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The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

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by John Harwood

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In February 1956 the president of IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., hired the industrial designer and architect Eliot F. Noyes, charging him with reinventing IBM’s corporate image, from stationery and curtains to products such as typewriters and computers and to laboratory and administration buildings. What followed—a story told in full for the first time in John


In February 1956 the president of IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., hired the industrial designer and architect Eliot F. Noyes, charging him with reinventing IBM’s corporate image, from stationery and curtains to products such as typewriters and computers and to laboratory and administration buildings. What followed—a story told in full for the first time in John Harwood’s The Interface—remade IBM in a way that would also transform the relationships between design, computer science, and corporate culture.

IBM’s program assembled a cast of leading figures in American design: Noyes, Charles Eames, Paul Rand, George Nelson, and Edgar Kaufmann Jr. The Interface offers a detailed account of the key role these designers played in shaping both the computer and the multinational corporation. Harwood describes a surprising inverse effect: the influence of computer and corporation on the theory and practice of design. Here we see how, in the period stretching from the “invention” of the computer during World War II to the appearance of the personal computer in the mid-1970s, disciplines once well outside the realm of architectural design—information and management theory, cybernetics, ergonomics, computer science—became integral aspects of design.

As the first critical history of the industrial design of the computer, of Eliot Noyes’s career, and of some of the most important work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, The Interface supplies a crucial chapter in the story of architecture and design in postwar America—and an invaluable perspective on the computer and corporate cultures of today.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

In this fascinating book, John Harwood shows clearly and convincingly how architects and industrial design consultants calculatedly worked with IBM to shape the public image of the corporation and its products. The Interface is eye-opening.

—Henry Petroski, Duke University, author of The Pencil and The Essential Engineer



This is not only a brilliant but a necessary book: design is the future of computing; the IBM design team run by Eliot Noyes was the most important in commercial history, and helped shape not only the industry but the modern world. The book almost couldn’t help being brilliant, given the extraordinary richness and depth of the design team Noyes assembled—a richness never equaled in design history—with Saarinen and Roche, Paul Rand and the Eames Studio plus Noyes himself contributing everything from architecture and graphics to industrial and machine design, films and museum exhibits. Anyone who cares about modern computing, modern design or the future of technology needs this book.

—David Gelernter, Yale University


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University of Minnesota Press
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A Quadrant Book Series
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7.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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The Interface

IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design 1945-1976

By John Harwood

University of Minnesota Press

Copyright © 2011 Regents of the University of Minnesota
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4529-3284-2


Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand, and the Beginnings of the IBM Design Program

Particularly in the past fifty years the world has gradually been finding out something that architects have always known — that is — that everything is architecture.

Charles Eames

The Synthesis of Architecture and Industrial Design

In describing the genesis of the IBM Design Program, as Reyner Banham suggests, one is indeed dealing with both chickens and eggs. This "uncommon relationship" was, in the 1940s and early 1950s, still a rapidly changing one, and the establishment of the even more unusual relationship between Eliot Noyes and IBM marked yet another shift. One can do worse than to choose to begin with the chick, as it begins to emerge from its shell.

Eliot Noyes came from a reasonably well-to-do New England family, whose ancestors dated back to the first English settlers of North America, and he grew up steeped in the Puritanical ethos of Massachussetts. Modesty and a rigorous work ethic were the most admired traits in his family; his father, a professor of English literature at Harvard, referred to himself as a "teacher." Noyes graduated from Harvard College in 1932 and immediately enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Architecture the following autumn. He clearly showed promise as an architect, and especially as a draftsman, and was awarded the Eugene Dodd Medal for a student project in 1935. However, Noyes found the curriculum, then still largely under the classicizing influence of the École des Beaux-Arts, wholly stultifying. The novel theories of the European avant-gardes had been circulating among the students at Harvard and elsewhere for some time; along with many of his fellow students, he had surreptitiously picked up a copy of Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (by then available in English in Frederick Etchell's 1927 translation Towards a New Architecture). He also seems to have begun to read the small number of publications in the United States at the time on architectural modernism; but the curriculum at Harvard contained nothing of the excitement and social import that the architecture of the European avant-gardes and Frank Lloyd Wright stimulated in him and his young colleagues. Frustrated, Noyes left the school, before completing his degree, in 1935. Putting the skills he had acquired in architecture school to use, he joined an archaeological expedition as a renderer and watercolorist, documenting the finds of an excavation at Persepolis. While there, the expedition surveyor taught Noyes to fly gliders over the desert, stimulating a life-long fascination with flight and an eventual expertise as a glider pilot.

When he returned from Persia in 1937, Noyes found the Harvard architectural curriculum entirely transformed. The founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, had been appointed to the faculty following his flight from Nazi Germany and a brief stint in England, and Gropius had brought modern design and the experimental pedagogy of the Bauhaus to the fore of the curriculum. Stimulated by the new approach, and by his interaction with one of Gropius's key additions to the faculty, his partner and former fellow Bauhaüsler Marcel Breuer, Noyes became a star pupil, earning the Alpha Rho Chi Medal and another medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1938 for his efforts. After working as a draftsman in the offices of the venerable Boston firm Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch, and Abbott, Noyes entered Gropius and Breuer's studio as a draftsman in their own firm.

Under Gropius and Breuer's tutelage, both at Harvard and in the firm, Noyes certainly absorbed the Bauhaus ethic; however, he also participated in the translation of the ideas of the European avant-garde into the context of New England. As Barry Bergdoll, following H. R. Hitchcock, has convincingly argued, Breuer had already made an effort in Europe to incorporate "vernacular" materials such as fieldstone and timber into his decidedly modernist aesthetic, notably in the Gane Pavilion in Bristol (with F. R. S. Yorke, 1936) and his unrealized design for a ski hotel in Tyrol, Austria (1937). Gropius and Breuer's collaborations in Massachussetts, such as the Gropius House in Lincoln (1937), completed this synthesis. Noyes's own first house design, for the Jackson family in Dover, Massachussets (1940–41), is in much the same vein, perfectly echoing the European modernist admiration for the informal flexibility of American farm houses as expressed eloquently in Siegfried Giedion's influential survey Space, Time and Architecture.

Noyes sustained this hybrid approach to design, blending high modernism with traditional techniques, throughout his career. Many years later Noyes, characterizing both his own architecture and that which he had commissioned for IBM, identified himself, paradoxically, as being on the "conservative side of the avant-garde." Yet despite this apparent conservatism, a certain understatedness that has in all likelihood contributed more than any other factor in his work being ignored by architectural historians, Noyes's synthetic approach — both to architectural style and, eventually, to the integration of architecture with industrial design — was a form of radicalism all its own. The motivation for this synthesis was, in all probability, instilled in him during his later years at Harvard.

By the time Gropius arrived in Cambridge, he had long valorized the emerging profession of industrial design as a model for the transformation of the role of the architect in an increasingly industrialized economy and continued to do so well into the 1950s. This sustained interest was, Gropius readily acknowledged, the result of his formative years working in the office of a leading member of the Werkbund and pioneer in corporate design, the German architect Peter Behrens. Gropius appears to have saturated the young Noyes with the ideas he had gleaned while in Behrens's office and with the ethos he had developed as the founding director of the Bauhaus.

Behrens's work as the first true corporate design consultant and the concomitant theories he developed to justify and extend that work are very well documented and analyzed. But it is of the utmost importance to draw out the central tenets of Behrens's theoretical approach if we are to understand how it influenced — via Gropius — Noyes and his contemporaries.

Despite his reputation as one of the first modern industrial designers, Behrens's attitude toward technology was deeply ambivalent, occasionally even hostile. As his foremost biographers, Stanford Anderson and Tilmann Buddensieg, have argued, Behrens was both well versed in and stood in direct opposition to the long tradition of tectonic theory in German architecture and aesthetics. Accepting rather Alois Riegl's concept of Kunstwollen, Behrens held that if the industrial product was to attain a status as a defining element of Kultur, it required the intervention of the artist. As he lectured in 1910 (precisely when Gropius was working in his studio),

as the Viennese scholar Riegl has put it, "[Gottfried] Semper's mechanistic view of the nature of the work of art should be replaced by a teleological view in which the work of art is seen as the result of a specific and intentional artistic volition that prevails in the battle against functional purpose, raw materials, and technology." These three last-named factors lose, thereby, the positive role ascribed to them by the so-called Semper theory, and take on instead an inhibiting, negative role: "... they constitute, as it were, the co-efficient of friction within the overall product."

The technological and material basis of the industrial product, Behrens argued, was a drag. It prevented the designer from realizing truth in form, rather than being the material basis for articulating that truth. This theoretical claim is in ready evidence in Behrens's many designs for AEG, perhaps nowhere as clearly as in his famous design of 1910 for a turbine factory in Berlin. The temple-like articulation of the architecture, with its massive piers and pediment inscribed with the firm's logo, is little more than show, meant to glorify the role of industry in leading toward the production of art. As Stanford Anderson and many others have argued, the building is an exercise in atectonic tensions, its outer form at odds with the technologically advanced steel hinges and trusses that hold it up.

In the very same year as Behrens completed this ambivalent masterpiece, however, another approach to the unity of industry and art emerged, from within the confines of Behrens's own office. In the "Program for the Founding of a General House-Building Company with Uniform Artistic Principles" (1910), written as a report to Emil Rathenau, the director of AEG, the young Gropius dreamt of "the happy union between art and technics" that would result when architects and artists acknowledged, as Tilmann Buddensieg has put it, that "the undoubted and unavoidable advantages of technology and the elimination of handcraftsmanship, when coupled with mass production, guaranteed 'an exemplary standard' and 'superior quality.'" It would be several years before Gropius began to steer the Bauhaus in this direction, eliminating handcraft and celebrating the machine as the basis of a modern aesthetic; but nonetheless after 1910 the tide had turned away from the idealism of Behrens and toward that of Gropius. As is well known, Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant's influential theory of the objet type — the useful object formed directly from the requirements of its use, such as the wine bottle, the briarwood pipe, etc. — and the sachlich theories of various European avant-gardists began to articulate the problem of design as one of deriving the form of an object from its particular functions.

Gropius's initial Rieglian suppositions about the relationship of art to technology were yet further altered in the American context. There Gropius and his followers encountered a nascent, harder-edged theory, one that proposed a more direct relationship between the function of an object and its form. Closer to Semper than to Riegl in its inspiration, and more directly informed by nearly a century of "functionalist" aesthetic theory (dating back to the writings of Horatio Greenough in the 1820s and 1830s), American theory on industrial design eliminated the need for an artistic interpretation of the form of both the machine and its products almost entirely.

The term "industrial design" first appeared in America in 1919, but usually product designers referred to themselves as "artists in industry." It was not until a generation of young designers — among them Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, and Egmont Arens — emerged as self-identified industrial designers that the discipline gained legitimacy through their numerous high-profile commissions for products ranging from kitchen appliances to steamships.

In these designers' theoretical writings, every bit as much as in their streamlined designs, the drag of the industrial product was to be alleviated by changing the form of the product itself. At first glance, the theory is similar to Behrens's, right down to the choice of metaphors (friction/drag/flow); however, this transformation was not, as per Behrens, to be effected through the intervention of Art, understood as an ideal form unencumbered by material concerns. Quite the opposite. Drawing heavily upon the metaphors of "experience," "rhythm," and "resistance and conflict" in the aesthetic theory of the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, these new industrial designers proposed that the pinnacle of art would be reached when it had assumed the form of the machine, translating that form into a powerful aesthetic experience. Thus images of ball bearings, airplane and ship propellers, animals, eugenically perfect human bodies, and so forth were meant to indicate an already extant functional and aesthetic ideal state that other products had not yet achieved.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this new "machine aesthetic" was the exhibition, held at MoMA in 1934, Machine Art (Figure 1.1). Curated by the young architect Philip Johnson and Alfred Barr Jr., the MoMA show valorized these industrially produced objects as works of art in their own right (albeit carefully described throughout the exhibition and its catalog as a special category of art, "machine art"). As Barr wrote in his forward,

a knowledge of function may be of considerable importance in the visual enjoyment of machine art. ... Mechanical function and utilitarian function — "how it works" and "what it does" — are distinct problems, the former requiring in many cases a certain understanding of mechanics, the latter, of practical use. Whoever understands the dynamics or pitch in propeller blades or the distribution of forces in a ball bearing so that he can participate imaginatively in the action of mechanical functions is likely to find that this knowledge enhances the beauty of the objects.

Thus the door was opened for a new kind of expert, the designer with sophisticated knowledge of mechanical processes. Yet the exhibition also opened the museum to the corporations that had produced the hundreds of objects on display: Alcoa, U.S. Steel, Bingham Stamping and Tool, America Sheet and Tin Plating Company, and American Radiator, among others, were listed on the walls in the gallery, just as individual artists might have been for an exhibition of paintings.

Awash in this heady theory, Gropius continued to emphasize the need for a new kind of artist-technician to respond to the increasingly important role of industry in architecture and product design. In summing up the development of his views from the 1920s to the 1950s, Gropius prophesied that "the contemporary architect" would fulfill the "historical mission" of architecture: "the complete co-ordination of all efforts in building up man's physical environment." In announcing his agenda for transforming the curriculum of the Harvard Graduate School of Architecture in 1937, he demanded that the architect be trained to coordinate the application of various forms of scientific and technical knowledge; no longer a specialist, the architect would be a kind of professional visionary.

Good architecture should be a projection of life itself and that implies an intimate knowledge of biological, social, technical and artistic problems. But then — even that is not enough. To make a unity out of all these different branches of human activity, a strong character is required and that is where the means of education partly come to an end. Still, it should be our highest aim to produce this type of men who are able to visualize an entity rather than let themselves get absorbed too early into the narrow channels of specialization. Our century has produced the expert type in millions; let us make way now for the men of vision.

Noyes, who remained unrestricted by the "narrow channels of specialization" throughout his career, seems to have embodied Gropius's call for a new kind of architect — and, moreover, he was one who could grasp the dynamics of the modern industrial corporation with a thoroughness and familiarity that continued to elude the older European.

Eliot Noyes and "Organic Design," 1940

Noyes was the beneficiary of Gropius's newfound influence upon the American scene when he was appointed as the first curator of Industrial Design at MoMA in 1940. It was in this position that Noyes made his first important efforts at articulating the design of the liminal space between human beings and machines. Just as importantly, it was also his first opportunity to collaborate with two designers, Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, and with the design editor of New Directions, the architectural critic and patron Edgar Kaufmann Jr., all of whom would become lifelong friends and allies in a joint effort to redefine corporations through design over the ensuing three decades. Noyes's first exhibition, the now-famous competition Organic Design in Home Furnishings, of the following year (Figure 1.2), fittingly served as his point of entry into, and a kind of prospectus for, the remainder of his career in architecture and industrial design. On the inside cover of the intensely polemical catalog documenting the results of the exhibition, Noyes set the terms of the competition with his definition of "organic design" by drawing an explicit connection between the quality of being "organic" and the "harmonious organization" of disparate parts in space.

A design may be called organic when there is an harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose. Within this definition there can be no vain ornamentation or superfluity, but the part of beauty is none the less great — in ideal choice of material, in visual refinement, and in the rational elegance of things intended for use.


Excerpted from The Interface by John Harwood. Copyright © 2011 Regents of the University of Minnesota. Excerpted by permission of University of Minnesota Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Harwood is assistant professor of modern and contemporary architectural history at Oberlin College. He is the author, with Janet Parks, of The Troubled Search: The Work of Max Abramovitz and, with Jesse LeCavalier and Guillaume Mojon, of This Will—This.

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Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
TomHardy1 More than 1 year ago
I applaud the author's objective to present the historical context of the IBM Design Program as being the first comprehensive effort of an American corporation to successfully transform corporate identity across a broad range of design on a global basis. This extraordinary effort by Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand and Charles Eames as IBM's original corporate consultants is without peer.  However, while the author's intent is commendable, there are many glaring inaccuracies. One of several major errors is the author's assertion that after Noyes and Eames passed away in 1977, "...IBM did not deign to replace either of its leading consultants. A design system was in place, and it only required consultants in minor areas." In this regard, the author claims: "Richard Sapper was given responsibility for overseeing graphic and industrial design in the European laboratories, but the rest of Noyes's and Eames's responsibilities were distributed to a cadre of thirteen design managers." I spent twenty-two years in the IBM Design Program (1970-1992) as an industrial designer, design center manager, division design manager and corporate head of the IBM Design Program and, as such, interacted directly with Noyes, Rand and Sapper during my tenure at the company. Therefore, I can attest to the fact that Richard Sapper was never given any responsibility whatsoever for overseeing graphic design in Europe, nor anywhere else in IBM for that matter. Furthermore, Sapper's industrial design responsibilities were on a global basis, not only limited to Europe as the author asserts. The IBM corporate consulting role for Sapper mirrored those of Noyes within the context of designing archetypal IBM products (as exemplified by Sapper's ThinkPad), and regularly providing advice and counsel for the entire IBM product line across 15 global IBM design centers. Therefore, the author's concluding supposition of the IBM Design Program's "...eventual failure to outlast the lives of its main protagonists, Noyes, Eames and Rand", is woefully incorrect. While the presence of Noyes's overarching leadership was truly missed, Sapper was appointed to the product design consultancy position in 1980 and brought his extraordinarily successful innovation track record to IBM. Also, Rand continued to serve IBM as a corporate graphic design consultant into the 1990s and also recommended distinguished information designer Edward Tufte to consult with the company, as well as utilized Swiss designers Josef Müller-Brockman and Karl Gerstner to help with graphic design across Europe. Additionally, following Noyes's death, Gerald McCue, Dean of Harvard University Graduate School of Design was appointed to be IBM's corporate consultant on architecture. Yet another inaccuracy is the author's assertion that the iconic IBM Rebus design by Paul Rand (1981) "...was a violation of every rule he had established in the preceding years regarding the sanctity of IBM graphics" and implying Rand's innovative rebus concept was due to the IBM Design Program being "greatly weakened in Noyes's absence." The truth is that only IBM's legal department initially thought Rand's innovative rebus would somehow violate IBM's logo trademark protection. Rand and design management fought this perception and eventually prevailed, resulting in the IBM rebus becoming a classic icon in the annals of graphic design. IBM continues to use the rebus today to symbolize IBM as humanistic and innovative. While this book provides a generalized insight into the IBM Design Program's scope and impact on modern design culture, its content contains numerous mistakes and the author's concluding supposition is based on inaccurate claims. Consequently, this book is not recommended as an accurate, scholarly account of IBM Design Program history. Instead, read: "Eliot Noyes" by Gordon Bruce, "Paul Rand" by Steven Heller and "Eames Design" by John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart and Ray Eames for a credible history of the seminal IBM Design Program.