From airbrush to felt-tip

It’s unusual for a historian to have the opportunity to look at the complete working methods of a design office. Sketches and models are often thrown away once a project is brought to completion.

Before coming to the V&A, I had the chance to write about a design firm that did keep a great deal of its preparatory studies. This was the office of Brooks Stevens, an industrial designer based in Milwaukee.

For an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum I studied renderings, surviving models, and photos that documented the working procedures of the firm. The first thing you notice when you start doing this kind of research is that named-brand designers do very little of the actual designing in a studio. Stevens had skilled modellers and sketch artists helping him, as these two images taken in the 1930s show.



Stevens himself wasn’t even a very good draftsman – like many designers of his generation he was more of an idea man and promoter. Here’s a comparison of his original sketch for the “Toastalator” – a drawer-front toaster that never went into production – with the more finished rendering done by one of his artists.


Stevens probably didn’t expect the Toastalator to be manufactured; he often came up with “prophetic” designs that indicated possible future directions. This helped him to promote his own name and also capture the imagination of prospective clients. This advertising function of sketches and models is often forgotten, but it is a big part of any design office’s or architect’s work.

Sometimes preparatory studies could be used in an evocative way even in the context of a real commission. One of my favourite examples from the Stevens office is this photo of a car called the Aero, which was designed for the auto manufacturer Willys Overland (most famous for producing the Jeep). See if you can figure out what’s odd about it.


A clue is visible in the foreground – notice how big the blades of grass are compared to the wheel right next to them.

In fact, this is a small-scale (maybe 1:8) model of the car. By taking the photo with a building in the background – which by the way was Milwaukee’s modernist art center, a recent work of the famous architect Eero Saarinen – Stevens managed to create the impression of a finished design rather than a speculative model.

The other insight I got from looking at the sketches made in Stevens’ office was that the media used in making a drawing can have a big impact on the final product. From the 1920s through the 1960s, most design studios used pencil, fine pen, and airbrush to make very finished looking renderings. This was a difficult technique to master and many offices had a specialised rendering artist. The use of an airbrush in particular gave sketches a curvaceous and ‘streamlined’ look. This was carried through into the final designs, as you can see in this comparison of a rendering for a race car and the actual vehicle as it was built.


In the 1960s, studios in Detroit and elsewhere began to use blunt, felt-tipped markers to make renderings. This new drawing medium produced a look that one former Stevens staffer described to me as ‘chamfered’ – with hard edges and choppy, boxy volumes. Again you can see the results of this new technique in this comparison of a sketch for a riding lawnmower and the finished product.


So the craft of sketching does make a big difference!

In my next post, I’ll look at another vehicle design that combines one of the oldest sketching media – clay – with one of the newest, computer-aided design, or CAD.