreyfuss design of this era was the 1953 Honeywell thermostat. It departed from previous versions by being round, which allowed it to fit cleanly on a wall whether it was askew or not, unlike rectangular ones which frequently appeared crooked. Like many of the firm’s products, it had been designed with significant input from the client’s engineers and management.
At HDA every design begins with a solid Human Factors foundation. Only then does HDA focus on design detail. We take great pride in attention to detail … in the junction of many intersecting parts in Vehicle Design … or in the detail of a curve in Product Design … or in the upsweep of a beautiful calligraphic stroke in Graphic Design.
In 1954 the firm lost the Hoover account, though its innovative Constellation vacuum cleaner that floated on a cushion of exhaust air was introduced the following year. In 1955 Dreyfuss published his autobiography, Designing for People, which included the first publication of the firm’s detailed charts of the average human figures, called “Joe” and “Josephine,” that were used to design products. The charts were largely based on research that had been conducted during the war to design military equipment like tank seats and fighter plane cockpits.
With his company at the peak of success, Dreyfuss himself was becoming less involved with the day-to-day work of product design and relying increasingly on his staff. The firm kept its client list to 15 or less so that each could receive personal attention, and employed about 30 in New York and ten in California, where Dreyfuss, Purcell, and several other top designers were based. Assignments of the late 1950s included a wallmounted Bell telephone (by newly hired Pratt graduate Donald M. Genaro), and the Princess phone, a smaller model that was targeted at teenage girls.
1960: DEERE LINE REDESIGNED; POLAROID ACCOUNT WON
The company had also continued to do much work for Deere, which in 1960 introduced a completely redesigned product line under the slogan “The New Generation of Power.” A new client added during the year was camera maker Polaroid. Its first Dreyfuss & Associates design, the Model J33 Land Camera, was introduced in 1961, and later followed by the $19.95, mass-marketed Swinger of 1965 and the striking SX-70 of the early 1970s.
In 1962 the Bankers Trust Company building in New York was completed, with many features designed by Henry Dreyfuss himself. In 1965 another breakthrough phone, the Trimline, was introduced. Designed by Donald Genaro in consultation with Western Electric engineers, it combined the handset and dial (later pushbuttons) into a single unit, and went on to take top-selling honors from the model 500. Also during 1965, the Industrial Design Society of America was founded, with Henry Dreyfuss elected its first president.
Other clients of the mid-1960s included American Airlines, for whom the firm designed interiors of 747 airplanes, offices, and graphics; and the American Safety Razor Company, whose Pal and Gem razors and product packaging received Dreyfuss’s treatment.
Industrial design was not an exact science, and some projects had unanticipated flaws, as when Dreyfuss’s staff was asked to create telephone booths for the U.S. national park system. After installation of the first examples, which were largely made of glass, park rangers reported many were being destroyed when wandering moose attacked their reflections in the glass, thinking it was a rival. They were soon replaced with a redesigned version in cast concrete.
HENRY DREYFUSS RETIRES IN 1969
In 1967 the firm became known as Henry Dreyfuss Associates, dropping the ampersand that preceded the last word. It would be run by partners William Purcell, James M. Conner, Niels Diffrient, and Donald M. Genaro, and operate out of offices in New York and South Pasadena (though the latter was eventually closed).
On January 1, 1969, Dreyfuss officially retired, after which he continued to work with top management of several clients to analyze and improve their contact with customers. With his wife he would also work on a project for the National Endowment for the Humanities that was published in 1972 as Symbol Sourcebook, a compilation of graphic symbols from around the world.
On October 5, 1972, Dreyfuss and his wife died in a double suicide. Doris Marks had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the still-healthy 68-year old designer chose to end his life with her when her pain became unbearable.
- Henry Dreyfuss opens an office in New York to solicit industrial design work.
- Dreyfuss begins working with Bell Laboratories on telephones.
- Tractor maker Deere & Co. hires Dreyfuss; Model 302 phone debuts.
- Henry Dreyfuss moves to California and opens second office there.
- Model 500 telephone is introduced.
- Classic Honeywell round thermostat debuts.
- Firm wins account of camera maker Polaroid.
- Company becomes Henry Dreyfuss Associates as control shifts to partners.
- Henry Dreyfuss dies of carbon monoxide poisoning with his wife in South Pasadena, California.
- President Donald Genaro retires.
- Firm moves offices to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
During the 1970s Henry Dreyfuss Associates continued to do work for both commercial and government accounts, in 1974 being retained to design the interiors of nuclear-powered Trident missile submarines. Company designers chose a palette of colors that helped ease the discomfort of spending long periods undersea. Award-winning designs of the decade included the Flicker ladies’ razor, the Singer Futura sewing machine, and a two-station telephone booth for the World Trade Center.
In 1980 the firm added a major new client in Falcon Jet Company, for which it would design interiors of business jets. Dreyfuss created full-size mock-ups at its offices to test their spatial layout. In 1981 top partner Niels Diffrient left the firm after 25 years to form his own design consultancy in Connecticut.
During the mid-1980s the company worked on about 50 products per year. In addition to designers, Dreyfuss retained an industrial psychologist, an anthropometrist (an expert on human body measurement), and a proximist (who studied the effects of space considerations on human behavior).
By 1989 the firm was operating from West 55th Street in Manhattan and was headed by Donald M. Genaro. It had worked for AT&T (or its subsidiary Bell) for 60 years, Deere for 52, and Polaroid for 25. Though there were obvious benefits to shaping the product lines of such major clients over time, these long relationships also caused it to be shut out of some work for new firms. AT&T’s entry into computer production, for example, had required Dreyfuss turn down assignments from both Fujitsu and Apple.
The early 1990s were a busy time, with the AT&T Safari notebook computer introduced in 1991 and the buttonless Smart Phone 2100 appearing in 1992, which featured an onscreen keyboard and 200-number memory. In 1992 the Polaroid Vision camera also debuted (known as Captiva when it appeared in the United States a year later). The firm had designed it after secretly videotaping tourists using Polaroid cameras at Walt Disney World, and discovering that as the camera spit out shot after shot, users struggled to find places to put the pictures. The Captiva displayed completed photos in a window on the back, and was also smaller in a bid to compete with the popular new breed of 35mm point-and-shoot cameras. A million units were sold within a year.
A 1993 design for Deere, the Gator utility vehicle, was also a success, with farmers, contractors, and even the U.S. military purchasing the rugged golf cart–size vehicle which could be applied to a wide range of tasks. It was the first Deere product to have its own name and logo, rather than just a model number.
GENARO RETIRES IN 1994
In 1994 longtime company head Donald Genaro retired, leaving the firm in the hands of partners Bill Crookes, Jack McGarvey, Jim Ryan, and Gordon Sylvester. During the year Astra Jet also hired the firm to design interiors for its business jets.
In 1996 a major retrospective of the work of Henry Dreyfuss appeared at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, which was accompanied by a book about the designer by curator Russell Flinchum.
By 1997 Dreyfuss employed a staff of 40 that operated out of a Manhattan office, a New Jersey prototypebuilding center, and a studio in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan, which handled work for the Deere account and other projects related to the auto industry. Its client list still included many long-standing accounts, while it was also branching out into new areas such as medical equipment for Boehringer Mannheim.
Several of the firm’s designs of the 1990s were recognized with industry awards, including icons and graphics for Quicken Version 5 software, and business jet interiors for Galaxy. In 2001 Dreyfuss also won a gold award from Business Week for the Spin Steer Deere lawn tractor.
In 2004 the firm, now led by president William Crookes, moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to be closer to key clients. In 2006 it won another design award from Plastics magazine for an engine enclosure for the Deere 8030 tractor. Over the years Dreyfuss designers had also been awarded more than 250 patents for a wide variety of items that included telephones, cameras, computers, tractors, seats, sewing machines, faucets, and medical devices.
More than three-quarters of a century after Henry Dreyfuss first opened an industrial design office in New York, the company that bore his name continued to design a wide range of products and graphics for longstanding clients such as Deere & Co., and newer ones such as fishing tackle maker Abu Garcia. The firm had a solid reputation for designs that took human factors into account, and continued to receive awards for its innovative and attractive products.
IDEO; Insight Product Development LLC; Design Continuum, Inc.; Edge Product Development Corporation; Stuart Karten Design.
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