The future according to Henry Dreyfuss

Explore the work of influential industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.

Sometimes visionaries at the top of their profession find each other. They connect professionally, and their visions of the future intersect. Sometimes they come from very different places and leave legacies that, in time, become the stuff of legend. William Hewitt, Deere & Company president from 1955 to 1982, left an indelible footprint on John Deere’s culture and business. But he had help, a lot of it, from a man with nearly two decades of seniority at Deere – famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.

Beginning February 22, their relationship will be one of the stories told in a new exhibit at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa.

William Hewitt, Deere & Company president from 1955 to 1982, found industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss to be refreshingly creative and original. Their collaboration over many years was legendary.

William Hewitt was a graduate of the University of California and the Harvard Business School. He was a Navy veteran, former banker, and an employee of the Pacific Tractor and Implement Company when he married Patricia Hewitt, the daughter of Deere president Charles Deere Wiman, in 1948. Hewitt would come to be known as the last Deere family member to serve as John Deere’s president. By marriage, he was. He had also only been with the company for seven years when tapped as its fifth president in 1955. His vision for Deere would be a radical departure from the four generations of family leadership preceding him. Yet in many ways it was also a continuation of that legacy. Each of his predecessors had ushered in a distinctly new version of the company, each building on the successes of the previous leader.

By the time of Hewitt’s arrival, Henry Dreyfuss had spent nearly 25 years defining the character of John Deere through its products, facilities, and even its stationery. He knew a few things about company culture and ethos.

“Even like the earth itself, and that special breed of men who till and seed and nurture it and reap its bounty, the implements of agriculture have a frugal, rugged, no-nonsense quality even amid today’s mechanical sophistication,” wrote Dreyfuss.

"For this client, we integrate the design of products made at many plants to do many kinds of work in America and overseas. By fitting the machine to Man, we perpetuate a product ‘look’ that echoes a company’s creed and tradition.” —Henry Dreyfuss

“The engineers at Deere understand this and want their multitude of farm machines to reflect Deere’s long experience: utility, simplicity, durability, safety and — for men who live long hours in wind and sun — comfort,” Dreyfuss added. “For this client, we integrate the design of products made at many plants to do many kinds of work in America and overseas. By fitting the machine to Man, we perpetuate a product ‘look’ that echoes a company’s creed and tradition.”

Becoming Henry Dreyfuss

Before working for Polaroid, Bell Telephone, Westinghouse, Lockheed Corporation, Hoover, John Deere, and hundreds of other clients, Dreyfuss’ early career was guided by setbacks and learning. His formal studies began as a 16-year-old scholarship recipient. The scholarship sent him to the New York Society for Ethical Culture to study art and set design. He took classes taught by designer Norman Bel Geddes, an early leader of the streamlining design movement.  Dreyfuss called Bel Geddes “genius #1 in my life.”

After a few jobs designing theatrical sets, Dreyfuss used all his savings to travel to Paris, Tunis, and Algiers. Paris is where a vice president at Macy’s department store found him. Dreyfuss was hired to redesign poorly selling merchandise in New York City. After two days on the job, he quit.

“The way to improve the merchandise…was to work directly with the manufacturers to learn what machinery and materials were available, rather than second-guess them after the manufacturers had finished their costly job,” he learned from the short-lived experience at Macy’s. Testing his own philosophies, Dreyfuss opened his own office, designing theater sets to pay the bills as he began to take on small corporate clients.

In the early 1930s, he designed interiors for Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Theaters in Davenport, Iowa; Denver, Colorado; Sioux City, Iowa; and other locations. When the Sioux City theater underperformed night after night, he couldn’t understand why the lavish theater was empty while the “unventilated flea-bag movie house down the street” was full every night. Dreyfuss spent three days observing people as they walked by the theater, then ordered the expensive lobby carpets removed, and replaced with rubber mats. The farmers in Sioux City, he learned, were worried about their boots dirtying up the expensive rugs. With rubber mats down, the RKO Theater was soon full.

Dreyfuss learned about people, their tendencies, their fears, their reservations, their ambitions, and their unbridled enthusiasm. He used those learnings to make the world more beautiful, and functional, through the products people interacted with every day.

A fashionable Deere

By the mid-1930s, industrial design was emerging in a big way. Dreyfuss’ portfolio now included everything from theaters for stage and screen, to toasters, utensils, hinges, and airplane interiors. Deere too saw the trends and sent a young tractor engineer named Elmer McCormick to make an unscheduled call on the now sought-after designer at his office in New York. Dreyfuss was fascinated by the possibilities he heard and left for Iowa with McCormick that night.

Dreyfuss, shown here with one of his staff members, played an integral role in the design of many pieces of John Deere equipment.

By November 1937, Dreyfuss presented a wooden mock-up of a Model “B” Tractor to Deere’s engineering team. Seven months later in June 1938, an internal decision ushered in what later became known as the “styled” tractor at John Deere, starting with the larger Model A. The topic of the decision was straight-forward: “To improve appearance of Model A, AN, ANH, AW, and AWH tractors, we will adopt styling in simple lines calculated to bring out the impression of ruggedness and strength.” About two months later, in late July 1938, the first styled  model A was completed in Deere’s Waterloo, Iowa, factory.

The rest of the equipment line followed, one piece of equipment at a time.

A completely revamped "New Generation" of John Deere of tractors debuted in 1960. The lineup featured four new models — the 1010, 2010, 3010, and 4010 — all with a newly styled look courtesy of Henry Dreyfuss. The tractors' introduction to dealers began with the following: “It’s truly a new generation of power … the new John Deere tractor line … born of a deceivingly simple order to John Deere engineers: ‘Throw the book away.’”

Automation will lead the way

William Hewitt had a particular ability at finding the best creative minds, imparting to them the character of the John Deere company – and then giving them the freedom to do their most inspired work. Eero Saarinen, who was hired at Dreyfuss’ suggestion to design Deere’s World Headquarters, attested to the relationship. “My real interest is in Deere & Company,” Dreyfuss wrote Hewitt in 1956, recommending Saarinen as an architect, “for I feel that a wonderful place in which to work would be a spearhead for your entire organization for years to come. I would hate to see a pedestrian building go up when I know that fine surroundings can be the greatest of inspirations.”

Hewitt found Dreyfuss to be refreshingly creative and original. He told an audience that for Dreyfuss, an ideal engineer would have “his head in the clouds, his feet on the ground, and nuts and bolts in his midsection.”

From 1937 to 1953, Dreyfuss worked on everything from hay choppers to rakes to stationery to engines to the famous leaping deer trademark as well as company stationary. He was ready for a new challenge.

In the early 1950s, new John Deere teams started an unprecedented redesign of Deere’s entire ag equipment lineup. Deere’s vision for the new lineup, achieving new standards in power, comfort, and efficiency, would guide the design. Dreyfuss’ vision and designs for this so-called New Generation of equipment, would in turn inspire the engineers.

Automation would soon lead the way, Dreyfuss told a group of engineers and high school students at a meeting of the Waterloo, Iowa, Technical Society in 1958. Buttons would lift and engage implements, and “proximity switches” would allow operators to pass their hand in front of switch instead of engaging it. Communications would be enabled by a device carried in a pocket (he was talking about a pager, which was an emerging technology at the time).

A New Generation of Comfort

"We bear in mind that the object being worked on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some other way used by people. When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more efficient, more comfortable — or just plain happier — by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded." —Henry Dreyfuss

Dreyfuss laboriously consider the ergonomics of the products he designed and applied his philosophies to pioneering work on what he called “human factors.” In 1955 he published The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design, updating it in 1960 as a guidebook for other designers.

Dreyfuss hired Columbia University’s Dr. Janet Travell to study seat design for Deere (her work was kept secret, at her request, to keep the confidentiality of one of her existing patients, then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy). Deere introduced the Float-Ride seat in 1956, adding foam rubber padding, torsion springs and a hydraulic cylinder to absorb shock. Dr. Travell’s research resulted in a reimagined seat. Not only was it aesthetically pleasing — it offered significant advances for operators of any shape, size, and weight. A built-in torsion system reduced shock, and new materials molded the seat to the user.

The world saw the future of agriculture in August 1960, at Deere Day, in Dallas, Texas. There, before more than 6,000 dealers and guests, John Deere introduced the “New Generation of Power.”

Forbes magazine attributed the event’s success “… to [Deere & Company’s] long and careful study of the farmer, for the farmer’s lot and Deere’s are intertwined in a way which broader-based companies are not…Not least of all, they accord him the respect which city dwellers do not always give him.”

Past Forward

Dreyfuss would continue to play an influential role on Deere’s culture until his death in 1972.

Dreyfuss played an integral role in designing many things that helped define the John Deere brand. His aesthetic influence would have a profound impact on the company's culture.

Hewitt recognized the many contributions Dreyfuss made to Deere, but knew he could not possibly list them all. “In saying that Henry did more than improve the design of our machines, I have in mind a great many different ways in which he added significantly to the quality of our corporate performance,” said Hewitt at a memorial service for Dreyfuss.

“His contribution was so broad and deep that I can only refer to it…” Hewitt added. “Henry re-designed our trademark, our graphics, and our corporate letterheads; he revamped our packaging of parts, helped improve our advertising and our corporate films, and often assisted in the selection of oil paintings, tapestries, and sculpture for our Administrative Center.”

Dreyfuss worked with Deere & Company for 36 years, guided by a concept he called “survival form,” a blending of a traditional detail in a product into the new design. “People will more readily accept something new, we feel, if they recognize in it something out of the past,” Dreyfuss wrote in one of his many books. “Most of us have a nostalgia for old things. Our senses quickly recognize and receive pleasure when a long-forgotten detail is brought back.”

Henry Dreyfuss donated much of his material to the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. In 1997, the Smithsonian Institution published Henry Dreyfuss: Industrial Designer, by Russell Flinchum, a primary source for this article.


The future according to Henry Dreyfuss


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