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Raymond Loewy, Master of Design, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer whose classic creations included the Studebaker car, the Coca-Cola bottle and the U.S. Postal Service eagle, died Monday in Monte Carlo, Monaco, where he had lived since 1980.

Loewy was 92 and his wife, Viola, said he died peacefully of natural causes.

Although several men, including the late Henry Dreyfuss, were responsible for the rapid growth of industrial design in this century, Loewy was the most influential. This resulted in part from his flamboyance--he was a tall, handsome man who cultivated rich friends and traveled constantly to promote his ideas.

Loewy and his firm changed the appearance of an astonishing number of objects, from bathroom scales and toasters to cookies and corporate logos.

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In fact, it would be hard to spend a day in America--or in much of the rest of the world--without encountering the “Loewy look.” That look emphasized sleek, clean lines and emblems and colors that stick in the mind.

Loewy made bulky refrigerators look more graceful; he streamlined motor vehicles and trains. He redesigned the Greyhound bus, for example, so that it appeared to be surging forward while standing still. This was the classic Loewy imprint--the look of speed. Even the picture of the hound itself was changed to make it sleeker.

From Cokes to Cookies

Sleekness was also what Loewy imparted to the Coca-Cola bottle. Nabisco hired him to make its cookies look more inviting. He gave Shell Oil its famous scallop shell. When Standard Oil wanted to replace Esso with a similar and equally memorable name, Loewy’s firm came up with Exxon.

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Loewy’s new design for the Lucky Strike cigarette package became an instant classic and is perhaps the best example of what made him so successful.

In 1940, George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Co., walked into Loewy’s New York office and tossed a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes on the designer’s desk.

At that time the Lucky Strike package had a background of dark green, with the target label on only one side of the package. Hill was not happy with it, and he had become fascinated with the French influence on design because of products he bought at Cartier jewelers.

Basis for a Bet

Loewy, the embodiment of the suave, sophisticated Frenchman, later recalled that Hill said to him, “Well, what about that package? Do you really believe you can improve it?” Loewy bet him $50,000 that he could.

The improvement was to put the red target on a luminous white background and to put it on both sides of the pack. Thus, it was much more likely to catch the eye. Sales of Lucky Strikes went up dramatically.

Later, Lucky Strike advertised that “Lucky Strike green has gone to war.” Copper and chromium, used in the ink to print the old label, came into short supply during the war.

Loewy collected his bet, but more important, he once again proved his contention that “between two products equal in price, function and quality, the better looking will outsell the other.”

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Although it is often a mystery why the “look” of one product is preferred over that of another, Loewy knew that it is a phenomenon not to be taken lightly. He preached that every object has an ideal form that can best express its function with economy and grace.

Loewy was born in Neuilly, an affluent suburb of Paris, on Nov. 5, 1893. At an early age he demonstrated a facility for drawing and an interest in engineering. By the time he was 16 he had invented a small model airplane and was building it for sale in a converted stable.

To U.S. in 1919

Loewy’s parents died while he was serving in World War I, leaving him and his three brothers with virtually nothing. Loewy followed one of his brothers to the United States, arriving in New York in 1919 in his military uniform.

As the next decade opened, he began doing fashion illustrations for Vogue and Harpers Bazaar magazines and arranging store windows for Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Loewy enjoyed hanging around the high fashion world with the flappers, but what he really wanted to do was improve the look of the many products being turned out by American industry.

“I was amazed at the chasm between the excellent quality of much American production and its gross appearance, clumsiness, bulk and noise,” he recalled years later in an interview.

Loewy got lucky in the early 1930s when Sigmund Gestetner, a major maker of mimeograph machines, asked him to change the look of the company’s most popular machine.

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A Tonic for Sales

Loewy enclosed the ungainly Gestetner mimeograph in an attractive cover and placed it on a graceful stand. Sales suddenly increased. The company used the same design for 28 years.

In 1934, Sears Roebuck asked Loewy to redesign its Coldspot refrigerator. When the new model came out in 1935, its rounded corners and sleek markings made it look like a racehorse among mules when compared to other refrigerators on the market. Sales shot up.

And for the first time, advertisements for what had heretofore been a utilitarian product began to emphasize the beauty of the machine. Industrial design had come into its own.

Loewy, who had come to New York with $50 in his pocket, went on to form a design firm that made him a wealthy man.

One of his most famous designs was the 1953 Studebaker Starliner, which many auto enthusiasts consider to be the most stylish American car ever made.

A Matter of Feel

His daughter, Laurence, a researcher for the Associated Press in Los Angeles, wrote in an appreciation of her father that when he was finishing his conceptualization of the Studebaker, he turned off the lights, put some jazz on the phonograph and ran his hands along the clay model. He wanted “feel and intuition” to have the final word in the car’s design.

During the years Loewy was associated with Studebaker, from 1936 to 1963, he preached that “weight is the enemy” in car design. For years he tried unsuccessfully to persuade other American auto makers to build lighter, sleeker and more economical cars.

Loewy also created the Avanti model for Studebaker in the early 1960s, another classic design that is still produced in limited quantities.

Among the other major projects with which Loewy was personally involved was the redesigning of Air Force One at the request of President John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy was assassinated, Loewy designed the Kennedy memorial stamp at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy.

Design for Space

Loewy was proudest of his role as a consultant to the American manned space program in the 1960s and 70s. He suggested that the Skylab emphasize gravity and earthly luxury so that long periods in space would not depress the astronauts. And he insisted that the space vehicle have portholes so that the astronauts could see the Earth and not feel so isolated during their voyage.

Although no one would dispute Loewy’s influence on industrial design, attempts to proclaim him a major force in modern art were often rejected by such authorities as Philip Johnson, one of the century’s most influential modern architects.

“I always connected Loewy with what we called the moderne,” Johnson said in an interview. “But those of us on the other side were very strictly modern; that is, we felt that all machine-made objects had to look like machines. Loewy did a train for instance, and the nose had to look like speed. We believed a train should look like what it was supposed to do, rather than idealizing it. Loewy’s designs were stylized; that was his gift.”

For many years Loewy--who became an American citizen in 1938--maintained homes in New York, Palm Springs and Mexico, although his prize was Manoir de la Cense, a 16th-Century hunting lodge southwest of Paris that was built by Henry IV of France for his mistress.

Laurence Loewy remembered that her father once told her this: “I sought to surprise. I sought excitement and taking chances. I was all ready to fail in order to achieve something grand.”


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