Raymond Loewy (designer), Compagnie de L’Esthetique Industrielle Paris (manufacturer), Air France, three-piece cutlery set ( 1978). Collection National Gallery of Victoria. Gift of John Hinds, 2017. On display, NGV International, Melbourne, until January 27. At 15, Raymond Loewy came up with his first successful design: a model aircraft powered by a rubber band. This unassuming design was considered so innovative that, in 1908, it won a prestigious prize and, a year later, was put into commercial production.
From then on there was no stopping Loewy, who is considered the father of modern industrial design. He designed the Coca-Cola vending machine, the Lucky Strike cigarette packet, the Studebaker Avanti car, the livery for Air Force One and the interiors for NASA’s Skylab.
In the 1950s, Air France also asked him to devise a modernistic vision for the newest aircraft to join its fleet — the supersonic Concorde. For devotees, the Concorde meant glamour, celebrity and, above all, speed.
Travelling at twice the speed of sound, it carried about 100 passengers from New York to London in just more than three hours. During this time it managed to burn up about 90,000 litres of fuel.
Concorde stories are legendary. It was on such a flight that the Queen Mother celebrated her 85th birthday by strapping herself into the cockpit’s jump seat. On another flight, Paul McCartney led fellow passengers in an impromptu singalong of Beatles songs.
The Concorde’s interior initially was devised by a team of aerospace engineers, but when Loewy took over he designed the seats, lights, crockery, glasses, cutlery and even the meal trays.
Such was the success of the knives, forks and spoons that several hundred sets were taken as souvenirs during the first months of Concorde’s operation. Even Andy Warhol was not immune.
He reportedly regularly stole the Loewy-designed cutlery and even encouraged others to do so because, he said, “it was collectable”.
Loewy (1893-1986) was born in Paris and graduated as an electrical engineer. During World War I he served with the French army’s engineer corps, rising to the rank of captain and receiving four citations for bravery under fire.
Perhaps more unusually, during the war he had his uniform tailored and even decorated a trench with Parisian wallpaper, according to Jonathan Glancey in his book Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner.
In 1919, Loewy immigrated to the US, where his first big success was redesigning the Gestetner copier, which remained unchanged for the next 40 years.
Through his pioneering designs, he even increased companies’ turnover. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine in October 1949 with the headline “Designer Raymond Loewy: He streamlines the sales curve”.
Some of Loewy’s Concorde cutlery, dating from 1978, is on display at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria.
At the gallery, I’m shown the stainless steel and mission brown plastic utensils by senior curator of decorative arts Amanda Dunsmore, who says that Air France was seeking a more industrial design approach for its aircraft and that this cutlery reflects those aspirations.
Loewy’s streamlined aesthetic was perfect because he made the cutlery attractive yet light enough to fly on the jet.
Reducing the overall weight of the silverware was crucial to Air France’s specific brief to Loewy because everything on the supersonic jet had to be as lightweight as possible.
With the price of fuel, Concorde was designed to carry less weight per passenger than other aircraft.
Dunsmore says the cutlery is sleek and stylish, embracing stainless steel and plastic as the new design materials of the era.
“The lightweight quality takes away from its functionality because it is almost like using plastic implements, but that’s the fact that it’s the Concorde,” she says.
“These utensils speak to their time, their era, in the colour, in the choice of materials and in the design itself with its space-age, geometric curve elements.
“I think they are incredibly attractive objects in their own right and they absolutely have a very strong aesthetic appeal.” Stainless steel, plastic 16cm x 1.8cm x 0.8cm (knife); 15.9cm x 1.8cm x 1cm (fork); 16cm x 3.5cm x 1.1cm (spoon)