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What’s Modern about Michigan

Posted on May 12 2017

What is "design," how did it evolve to be modern, and what makes it special in Michigan?

Basically, design is any material object that is man-made, so it is any tool we use in our daily living, and it gives us our shelter and comfort. It is how we adapt our environment to fit us. When done well, design is a way to surround ourselves with beauty. Design is divided into many fields: architecture, interior decorating, graphics, industrial design, to name a few.

As the profession of design modernized, it became a way to provide society with products that were streamlined in style to economize the mass manufacturing process. Michigan was uniquely situated to further this meeting of creativity and industrialization. This realization led us to write the book MICHIGAN MODERN.

What do you think was Michigan’s greatest contribution to modernism?

Henry Ford modernized the world by providing an inexpensive automobile—and as a result, where and how we live were altered forever. Standardization and the assembly line made products affordable. But it was the introduction of design into mass production that brought quality products into the hands of the average person. This was the goal of Michigan’s manufacturers, and it set the foundation for the modern postwar lifestyle.

The synergy of education, wealth, and industry resulted in an appealing climate that attracted talented designers. Most people equate Michigan with manufacturing and don’t realize that design is just as important to our industries. Even today, the state has more industrial designers than any other, although nobody knows it.

The products originating in this state, from the Eames chair in the living room to the Corvette in the driveway, became synonymous with the American Dream.

How did Michigan impact modern design in the 20th Century?

The industrial architecture of Albert Kahn’s auto factories, along with Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential designs, influenced the International Style that evolved in Europe. Ford’s standardization and assembly line concepts were applied to housing construction by architects like Richard Neutra and Le Corbusier.

Cranbrook’s education program was one of the few to implement the ideas of the Bauhaus in America, resulting in the outstanding work of Knoll, Bertoia, and Saarinen. The University of Michigan architecture program was one of the first in the nation based on the principles of modernism. It was a UM grad, Joseph Hudnut, who brought over emigrants Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to found the Harvard School of Design, which had a tremendous impact on the architecture profession throughout the United States.

General Motors was the largest corporation in the world at mid-century. Under its design director Harley Earl, product development was driven by design as much as dollars. He didn’t just design cars, he created objects of desire.

− Mid Century Books interviews authors Amy Arnold and Brian Conway about their book Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America

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