(b. 7 June 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 4 January 1995 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), pioneer in industrial design whose product designs for major U.S. corporations have become American icons.
Stevens was the son of William Stevens, a vice president and director of design and development with Cutler-Hammer, a Milwaukee electronics firm, and Sally Stevens, a homemaker. As a child, Brooks contracted polio, and while he was confined to bed, his father encouraged him to develop his talent for drawing.
After attending Milwaukee schools, including University School for precollege training, Brooks entered Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1929, studying architecture. He left Cornell in 1933 without a degree because of the Great Depression and returned to Milwaukee. In 1934 he opened Brooks Stevens Design Associates, an industrial design studio. One of his first projects was creating a line of electrical controls and the corporate logo for the Cutler-Hammer firm. The early days as an industrial designer were extremely difficult. Stevens recalled that “I had to fight my way in to talk to anybody in the ’30s. I had to justify not only myself, but my profession.” Stevens prevailed, however, and won his first significant assignment from the farm tractor manufacturer Allis-Chalmers. He configured the tractor’s exposed innards into a fine rounded form, molded the gas tank into a teardrop, and shaped two graceful fenders over the wheels. The design was an instant success and was so streamlined that farmers reportedly drove them to church.
Stevens undertook another early design project for his friend Ralph Evinrude, the outboard motor manufacturer. In 1934, he redesigned the engine, hiding the exposed loud motor under a sleek, streamlined cowling. Stevens went on to design many small boats for Evinrude.
Stevens’s work on the first hot air clothes drier provides an understanding of the work of an industrial designer. In 1936 Hamilton Industries developed a prototype for a gas heated spin drier for household use. Essentially, it was a metal box with a simple on-off switch. “You can’t sell this thing,” Stevens told the developers. “It’s just a sheet metal box!” Stevens designed a spin drier with a glass panel front door and added fluted panels and matching knobs. He then suggested that the company load the drier with brightly colored boxer shorts for demonstrations to retailers. The product took off, and the glass panel front door design on clothes driers has remained popular ever since. Stevens’s work on the spin drier most aptly illustrates his own dictum that “I am a businessman-engineer-stylist—and in that order.”
On 21 August 1937 Stevens married Alice Kopmeier. They had four children.
The futuristic designs shown at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City opened the eyes of American business-people to the possibilities of quality industrial design. However, industrial designers had to wait until after World War II, when corporations could devote production to consumer goods, to truly come into their own. Stevens rode the crest of this wave.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s the output of Stevens’s firm was prodigious. He designed portable grills, a side opening bread toaster, portable radios, lawn mowers, the wide-mouthed peanut butter jar, the Jeepster, Lawn Boy lawn mowers, the Steam-O-Matic electric steam iron, Mirro electric fryers, a line of enclosed bridge deck cruisers for Chris Craft, and many other familiar household products.
Some of Stevens’s most renowned work was in the field of transportation. In 1949 he designed the Harley-Davidson Hydraglide motorcycle, and its front fender design was still used by the company’s Heritage Classic series in the early twenty-first century.
Stevens’s automotive industry clients included Kaiser-Frazier, for whom he designed passenger cars and the Excalibur, a two-seat sports car, of which 3,000 were produced. He designed the first postwar Jeepster for the company, and subsequent Jeep lines up to the 1980 Cherokee station wagons. He also worked for Studebaker, Packard, Willys-Overland, and the European car producers Alfa Romeo and Volkswagen. In total, Brooks Stevens Design Associates contributed forty-six designs between 1940 and 1980 for automotive clients.
Stevens created notable successes for railroads. For the Milwaukee Road, he designed every aspect for the transcontinental Hiawatha and Olympian Hiawatha trains from the sleek locomotives, dining cars, and aerodynamic Skytop Lounge car, down to the porters’ uniforms and club car napkins.
Stevens also handled packaging and logo designs for corporations. Starting in 1942, he shaped Miller Beer’s contemporary look, designing everything from the logo, to bottles (clear rather than brown), to the company’s parade floats. Other logo designs included corporate identities for the 3M Company and for Allen Bradley. In all, Brooks Stevens Design Associates designed over 3,000 products for 585 clients during its founder’s career. Eventually, the products designed by Stevens were sold across several continents and had a value of over $6 billion a year.
Probably the single most recognized Stevens design was the Wienermobile, a quirky hot dog on wheels that was an advertising gimmick for the Oscar Mayer Company. In 1958 Stevens redesigned the vehicle, adding buns to the body and a bubble cockpit for the driver. According to his son Kipp, it was one of Brooks Stevens’s most signal achievements, since it “was designed as an advertising vehicle, and succeeded wildly in that regard.” In 1944 Stevens became one of the founders of the Industrial Designers Society of America. The Society had over 8,500 members in the mid-1990s.
Stevens coined the phrase “planned obsolescence” in 1954, a phrase that “stirred up a storm in the trade, press, and with the consumer public.” He did not use this phrase to mean designing products to wear out as their warranties expired. Rather, Stevens explained, the phrase signified giving a product a visual appeal that creates “the desire to own something a little sooner than necessary. We induce people to buy products, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old-fashioned, out of date.” Many postwar designers boasted that their spurring increased consumer buying was their contribution to the robust American economy.
Stevens’s was the only major design firm located away from New York City and the East Coast, the center of the design industry. Stevens claimed that the abundant source of product manufacturers in the region was a reason he was so prolific.
For many years Stevens also taught design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD). In 1978 Stevens had open-heart surgery, and in 1979 he turned his design company over to his son Kipp but continued to teach at MIAD. In the 1980s he lost sight in one eye, and the residual effects of childhood polio confined him to a wheelchair. Through the 1980s, however, he continued to teach three days a week at MIAD.
Brooks Stevens died of heart failure on 4 January 1995. He is buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee. Terrence J. Coffman, the president of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, said at the time of Stevens’s death, “He was a national treasure. His many designs in all areas of industrial design have been used and enjoyed by millions since the 1930s, and his contribution to the industrial design profession are inestimable.”
The Brooks Stevens Gallery of Industrial Design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design maintains a permanent collection of models of Stevens’s automobiles, marine products, machine tools, household appliances, toys, farm and lawn equipment, and packaging. The bulk of his personal archives are at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which maintains an extensive photo file of his creations. Brooks Stevens Design Associates maintains a web site, www.brooksstevens.com. “Bringing Style to Life,” in the Washington Post (19 Jan. 1995), discusses the development and everyday impact of the industrial design profession, and on Brooks Stevens’s contributions to contemporary life. Obituaries are in the Milwaukee Sentinel (5 Jan. 1995) and the New York Times (7 Jan. 1995).
William J. Maloney