Biography adapted from an article about Stevens at The Milwaukee Art Museum website.
Brooks Stevens was born on 7 June 1911 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From the first he was a person who liked to design and build, and fortunately for the history of industrial design, he never stopped. When he was young his father, William Clifford Stevens, pushed him to pursue his childhood hobbies, especially when the future designer was struck down with a severe case of polio at the age of eight. All of his limbs stiffened and his right arm was rendered virtually useless. Doctors predicted that he would not be able to walk again. Stevens’ father, however, was not a believer in bed rest. He piled sketchpads and model kits next to the boy’s bed and encouraged him to build one miniature airplane and boat after another. He also challenged Brooks to ride a bicycle and then to swim a mile in a pool, promising to buy him a Model T Ford when he succeeded. “They must have hauled me out hundreds of times short of that mark,” Stevens later said. “But I finally got that car. My father knew how to motivate me.”
Stevens first thought he might translate these interests into architecture, and enrolled at Cornell University in 1929 to study the subject. It was the only time he lived outside of Milwaukee, and by his own account, the experience made only a limited impression on him. “If I spent as much time on the bank building as I did on the cars that I drew on the rendering in front of the building,” he remembers his professors telling him, “I could have been a good architect.”
Stevens left Cornell in 1933 without a diploma, and returned to Milwaukee to work as an inventory manager, first for a pair of soap companies, and then for a grocery supply firm called Jewett and Sherman. Bored and restless, he persuaded the head of the company to let him redesign some of the product labels. He also won a contest to redesign the company logo for his father’s employer, Cutler-Hammer. These opportunities proved to be the first step towards Stevens’ career as an industrial designer. He was aware of the early stirrings of this new profession in New York, and decided to pattern himself after such men as Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague (not to be confused with Packard and American Motors stylist Richard Teague). Both Loewy and Teague had offices in New York City, but Stevens decided to stay right where he was. Milwaukee, he said, was where the business was.
Stevens opened his first office on 1 July 1935, at 340 North Milwaukee Street. By 1939 the office had grown to a staff of five, and Brooks Stevens Industrial Design could boast of having thirty-three accounts. In 1940, Stevens’ firm had over fifty accounts. HIs personal life also was marked by a notable addition when he married Alice Kopmeier in 1937. The couple built their own ultra-modern house in Fox Point, just north of Milwaukee. Designed by Stevens in conjunction with local architect Fitzhugh Scott, Jr., the building still stands today as one of Milwaukee’s most significant examples of modernist domestic architecture. Alice and Brooks Stevens would go on to live in the home for five decades and raise four children together.
Brooks Stevens’ home in Fox Point, Wisconsin
Meanwhile, Stevens was proving himself a master at salesmanship from his earliest days in business. As soon as the firm had its first designs under its belt, Stevens began delivering slide lectures on “Industrial Design and Its Practical Application to Industry.” These talks invariably stressed his main selling point: that design would pay for itself many times over. This argument was tested during World War II, a period of national emergency in which market appeal did not seem to have the same importance as it had during the Depression. Stevens did execute a few designs with a military or “home front” application, but his real success during the war was in converting military manufacturing into civilian consumer products. He turned the army Jeep into a station wagon, and then a stylish little touring car called the Jeepster. It can be argued that Stevens’ design for the Jeep Wagon, which was the first all-steel station wagon, set the pattern for the SUV craze that came after Stevens’ death.
Above: Stevens’ sketch for the Willys Jeepster. Below: 1949 Jeep Station Wagon. The body was the first all-steel station wagon body; the “wood paneling” was painted.
Stevens burst out of the war era with a new sense of purpose. Arguing that “an industrial designer in today’s business world should be a business man, an engineer and a stylist, and in that direct order,” he sought out high profile commissions and relationships with Milwaukee’s most prominent manufacturers, including Miller Brewing, Allen-Bradley, the Outboard Marine Company, and Harley-Davidson. In 1947 he unveiled a design for a new train called the Olympian Hiawatha, operated by the Milwaukee Road. Outfitted with a spectacular glass-enclosed observation car called the Sky Top Lounge, the train was one of the last of the great “streamliner” trains that roared across America.
Above: The Miller High Life logo is the work of Brooks Stevens. Below: Just as Raymond Loewy was involved in designing trains, Stevens designed the famous Sky Top cars for The Milwaukee Road. (Click to enlarge)
During this time Stevens also became the only Midwestern founder of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID), and the first industrial designer ever to be honored with a one-person museum retrospective. His show at the Milwaukee Art Institute, in 1950, got rave reviews from the local press. “Never before in the history of the Institute has it welcomed an event of this magnitude,” the Milwaukee Sentinel exclaimed. “Never before have such peculiar and violent assaults been made on the classical edifice on North Jefferson Street.” Stevens later created his own Auto Museum, which displayed both vehicles of his own design and those that he admired.
Stevens’ fame gained a touch of infamy in 1954, when he was scheduled to deliver a talk to the local advertising club in Minneapolis. Stevens arrived in the city the night before, and impulsively hit upon the catchphrase “planned obsolescence” as a description of the industrial designer’s mission. Probably without giving the words much thought, he used it as the title of his speech the following day, and the phrase would eventually become his major lasting contribution to design theory. Stevens’ definition of the concept-“instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”-sounded innocuous enough, but his description of design as a marketing ploy immediately became controversial. Planned obsolescence continues to be a contentious and much-discussed aspect of industrial design to this day.
In 1954, Stevens was asked to name his favorite design among all those his firm had handled, and had responded, “none, because every one would have to be restudied for the tastes of tomorrow.” At the end of his career, he had not changed his mind. “Would I change anything now that I did in the past?,” he said. “Hell yes! Everything! Because it’s all outmoded.” By the time he retired, turning the management of his design company over to his son Kipp, he had helped to shape approximately 3,000 products for almost 600 clients over the years. Many of his staffers, who had played such a large role in shaping Stevens’ vision, went on to become successful independent designers in their own right. The landscape of America bears his indelible stamp in ways both big (the original concept of the SUV) and small (the wide-mouthed peanut butter jar).
Brooks Stevens died at the age of 83 on 4 January 1995, the last surviving founder of the Society of Industrial Designers. His passing was, literally, the end of an era. Over the past decade a group of Milwaukee institutions, including the Michael Lord Gallery, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, have created exhibitions and publications that ensure the preservation of Stevens’ memory. The Milwaukee Art Museum is now the custodian of the many archival materials that he gathered throughout his career. Despite these efforts, however, Stevens’ many contributions to design history are only beginning to be measured.
Brooks Stevens’ Designs:
Above: The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile Below: Another vehicle Stevens did for Milwaukee-based Oscar Mayer and one for Wisconsin Ice and Coal Company
Below: A Stevens-designed “housecar” from the late ’30s
Below: Stevens-designed electric iron, thermostat and “Toastalator.” Click to enlarge
Stevens’ work for Milwaukee-based companies Miller Brewing and Oscar Mayer extended to Outboard Marine who owns the Evinrude brand. The Evinrude Lakester never got beyond mock-up stage. Click to enlarge
Stevens did a lot of work for Willys both before and after the purchase of Willys by Kaiser. While, with the exception of its Jeep, Kaiser-Willys faltered in the U.S., the company found a niche in Argentina and Brazil. Thus some of Stevens’ important automobile designs are unknown in the U.S. but are well known in South America. Therein lies the tale of how Stevens’ Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk and Wagonaire got their rooflines. Stevens was a master at recycling his design ideas. Stevens did the Willys Aero which was last sold in the U.S. in 1955. The tooling for Kaiser and Willys passenger cars was shipped to South America where the Stevens-designed Aero (and the Dutch Darrin-designed Kaiser Manhattan – called the Carabella in South America) both enjoyed a long life. (Click to enlarge the images)
In the very early 1960s, Willys asked Stevens to update the Aero. The resulting car foretold the roofline on the Stevens-designed 1962-1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawks.
Stevens even recycled wheel cover designs as seen in his South American Willys and his North American ’64 Gran Turismo Hawk. (Enlarge the Willys image above and compare with the Hawk below.)
The general shape of the roof on Stevens’ early ’60s Jeep Wagoneer and Studebaker Wagonaire is obviously the work of the same hand. Have you ever noticed the similarity of the names? That, too, is the work of Stevens. Click to enlarge:
About the time that former Packard stylist Richard Teague proposed a design, the Cavalier (a recycled Packard model name) for American Motors that used many interchangeable panels, Stevens was working on the same idea for Kaiser-Willys in South America. Teague’s idea went into production as the American Motors Hornet though the Hornet didn’t have the interchangeable panels to the extent that Teague envisioned. Stevens’ ideas for Kaiser-Willys and his independently-conceived “Utopia” never saw production.
Above: Richard Teague’s Cavalier for AMC used interchangeable body panels. Below: Like minds – Stevens designed cars for Willys that also would have used interchangeable body panels. Teague’s design became the AMC Hornet. Willys did not produce Stevens’ interchangeable-panel designs:
Below: Variations on a theme – the Stevens-designed “Utopia” was not pitched to any manufacturer but continued to explore the use of interchangeable panels as seen in the designs he showed Willys in South America. The general shape of the “Utopia” concept is similar to the Chevrolet Corvair which went into production about the time Stevens was doodling this design. Note the wagon version’s roof echoes the shape of the roof of the Jeep Wagoneer and the Studebaker Wagonaire – and included the sliding roof panel that went into production at Studebaker. The Stevens design DNA is obvious!
Stevens’ “Utopia” concept called for the conventional headlamps to be replaced by a “light bar.” This idea would have seen production had the Stevens-designed 1965 Studebakers been produced:
Above: The Studebaker Scepter was planned for 1965. It’s a pity that this beautiful Stevens design was not produced. Note the light bar that replaces conventional headlamps. Below: the planned 1965 Studebaker station wagons would have continued the sliding roof feature originated by Stevens.
In 1961, Studebaker’s president Sherwood Egbert defied the Studebaker board of director’s order to shut the company’s auto operations down. He called in Raymond Loewy to design what became the Avanti, and he brought Brooks Stevens in to redesign the Studebaker passenger cars. Stevens went all-in to try to save Studebaker. In addition to his extraordinary remake of the Hawk and his stunning designs for what would have been the 1965 Studebakers, Stevens used the Avanti power train and a Lark convertible chassis and built a “retromobile” that looked like a 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK, the Excalibur.
Brooks Stevens at the wheel of the 1964 Excalibur prototype.
When Studebaker closed all of its automotive operations in its South Bend, Indiana home, Stevens and his sons set up an operation in Milwaukee to continue manufacturing the Excalibur. The car continued for 35 years.
In his feverish efforts to save Studebaker, Stevens also conceived of a low-budget but nonetheless unique Studebaker subcompact car. This car, like his proposal for Willys and his “Utopia” concept, would have used many interchangeable body panels. Note the transverse mounting of the engine:
Although mostly remembered today for his work for automobile companies, Brooks Stevens, like his contemporary Raymond Loewy, touched the lives of many with his designs for industry.