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This is the third part of our series of posts on America’s Design History. In part one and two, we discussed the Shakers and some of their designs, and the preservation of our American buildings. The links to these former posts have been included at the bottom of this post.

A famous designer once said: “if you build a better mousetrap and can show that it works, then the public will buy it“. In order to really understand how design comes into being from a commercial point of view, have a look at a statement by Dr. Vannevar Bush (1890-1974). Bush was not a designer, as we would use the word today, but an American scientist who did more for design in the larger sense of the word, than anyone else in the Twentieth Century.

The following page is from his 1949 book Modern Arms and Free Man, it certainly is not used as a regular quote by teachers in the various design disciplines, but as Dr. Vannevar Bush was Vice President of M.I.T. and the Dean of the School of Engineering at M.I.T., from 1932 on for many years, it is a very realistic and important statement.

img040The mindset developing a guided missile can also develop a piece of furniture that works better than the original one. It is the applied skills that make a difference between the two, but the initial way of thinking to solve a problem and construct a working solution can be much the same.

Shown below is an example of a broadside or advertising piece used to announce an improvement on an original design. The quintessential American desk used well into the forties, and much loved even later on was the lockable roll top desk, usually made out of American red oak by many furniture companies. It is a direct descendant of the 18th Century Cylinder desk.

Yet it could be improved upon. When typewriters came into general use there was no real space to put them on the desk without severely impairing the available space, so Mr. Wellington P. Kidder patented this fabulous solution in 1896!

img024Later on special desks were made that would have a similar contraption hidden in the pedestal of the desk. When the door of the pedestal was opened it could be pulled out to hold a typewriter. Not a real accommodating solution either and thus the freestanding typewriter stand was developed. Previously some desks even contained a pull out “dictation slide” on the more expensive models, a practice that would stay in fashion well into the 1970’s, and used in combination with the smaller and lighter (portable) typewriters. Of course, you could have also bought an L shape desk that held the typewriter in a superior fashion.

Many other types of designs were patented in the early days of the twentieth century. Here are some examples of items in regular use.PRIVATE24 002 PRIVATE24 009 The two images above show 3 different size shoe stretchers in the open and closed positions. All three operate on a similar principle and have cast or forged handles. Only one of them, the top one is marked clearly and was patented as the back indicates on October 1919 and renewed or patented again on May 26, 1925.

PRIVATE24 005Some of the so called “invented and patented” designs you would never recognize as such.

Below is a picture of a hard rubber replacement heel for a shoe or boot, that would be fastened using handset nails in the designated fixed positions. The piece on the left of this “change over heel” marked Reg(istered) US Pat(ent) Office would be the bottom you walk on and the side nailed to the shoe on the right is clearly marked in the circle with the words patented April 29,1924.

PRIVATE24 013Hi-brow or Lo-brow this too is part of American Design History!

All pieces are from our own collection. You can read Part one of American Design History here and Part two here from our previous posts.