Review of The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976

The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976
by John Harwood

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2016
288 pp., illus. 97 b&w, 11 col. Paper, $29.95
ISBN: 978–0–8166–7452–7

Reviewed by
Michael Mosher
April 2017

In 1956, IBM—International Business Machines—hired industrial designer and architect Eliot F. Noyes (1910–77) to reinvent its corporate image. Noyes found the corporate headquarters fusty, full of old-fashioned furniture and rugs and inspirational messages about trade leading to peace that reflected the generation and aesthetic of the corporation's founder Thomas Watson, not the "information explosion" world of his son and successor Thomas Watson Jr.

Noyes perceived IBM as not merely business machines, but a force "to help man extend his control over his environment," so it was necessary that it project clarity. As a student at Harvard of Bauhaus exiles Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, he promoted International Style buildings, hired Paul Rand (not to be confused with US Senator Rand Paul) to redesign the company's logo, and gave attention to all aspects of the industrial design of the products. Noyes had served as curator of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art, and as the housing of electric typewriters, computers, and other devices simplified, attention was paid to the human interface, the controls and displays the operator encountered.

As Watson Jr. sought to reorganize the company, his "consultant director of design" Noyes went from designing IBM typewriters (at first as part of Norman Bel Geddes' office) and computers to its laboratory and administration buildings, as well as the stationery and curtains within them. Paul Rand came up with a new corporate logo in 1960 and then redesigned it with blue stripes a decade later. IBM Design Guidelines were issued to guide all work within the company. There follows a good illustrated history of IBM computers in this era, preceding the IBM PC personal computer, and the design thinking behind them. Edgar Kaufmann Jr. described a computer as a "parlor" for the operator's benefit and hopefully, comfort, and then a hidden "coal cellar" of components where the computing operations actually took place ("under the hood" might be an applicable automotive analogy, too).

Elliot Noyes and Associates were the architects of several new buildings, but his program saw to it that other notable architects were commissioned for its various edifices around the world. Several new IBM facilities were strategically placed outside of New York city in case of—a concern in the 1950s and early 1960s—atomic attack. SOM (partners Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill) designed IBM Corporate Headquarters in Armonk, NY, which contained "Garden of the Past," a courtyard designed by Isamu Noguchi. Paul Rudolph designed the IBM Manufacturing and Administration Building in East Fishkill, NY. Eero Saarinen and Associates designed IBM Manufacturing and Administration Building in Rochester, MN, as well as the Thomas J. Watson IBM Research and Development Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, NY. A good photo album of Saarinen's office in this era is Saarinen's Quest: A Memoir of a Photographer by Richard Knight (2007).

Overseas, Marcel Breuer and project architect Robert Gatje designed IBM France Research and Development Laboratory in La Gaude. IBM developed a Real Estate and Construction Division to manage all this growth. IBM was a part of nascent Silicon Valley, establishing a research lab in a rented property in San Jose, CA in 1952 and constructing its own 190–acre campus of buildings in 1956. A later counterpart to Yorktown Heights, the IBM Almaden Research Center was constructed in Silicon Valley in 1986, outside the scope of this history. High atop a mountain south of San Jose, CA, Almaden evokes a James Bond villain's secret fortress, protected by berms from any prying eyes below. I consulted there in 1994, prototyping O/S2 online help at IBM Almaden Research Center in Ted Selker's USER lab.

To further project a public image and naturalize the increasing role of computers in daily life, the Eames Office, Charles and Ray Eames and staff, created interactive hands-on exhibits for the delight of children and other visitors, including multi-image spectacles. These exhibits were installed at various IBM and noncorporate locales, including suburban Detroit's Cranbrook Institute where Eames and Saarinen had taught, in buildings Saarinen's father had designed. The Eames' created purposefully de-centering architectures of jolly carnival confusion at the 1964 World's Fair, and their fast-moving, multi-image attempts to show computers' cognate to the mind's own complexities perhaps mystified rather than clarified . . . but this was the media-saturated Sixties, so it was OK.

Noyes worked for other corporations, including Westinghouse (which he discovered employed a larger double the workforce but enjoyed half the sales of IBM) and Mobil, and his work and his associates had a major impact on corporate design for two decades or more. IBM designers Noyes, Charles Eames, Paul Rand, George Nelson, and Edgar Kaufmann Jr. contributed to the integration of design, computer science, the look and feel of both its products and its corporate culture.

One part of the book lists author Harwood as faculty at Oberlin College, another part lists him at the University of Toronto. Wherever he resides, he has authored a richly focused design history, published as an elegant book sponsored by the Quadrant Design, Architecture and Culture group at the University of Minnesota's College of Design. I notice the copyright 2011, which perhaps indicates publication was held up for five years.

The book ends with his single-sentence swipe at "virtual reality," an engaging 1990s concept which technology since 2015 has caught up with consumer purposes; I'll Google to see if John Harwood has further explicated this distaste. Perhaps he expressed it because, to date, virtual worlds' designers have not thought through the big issues towards coherence of technology, environment and its details that characterized Noyes' work for IBM.