Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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)

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