Mid-Century Modern Capitalism

The Look of the Mid-Century Corporation 

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

March 2012 Atlantic


Pastoral Capitalism 
Louise A. Mozingo 

This frequently observant and discerningly illustrated chronicle of the post-war era’s corporate campuses, estates, and office parks probes a hitherto overlooked subject in the history of American business and architecture. The corporate move to the countryside reflected and accelerated a series of related socioeconomic and design trends—including the celebration of the genteel, leafy suburb as the pastoral ideal; the shift in the focal point of American business from manufacturing to management and technology; the growth in the educated, white-collar workforce; the elevation of the car’s role in daily life; and the embrace of Modernism as the dominant corporate style. Mozingo, a professor of landscape architecture at Berkeley, skillfully and clearly connects these developments. She’s especially sharp-eyed in her appreciation of the beauty of the buildings and landscapes created for Bell Labs, General Motors, and Deere & Company, and in her analysis of the stylistic and ideological fusion of business and the academy in such corporate campuses as Research Triangle Park and the Stanford Industrial Park. Just as the Seagram Building and Lever House, those Modernist triumphs of urban architecture, spawned a host of bland glass boxes that blighted the city landscape, so too the corporate pastoral masterpieces of the Olmsted Brothers firm, Cliff May, and Eliel and Eero Saarinen spawned a host of third-rate imitations—as a humane and idealistic aesthetic was transformed into today’s exurban landscape of sterile office parks girdled by blacktop. Although Mozingo perceptively traces that downward evolution, she suffers from the predictable and preening academic hostility to suburbia, which mars her otherwise incisive history.

The Interface 
John Harwood 

leadIn this related book, Harwood, a professor of art at Oberlin, explores the most ambitious coordinated design effort in the history of American business—the creations of the extraordinary group working for IBM that transformed the relationship between design, computer science, and corporate culture. From the mid-1950s to the mid-’70s a stellar collection of designers and architects, including Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Isamu Noguchi, and even the jazz musician Shelly Manne, created an integrated style for IBM that encompassed stationery, packaging, typography, and graphics; curtains and furniture; typewriters and computers; buildings; gardens and landscapes; showrooms and museum exhibits; and industrial films. Not surprisingly, Harwood focuses on IBM’s own exurban corporate campuses. This handsome, wide-ranging book makes clear that IBM’s integrated design effort, in which a vision of the power and potential of information technology was married to a protean but cohesive aesthetic, is the forerunner of and model for Apple’s equally—but by no means more—influential design achievement.

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