Old white man of the day

I rather suspect that had today’s old white man’s life overlapped with Steve Jobs that Steve would have hired Jo in a flash. Quote.

The poster used to advertise Sinel’s sleek new weighing machine. Courtesy of Gifford Jackson and Designscape. Image supplied by the Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

At a unique junction where the means of industrial production met a burgeoning consumer culture, New Zealander Joseph (Jo) Sinel recognized the need for new paradigm definition. He made use of a new term to reflect the age and his vocation. It was 1919 and the term was ‘Industrial Design’. It was a nifty neologism that captured how technology and art came together to create designs for life.

[…] An industrial designer’s job was, as Sinel memorably defined it, to ensure that an object was, “right in your eye and in your eye right”. In the Industrial Design Society of America’s Century Review Jo Sinel is listed alongside Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller, and Walter Gropius in their Parthenon of influence.

Born in Auckland in 1889, […] Sinel attended the Elam School of Art and began his career in the art department of Wilson & Horton Lithographers. There he apprenticed as a lithographic artist at the New Zealand Herald from 1904 to 1909, studying under Harry Wallace. On a typical OE trajectory he went to Australia (where he roughed it in the outback for several months), then to England where he worked in Liverpool for lithographers Hudson, Scott and Sons, Ltd. and the prestigious Carlton Studios in London, gaining commercial experience in Europe’s largest art studio. He later worked for C. F. Higham Ltd, handling such clients as Goodrich Tyres and British Government War Loans.

Sinel returned to New Zealand and Australia to work as a freelance designer. In 1918, travelling as a wartime merchant seaman, he immigrated to San Francisco. He found work in an advertising agency, but true to peripatetic form he quit and decamped to the High Sierras where he built a log cabin on the shore of Lake Susie with an artist friend Maurice Delmud. He returned to San Francisco to find several job offers waiting for him. His choice was a position creating promotional graphics at First National Pictures in New York, the movie company with which Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin were associated.

Sinel became fascinated by the automobile and, in an era before most of America was even paved for driving, he set off on the road across the States with advertising graphics for the company’s movies painted on the car’s sides. Thus adorned, he was often photographed on arrival in towns and a front-page feature in local newspapers. This early example of ambient advertising was evidence of the flair for self-promotion Sinel would demonstrate throughout his career.

Arriving finally in San Francisco he worked for several advertising agencies, including Foster & Kleiser (alongside other prominent names in the early history of modern design), specializing in outdoor advertising. He also began teaching at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in the early 1920s – an association that would be life-long. But soon, his wanderlust resurfaced: he was off to Montreal and then New York again, where he began to freelance.

It was during this period that he popularized the term ‘industrial design’. In the US in 1919 he used the term in reference to drawings of industrial objects used in ads, and in 1920 he stamped the title ‘industrial designer’ on his letterhead. His business card by-line read: “Jo Sinel. Design for Industry, Products, Packages, Displays, Graphic Arts. Sutter Street, San Francisco.”

Sinel did not invent the correspondence of art and technology that industrial design represented. But he did tag a term to a flourishing movement in America. That movement would shape and expand in new directions from where efforts in Britain (beginning in 18th Century with the industrial revolution) and Germany (the Deutscher Werkbund, ended by WWI, and the famous Bauhaus design school, closed by the Nazis) left off. The blossoming of American industrial design in this period, unlike the largely theory-driven Bauhaus movement, was compelled by industry.

Still freelancing and looking for work, Sinel approached “in fear and trepidation” the highest paid art director in the US, Mylon Perley. Perley, impressed with Sinel’s portfolio, introduced him to the Lennen Mitchell advertising agency in New York. He was employed as a graphic artist, but was subsequently asked to also design three-dimensional products for clients, many of them in art deco style. […]

Among the first of many products to be designed over his prolific career were scales for Peerless and the International Ticket Scale Corporation (magnificently art deco, they were crafted with motifs suggesting the then ultra-modern skyscraper); the Acousticon and Sonotone hearing aids; Remington typewriters (“the first of the good-looking typewriters”); and calculators for Marchant. Douglas Lloyd Jenkins writes that the Scale “is now considered one of the key works of American design.” Sinel also designed a short-lived automobile called the Newton, which made “futurist designer” Marc Newson’s cross-disciplinary foray for Ford, the O21C concept vehicle, look distinctly 20th Century.

Design offices sprang up everywhere. Most were not geared solely towards product design, but embraced a multi-disciplinary approach, creating everything from interiors to graphics. They took their inspiration from the “jazz-modern” motifs and “glamour” silhouettes of Art Deco and the developing rationalism of modernism.

Sinel’s famous Marchant calculator. Top: the original wooden industrial design model of the calculator, photographed by Leo Holub, who worked with Sinel before WWII; and below: the finished product. Photographer Mark Glusker. Both images reproduced courtesy of Mark Glusker.

Clients and engineers were initially sceptical about Sinel’s and other early industrial designers’ pioneering prototypes. Sinel needed to develop innovative PR solutions to get his products made, including educating himself about engineering requirements, so as not to be swayed by objections that his designs would be too difficult to produce. Recognising the persuasive value of presentations he became a creative salesperson. He developed a practice of only working with single contacts and promoted his ideas through models and drawings. His simple but effective model for the International Ticket Scale was constructed out of Del Monte fruit crates. It earned him $10,000 and a 25 year royalty deal.

Sinel set off from Auckland and walked into the concrete jungle of Madison Ave, but he knew what he was worth, putting a high value on his work and getting what he asked for. One agency directed him $54,000 of work in a single year. His promotional presentations were so effective that he was hired by advertising agencies to help win accounts, at $20-30,000 a show.[…]

Sinel produced work for fifty-five advertising agencies during his career, and his client list reads like a Who’s Who of the American corporate world. In the 1940s he returned to the CalArts and later in life he was made an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts. He taught at a number of other design schools, including the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and Chouinard in LA, where he introduced industrial design courses. He was an inspirational teacher at a time when design appeared to be on the cusp of a golden age: the flamboyant American Modern age of electrolux, the Chrysler Building, and art deco.[…]

Sinel was an outspoken advocate of good design as a solution to increasing ‘visual pollution’. […]

Over his career Sinel won many design awards: he was the recipient of the Art Directors’ Medal for Distinguished Advertising Design, The All-America Packaging Award and the National Alliance of Art & Industry Award for Excellence in Product Design. Examples of his work are held in significant design collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.[…]

The inscription on the 6-ft tall standing scales he designed for the International Ticket Scale Corporation read ‘STEP/ ON/ IT’. Sinel was a person whose life and career was driven by that imperative. He loved fast cars, owning two Rolls Royces and a Bentley, but drove automobiles in the ready Aotearoa style as well, cruising in caravans across much of America and along the edge on two tours home to New Zealand. When he died in 1975, he returned to his place of birth in spirit at least – his ashes were scattered at Kerikeri, on one of his family’s properties.

Sinel’s contemporary, the visionary R. Buckminster Fuller, remarked on his own design process: “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong”. Sinel had simplified Fuller’s best practice mantra to “right in your eye and in your eye right”. His legacy as an innovator and great expatriot designer stands in posterity as inspiration and stellar historical precedent for aspiring New Zealand designers. Jo Sinel: disciplined bohemian, strikingly modern, industrial design neologist, passionate teacher and advocate for good design. […] End of quote.


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In solidarity with the those in the world’s most despised demographic, WH has decided to ‘come out’ as an old white male. WH enjoys exercising the white-male privilege that Whaleoil provides for him by writing the occasional post challenging climate change consensus; looking at random tech issues that tweak his interest, as a bit of a tech nerd; or generally poking the borax at anyone in public life who goes on record revealing their stupidity. WH never excelled on the sports field because his coaches never allowed him to play in his preferred position on the right-wing. WH also enjoys his MG.

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