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February 16, 2009

Is MAYA Extinct?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

No, no.

That "MAYA" in the title doesn't refer to the former Indian empire in Mexico/Central America. It stands for the phrase "most advanced, yet acceptable" -- a credo of famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

And it has almost everything to do with Modernism.

The early growth of the industrial design profession in America coincided with (1) the Great Depression of the 1930s and (2) the triumph of Modernism with reference to this country's cultural elite.

About 1930, new skyscraper designs were sloughing off Art Deco ornamental motifs. In fact, ornamentation of all sorts was rapidly being abandoned as the theories of European architect-intellectuals such as Corbusier entranced even the best of American architects. For example, Raymond Hood quickly moved from Radio City style to International Style for his McGraw-Hill Building.

The construction industry was hit hard by the Depression. Ditto manufacturers. But changing the appearance of most products is less costly than erecting a skyscraper. So while architects suffered, the new, self-proclaimed breed of industrial designers did well during the 30s because manufacturers were desperate to increase the appeal of their product lines and would spend money to make, at the minimum, cosmetic changes if not complete redesigns.

Consumer products in the late 1920s tended to be superficially ornamented, in many respects design holdovers from Victorian days. Industrial designers could easily strip off that ornament and, if things worked out well, re-engineer products for greater production efficiency.

The stated goal was "functionality" in both engineering and appearance. With respect to appearance, the notion was advanced that there was some sort of Platonic Ideal form for each kind of product and that the industrial designer would strive to actualize it. This ideal form was, of course, Modernist; shapes were simple and ornament absent. Actually, a tiny bit of ornamentation might be permitted provided that it too was highly simplified and "in character" with the design as a whole -- hence fluting and speed stripes found in "streamlined" Thirties' industrially designed products.

Bumps on this road to rational perfection were caused by customer resistance to Modernist designs. However, as best I can tell, such resistance wasn't strong, though it did vary by type of product. For example, many housewives preferred traditional shapes and decorative patterns for dining china to Modernist alternatives while thinking nothing of buying a streamlined-looking toaster.

In some cases, Loewy had an ideal in mind but understood that potential customers (and perhaps his client) weren't ready to buy the ideal version. So he instead proposed designs that would take the product's appearance part of the way to the ideal and this would condition shoppers for further changes in the direction Loewy wanted to lead them.

I recently posted about the evolution of automobile fender lines at General Motors during the late 30s and 1940s. This was what Loewy meant by MAYA evolution.

But the MAYA concept began to lose relevance. That's because the "most advanced" part of the saying actually implied "most advanced relative to a Modernist ideal," and products coming close to that ideal became generally available by the late 1940s. For instance, those housewives who preferred traditional china at least had the option of buying simple, non-ornamented china because some firms were making it and some stores were selling it.

Before the end of the century, Modernism was well on its way to becoming yet another style. Worse for the ideologues and theorists, the concept of a Platonic Ideal form for this or that product had disappeared. Equally capable industrial designers could produce differing designs for competing products that each could truly be claimed as Modernist.

So the notion of something being the "most advanced" disappears into the lesser "most advanced in terms of ...." The "terms" are essentially (1) the technological state of the art and (2) fashion.

Consider cell phones. A few years ago, it seemed that most keypads sported tiny, comma-shaped keys. Then keys became rectangular elements of a grid. Now we are starting to see touch-screen phones. The touch-screen phone is a product of improved technology (though not necessarily an improvement for the user who simply wants a phone and not a Internet browsing device). And those key shapes are essentially fashion.

Absent clear goals, targets or desired end-states, the notion of "advanced" seems to have lost its meaning for most consumer products.

MAYA is indeed extinct.



posted by Donald at February 16, 2009


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