The Forgotten Pioneer of Corporate Design

A new book celebrates the legacy of Eliot Noyes, whose work at IBM, Mobil Oil, and Westinghouse led the way for future designers

It is hard to overstate the achievements of Eliot Noyes. It is harder still to explain why the designer and architect, who died in 1977 at age 67, isn't better known today, when the principles he championed—the notion that good design is good business, for instance, and the belief in interdisciplinary design teams—are now accepted wisdom.

Every designer working in or for Corporate America today owes Noyes a debt of gratitude, for it was Noyes who, in the '50s and '60s, built the first corporate design programs at IBM (IBM), Westinghouse, Mobil Oil (XOM), and Cummins Engines (CMI).

Yet in the design world broadly, and even within the organizations Noyes worked with so closely, his legacy isn't always appreciated. IBM's design chief, Lee Green (whose full title is vice-president, IBM brand values and experience), is keenly aware of Noyes's contribution to IBM's design history.

"Noyes laid the foundation of the design program that is still in place today," says Lee. "He also brought in the team of consultants who together were responsible for all of the visual expressions of the brand—everything from visual identity to architecture to publications to advertising and product design."

But Lee admits that it's a "smaller number of IBMers" who are aware of Noyes. While his design of the Selectric typewriter (which dominated 75% of the market four years after its introduction) and the logo he hired Paul Rand to create are well-known, few could name the man responsible.

Treasure Trove of Material

But this month, a new monograph by Gordon Bruce titled Eliot Noyes: A Pioneer of Design and Architecture in the Age of American Modernism (Phaidon Press 2007, aims to reestablish Noyes' legacy and bring his impressive achievements to a wider audience. Bruce, who worked as a designer in the Noyes office for close to a decade, offers an intimate portrayal that is as much about the man as it is about the work. The result is a book that not only profiles one of the most influential American designers of the 20th century but tells the story of the dawn of design in Corporate America.

Granted complete access to Noyes's files by his widow, Bruce draws on private journals, professional correspondence, project archives, and photos. "Eliot was a fastidious record keeper," says Bruce. "The archive filled about 100 file boxes and three times that in slide boxes."

Those boxes contained not just all the correspondence between Noyes and the chief exeuctive officers that he worked directly with but also speeches by those CEOs, such as Thomas J. Watson Jr.'s 1973 lecture at the Wharton School of Business in which he used the phrase "Good design is good business." As Bruce points out, the phrase had appeared in several of Noyes's notebooks years earlier.

Bruce begins his story with Noyes's early years and his education at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where the young architect came under the influence of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who fled Germany in 1937, bringing the modernist ideals of the Bauhaus School with them. But the author moves quickly to the early years of Noyes's career when, after a brief stint working in the office of his mentors, he became the first curator of design at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Design into Production

The position gave Noyes a platform to promote his vision of good design, as well as the work of modernist designers including Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, and Marcel Breuer. All four submitted designs to the museum's "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" competition, the genesis of a 1941 exhibition.

As part of the terms of the competition, the museum had promised to try to get the winning designs into production, so in the following years, Noyes worked to build connections between these modernist designers and manufacturers, and to persuade the manufacturers to invent the new processes and tools required by the innovative designs.

As Bruce recounts, "Noyes's persistence…eventually paid off, providing a kick-start that reinvented the industry and gave design in the United States a shot in the arm. Companies like Knoll and Herman Miller, the major players in the modern American furniture movement, produced versions of the Eames and Saarinen entries that led to entire product lines that are still popular sixty years after the competition." In other words, Noyes played a key role in the creation of what are now the classics of mid-century modern furniture.

Gallery of Stars

Throughout the book, Bruce emphasizes the importance of Noyes's network. Many of the designers featured in the "Organic Design" exhibition worked with him years later. IBM's breathtaking Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., was designed by Saarinen. Noyes hired Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, John Bolles, and other leading architects to design other IBM structures.

He commissioned Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder to create art installations for the company, and worked with Eames on office design. His network included graphic design greats such as Paul Rand and Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, who together created the Mobil Oil identity.

In one of the book's most insightful anecdotes, Bruce recalls how Noyes set about convincing a hostile audience of Air Force colonels at the Pentagon. The year was 1942, and Noyes, having taken a leave from MoMA during WWII, was serving as assistant chief of air staff, Army Glider Schools. His role was to promote the advantages of the glider, but the Pentagon brass was uninterested.

Skillful Communicator

As Bruce writes, "He had noticed that all the colonels read Terry and the Pirates, a comic strip by Milton Caniff. The planes that appeared in it were high-powered P-40s with 500-pound bombs strapped to their underbellies. Noyes wrote to Caniff, enclosing piles of data about gliders, and soon after Flip Corkin, the hero of the comic strip, was in Burma, in command of a glider unit. The colonels decided that if [Flip] believed in gliders, there must be something to them."

Much of Noyes's success can be credited to his ability to identify and manage the most talented designers of the day. But as the Pentagon story illustrates, Noyes was also a skillful communicator. It was this ability to press his ideas in a way that resonated with his listeners that enabled him to make such inroads into Corporate America.

As a designer, Noyes was responsible for ground-breaking products like the revolutionary IBM Selectric, the first typewriter to include the golfball-like head that moved across the paper. As an architect, Noyes was one of the Harvard Five, the group of distinguished modernists including Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, John Johansen, and Landis Gores who transformed the previously conventional town of New Canaan, Conn., into a center of modernist architecture.

But it is as an evangelist for design in Corporate America that the Noyes legacy looms largest. As Bruce says, "he's one of the giants on whose shoulders we're standing. Eliot and his team changed the landscape of American design."

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