A History of Scholarship on American Automobile Design

by David Gartman

The Postmodern Validation of Auto Design as Art

Although automobile design attracted some serious attention and validation by the art world in the 1960s, it would not really get its due in American society until the 1980s. This is probably because many of the youthful rebels of the 1960s saw the car as a cause of social problems, not as a solution. The growing environmental consciousness targeted the car as particularly destructive and wasteful of the earth’s resources. And in the 1970s the energy crisis combined with economic stagnation to deal auto design a devastating blow that lasted a decade. America’s large and powerful cars became seen by many as socially irresponsible. Automakers were forced by both consumer demand and government regulation to focus on efficiency over aesthetics, and consequently auto engineers began to wield more control over design than stylists.

By the mid-1980s, however, several factors converged to generate a renewal of interest in auto design among both the general public and the high-art world. After a painful period of economic restructuring, prosperity began to return, creating a newly enriched class of young urban professionals, or yuppies, who were anxious to display their wealth and good taste in automotive sculpture. Further, the erosion of the barrier between high and popular culture begun by Pop Art in the 1960s turned into a landslide in the mid-1980s, and was renamed postmodernism. This cultural movement included not only a validation of popular culture and design as serious art, but also a nostalgic propensity to reappropriate the reassuring forms of the past and use them to give meaning to an uncertain present. No form of popular art could better serve this emerging postmodern culture than auto design, which had often functioned as a fetish for recapturing a generation’s lost youth. What was new to the auto fetishism of this period, however, was its focus on the design of these cult objects as art.

The mid-1980s brought a spate of books by serious scholars and critics treating automobiles as aesthetic objects worthy of detailed historical and formal analysis. One key feature shared by all of this literature was the attempt to turn auto design, which had been up to this point an anonymous, collective activity performed in large corporations, into a act of individual creation by named artistic geniuses. Just as the postmodern appropriation of popular film refocused attention away from the popular stars and toward the creative director, the movement’s discovery of automobile design focused on the individual creators of particular models. This was the intent of the first publication in this new literature, Stephen Bayley’s 1983 book, Harley Earl and the Dream Machine. A British university lecturer in fine art and the director of design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Bayley was the first scholar since his countryman Reyner Banham to take a high-art approach to car design. And he started with what was obviously the most important individual in the field, Harley Earl, the first man to head an automotive design department and the originator of the process of automobile design that came to be emulated throughout the industry. Bayley’s book, which was lavishly illustrated with not only photographs but also original artwork by an airbrush artist, sanctified the man who pioneered auto design at General Motors and was responsible for the look of millions of cars over his thirty-two year career. Although obviously knowledgeable about European design theory, Bayley, like Banham, was at pains to defend American auto design against European critics. The social and moral principles of the latter, he argued, failed to take into account the needs of the masses for meaning and metaphor. Earl’s art gave people what they wanted, and in the process provided the fuel for a booming economy of mass production. Agreeing with the popular critics of the 1950s, Bayley argued that what people wanted in car design was sex. Avoiding a careful analysis of automotive form, the author resorted to a simplistic Freudianism, stating that Earl’s designs unconsciously appealed to consumers’ libidinal desires.

This theme was even more prominent in Bayley’s 1986 follow-up book on cars, Sex, Drink and Fast Cars. While in the Earl book Bayley seemed almost afraid to display his erudition, perhaps out of fear of being mistaken as one of those European design snobs, here he illuminated the meanings of automobiles and their design by drawing on a wide range of high artists and intellectuals, including Karl Marx, Le Corbusier, Aldous Huxley, Francis Picabia, e e cummings, Arthur Miller, Fritz Lang, Sinclair Lewis and Fernand Leger. But the point of these erudite references was to show that even in high culture cars symbolize erotic desire, not just in their design but in their mechanical power as well. But in his attempt to equate high-art and popular meanings of car designs, Bayley missed a crucial difference between the two realms of culture. In high culture the car usually functions as an aesthetic form, whose meaning is derived from its relation to other forms in the artistic field. In popular culture, by contrast, the car is used as a direct, unmediated symbol of gratification and pleasure. Thus, for example, Picabia titled his sober, blue-print-like drawing of a spark plug Portrait of A Young American Woman in a State of Nudity not to make a simplistic sexual analogy between the fire-generating car part and a “hot” woman, but to draw a contrast between the objective forms of his machine art and the sentimental prettiness of romanticism. Bayley obviously sided with the priorities and values of popular culture, not merely in the content but also the form of his books. Avoiding the appearance of serious scholarship, he wrote in the breezy, entertaining style of popular journalism. In sum then, this first attempt to analyze auto design as a legitimate art made too many concessions to the imperatives of popular culture to be a true hybrid.

More successful in this task of postmodern hybridization were two books published in the mid-1980s in conjunction with museum exhibits on American automobile design. Unlike the 1951 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, the 1984 Automobile and Culture exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the 1985 Automobile and Culture–Detroit Style exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts included a full range of custom and mass-produced automobiles, as well as auto-related works in high-art media. The exhibit catalog of the former, issued by the venerable art publisher Harry Abrams, claimed to be “the first major book to consider the automobile as a work of art,” and set its goal as investigating the aesthetic, design, and social issues in the cultural history of the car. The aesthetic ambitions of the volume were immediately clear from the photographs on the cover, endpapers, and front matter of the volume. Distinguishing themselves from the usual fan-magazine photos of cars, which focused on the visual delight of the sensual whole, these high-art photos were fragmented close-ups of isolated parts of cars–hubcap, taillight, window crank, fender–that emphasized their abstract forms. Many were reminiscent of high-art photographer Alfred Stieglitz's images of car parts from the 1920s and 1930s. The main critical essay of the catalog, by professor of art history Gerald Silk, dealt not with auto design as art but the image of the automobile in the arts. But two other essays attempted to validate car design as a high art, complete with individual geniuses and heroes. Strother MacMinn, a design educator and a former auto designer, resurrected from the anonymous history of auto design the names of individual designers and their creations. He put an inordinate emphasis on the early custom coachbuilders, perhaps because their designs were more influenced by autonomous artistic traditions than those of the mass-production stylists, who were constrained by economic concerns like production costs and market sales. But he argued that designers of mass-produced cars were artists too, who often had to heroically defend their aesthetic vision against the pressures of cost-cutting engineers and accountants. Tito Anselmi, the author of a critical essay on European auto design, also defended the artistic credentials of the profession. He, like Banham and Bayley, dismissed the criticism of auto design by European modernists, arguing that their machine aesthetic revealed an ignorance of actual production technology. Anselmi argued that European auto designers, at least in the early period, were heavily influenced by high-art movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco, because they had to accommodate the tastes of the high-class buyers who dominated the European market.

These attempts to see automobile design as an autonomous art, just like the high arts, continued in the catalog for the Detroit exhibit, entitled Detroit Style. In this regard, the most interesting pieces written for this volume were by Davira Taragin, curator of twentieth-century decorative arts and design at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In her introduction to the catalog, Taragin argued for the legitimacy of cars as works of art, and called for “scholarship [that] stressed the purely aesthetic aspects of automotive design as sculpture.” She further asserted that during the period covered by the exhibit, 1925 to 1950, auto design was part of the larger modernist art movement, and adhered to its imperatives that form follow function and that applied decoration be eliminated. Taragin’s critical essay, entitled “Style-Up,” tried to substantiate these points, citing car designs that seemed influenced by Art Deco and modernist functionalism. But her arguments seemed strained, and she offered little real evidence for the influence of high-art trends on auto design. Her assertion that American cars adhered to the moral injunction against decoration seemed particularly incredible when confronted with the facts of the 1950s, when uselessly decorative tail fins, bullet bumpers, and chrome doodads spread like wildfire, and modernist designers denounced these cars as criminal.

The publication that was the culmination of this attempt to sell auto design as high art was Edson Armi’s 1988 book, The Art of American Car Design. The most carefully researched and scholarly work on automobile design to this date, Armi’s book, published by a university press, pushed the autos-as-art argument to new heights, and in the process exposed its inherent weaknesses. An art history professor at a major state university, he clearly declared his purpose in the opening pages: “to begin to view American car design as an art, with its own history and heroes, culture and lore.” Based on archival research and interviews with designers, extensive excerpts from which were included, the book concentrated on the “system of creation” in auto design, including its history and organization in the major American automobile corporations. Armi also traced the results of this system in a chapter that examined the forms of American cars produced between 1930 and 1950, which was accompanied by extensive illustration by archival photographs. All of this material was unified by an underlying story line of tragedy and betrayal. Armi wrote of the construction of the system of automobile design in the 1930s, largely by Harley Earl, as a heroic struggle for artistic freedom and autonomy against the opposition of engineers, accountants, managers, and merchandisers. When the battle was finally won in the late 1930s, a process was institutionalized that, although collective, depended on the artistic vision of one strong, individual genius at the top, such as Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, or Bob Gregorie. This system culminated in what Armi judged to be the most aesthetically creative and individual cars of the industry’s history, those of the 1950s and 1960s. But then the tragic decline of artistic autonomy began in the 1970s, when a lamentable social and environmental consciousness and new governmental regulations gave the practical engineers and marketing experts more power to shape design. But auto designers only had themselves to blame, Armi argued spitefully, for some turncoat design executives, whom he reproached by name, gave up the fight for artistic autonomy and surrendered to these invaders. The result was a horde of serviceable and efficient, but bland and uncreative, cars in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of Armi’s vitriol against some auto designers, as well as his lavish praise for others, seemed somehow out of place and proportion, however. Armi’s excesses were caused not merely by his personal bias but also by the automobile-as-art perspective as such, which he shared with other scholarly works mentioned above. What the purveyors of this perspective failed to understand is that automobile design is part of the separate realm of popular art and thus cannot be understood by nor held to the standards of high art. High culture is produced for a small, restricted market of educated, upper-class people, whose removal from the demands of making a living predisposes them to value the forms of things over their functions. Armi and others taking the high-art approach tended to privilege the early coachbuilding days because during this period only the wealthy owned cars, and coachbuilders tailored them for the aesthetic tastes of this small market. But the rise of mass production meant that cars became part of a mass market, geared to the needs and tastes of more common folk, who tend to privilege function over form. Of course, eventually a demand for “style” also arose in this mass market, once the mechanicals of cars achieved a uniformly high standard. But the style added to mass-produced cars by the likes of Harley Earl was different from the high-class, art-for-art’s-sake market. The goal of mass-produced style was not, as in the latter, the cultural “profit” of status that came from showing a knowledge of high-art form, but the economic profit that came from maximizing sales. And to accomplish this, stylists had to cater to the common folks’ demand for immediate, sensuous gratification and pleasure, which compensated them for work lives that were often lacking these traits. So contrary to Armi, MacMinn, and others, the conflict within auto companies during the rise of auto styling was not between art and the market, between those who valued artistic vision and aesthetics and those who valued economic efficiency and profits. The conflict was over alternative visions of the market–one focused on economic utility and efficiency (the engineers) and one focused on consumer desire and fantasy (the stylists). Both groups were equally driven by economic profits, but differed on which qualities maximized sales–price and utility, or symbolic connotations and appeals to consumer desires. The eventual victory of stylists was not a victory for art over the market, but for their vision of the marketplace. For this reason, it is a mistake to understand auto design with reference to forms of high art. Design must be understood by the popular desires expressed in the mass market. But these desires cannot be simply reduced to the psychology of individual consumers, as Bayley, Packard, and others do. Constant libidinal desires cannot account for the ever-changing designs of cars. Individual desires must be placed in the context of a changing society, which molds, channels, and represses these desires. Unfortunately, the vast majority of both scholarly and popular literature treats auto design as a practice operating in a social and historical void.

The auto-as-art perspective ignores the social nature of not only consumer demand but also the process of design creation itself. The high-art approach focuses on the individual artist as creator, an isolated loner struggling against the world to realize an aesthetic vision. For some time now sociologists and historians have been refuting this myth about artists. Creation generally comes from individuals strategically placed in important social networks and taking advantage of opportunities offered by particular historical periods. If the individualistic focus is questionable even in the high arts, it is particularly problematic in the popular art of automobile design. Unlike painting and sculpture, for example, car design is a collective art, requiring the cooperation of a vast organization of occupations, including draftsmen, modelers, building tradesmen, illustrators, engineers and others. Even among the “designers,” whose drawings initiate and shape the look of the car, there is a division of labor–one sketching grilles and front ends, another sketching taillights and bumpers–such that no one individual is solely responsible for any design. Some like Armi argue that the “creator” is ultimately the person at the top of the design department, who coordinates and combines the work of others. But this confuses creativity with power and organizational position. The creator in auto design is always the group.

During the 1990s, many of the popular works on automobile design reproduced this individualistic emphasis present in scholarly works. Although they lacked the latter’s focus on aesthetic form in itself, accounts of design aimed at a popular audience did adopt their focus on individual designers and sought to personalize their creations. This emphasis was part of a new popular awareness of aesthetics and design during this period. As upscale consumption boomed among the burgeoning yuppies, the general populace became more aware of the prestige associated with designer labels and brands. The designers of clothes, buildings, furniture, and other artifacts suddenly became household names, even among those who could not afford their products. This emphasis on name designers spilled over to the popular culture of automobile design. Suddenly, popular books appeared that focused not only on mythical automotive artifacts but on their designers as well. The best of these popular works was surely Michael Lamm and David Holls’s A Century of Automotive Style (1996). Written by an automotive journalist and a former General Motors designer, the self-published book remains perhaps the most comprehensive and detailed account of the history of American automobile design. It was based on extensive insiders’ knowledge and accounts, but lacked the form and style of scholarship. Lamm and Holls offered the most detailed account yet of the organization and process of design creation. Yet their focus was clearly on the lives and personalities of the individual designers themselves, whose faults and foibles, as well as their greatness and triumphs, were exposed in sometimes brutal frankness. As a consequence of the focus on individual designers, who were grouped by corporation, their account lacked any chronological sense. It was almost as if these people and their actions stood outside of time. Major social changes affecting the industry, such as the energy crisis of the early 1970s, were reduced to a mere mention. Similar in this ahistorical, individualistic emphasis, although more professional in writing and graphic style, was Nick Georgano’s Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (1995). Although the author recognized, unlike Armi and others, that auto design is an amalgam of form and function and appeals to a wider market than high art, his book was organized in chapters on individual designers and ignored the changes in the broad population that constituted their market. At bit better in this regard was the recently published book by British design professor Penny Sparke, entitled A Century of Car Design (2002), which covered American and European design. The author organized the account chronologically and was sensitive to the social changes that affected the automotive market. But within broad periods, her emphasis was again on named designers, with separate chapters devoted to their work.


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energy crisis
















Harley Earl and the Dream Machine


















Portrait of a Young American Women in a State of Nudity

Harley Earl

























Detroit Style exhibit











































Bill Mitchell

no one individual is solely responsible for any design

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