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Mass production

2. c 1900 and after

Source: Oxford University Press

One of the best-known examples of standardized mass production was the ‘Model T’ car produced in 1908 by Henry Ford (1863–1947). An unchanging design, standardized parts and (from 1914) a moving assembly line all helped reduce costs dramatically, from £850 in 1910 to £360 in 1916 . By 1927 nearly 15 million ‘Model T’ cars had been sold, but declining sales forced Ford to respond to market demands for new models—an early example of the problem of standardization in mass production bringing lower costs, which then have to be offset by demands for novelty and rapid changes in fashion. In the USA in the late 1920s and 1930s these conflicting demands of economy and novelty were resolved by emphasizing superficial changes in the appearance of goods—a system that came to be known as ‘styling’.

Yet the problem of the uniformity associated with standardization remained. It was not only the American System of Manufacture that emphasized standardization and the interchangeability of parts. From 1905 Richard Riemerschmid, a German designer, experimented with his Typenmöbel, which he saw as a prototype furniture for standardized machine mass production that would bring good design to the general public. Riemerschmid was a member of the Deutscher werkbund, an organization of manufacturers, designers and retailers formed in Germany in 1907 to stimulate the German economy by increasing its share of world markets in well-designed large-scale or mass-produced quality goods, be they hand- or machine-made. The issue of standardization was debated in 1914, with Henry Van de Velde (a Belgian designer then working in Germany) arguing for the place of individuality and creative freedom against Hermann Muthesius, who stressed that the way to transform everyday objects lay with standardization. For the consumer the problem was wanting a fashionable, uniform, mass-produced object that was in some way different. Wedgwood’s solution had been to offer his customers a choice of a variety of patterns that could be added to a standard pottery shape . In the USA in the 1930s, the answer was a selfconscious revamping of the appearance of an object without redesigning the product itself, for example the Coldspot refrigerator by raymond Loewy, which re-cased an existing Sears Roebuck Co. product in 1935, and Cadillac cars, which were restyled annually in the 1950s by Harley T. Earl (1893–1969) and his design team.

The restyling of well-known mass-produced products to stimulate sales continues: new styles of famous brand-name sports training-shoes are launched every few months; hairdryers are being ‘gendered’ for the male market, which will accept a metallic grey gun-shaped model but not a pastel-coloured one designed for the female market. Another response to the uniformity of standardization demanded by mass production has been to ‘customize’ uniform products, especially cars. The famous Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ car, 20 million of which were produced in the 40 years after World War II, has been customized in many different and inventive ways by owners over the years, as have Levi jeans. The replacement of the unique object by the mass-produced one has simply offered new challenges to the consumer’s individualism and inventiveness.

Despite the dominance of the machine aesthetic and modernism in art and design, non-mass-produced items are seen as superior: uniqueness has a high market value. Certain machine mass-produced mugs even have glazes that mimic the imperfections resulting from hand production. Although the quality of the materials used and the care taken during production may be equal in a machine-made and a handmade object, the latter is seen as somehow superior. The idea that hand production is somehow morally better than machine production because it does not involve the alienation resulting from the division of labour derives from the Arts and Crafts Movement, which developed in Britain from the 1860s in response to the worst excesses of capitalist development, including the division of labour, machine production and the use of shoddy materials, and spread through Europe and North America. It sought to retain the satisfaction obtained when a craftworker makes a single item from beginning to end and sometimes also designs it. One result of the increased production of the relatively cheap objects that graced the houses of the new middle class in the 19th century was the alienation of the workers who made them, either because their skills had been replaced by machines or because subdivision of labour made them little more than parts of a machine. The Arts and Crafts Movement also equated hand production with quality production because it developed at the time when machine production was in its infancy and was frequently concerned with manufacturing cheap imitations of expensive handmade products. By the early 20th century it was clear that the Arts and Crafts Movement was unable to move beyond the production of highly priced, well-made, one-off objects.

The Deutscher Werkbund and the Design and Industries Association (DIA; founded in Britain in 1915) set out to make well-designed quality goods available to the general public. Both organizations grew out of the Arts and Crafts Movement, retained an emphasis on quality but insisted that it should apply to both hand and machine mass-produced goods. They focused on commercially viable everyday goods, from electric light bulbs and fans to teapots with spouts that poured without dripping, all of which were mass-produced. The work of these and other institutions, together with the Modern Movement in art and design, which argued that machine forms as well as machine production were appropriate for the new machine age, helped the acceptance after World War I of the idea that mass production could mean quality production. The teamwork of designers and manufacturers committed to quality mass production by machine, such as the chairs designed by Charles Eames and Ray Eames for Herman Miller Inc. in the USA and by robin Day for Hille International of Great Britain from the 1950s to the 1970s , transformed public attitudes towards mass-produced items that proclaimed their machine origins instead of trying to look like handmade items. These mass-produced objects have become collectors’ items.

The increase in prosperity and home ownership from the 1960s created a market for good quality, well-designed, mass-produced furniture for discerning first-time buyers. In 1964 Terence Conran opened the first Habitat shop in Fulham Road, London, which, together with numerous later branches, catered for this market with great success. From the late 1980s Habitat was challenged by the Swedish firm of IKEA (founded by Ingmar Kamprad in 1943), which offers a huge variety of Swedish-designed mass-produced home furnishings, most of which are supplied flat-packed for self-assembly, from its enormous superstores in the UK, as well as in other European countries, the Far East and North America. In 1992 Habitat was bought by Stichting Ingka, the Dutch company that also owned IKEA.

Pat Kirkham
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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