Alcoa (formerly the Aluminum Company of America) was founded in 1888 and is the third largest producer of aluminum in the world, according to wikipedia. If interested, you can read about the long and storied past of the company here. This post, however, explores a small slice of Alcoa's history during the 1950s and 60s when they holistically embraced the modernist design aesthetic.
Some of the most well-known and ubiquitous designers and architects leading the mid-century design movement were commissioned by and partnered with Alcoa during these two decades. Charles Eames, Charles Goodman, Florence Knoll, Austin Cox, Lester Beall, Isamu Noguchi, Garrett Eckbo and famed graphic designer Saul Bass are among those that contributed to the decidedly modernist style that bled into all things Alcoa during this time period.
In the home
Up until a couple years ago I was largely unaware of Alcoa's contributions to the design world. That is, until my wife introduced me to the Alcoa Care Free Home designed by architect Charles Goodman. 25 homes were built around the country that featured the GE Wonder Kitchen as the command center of the home.
Above is the original image that was featured in a 1957 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. Most of the homes still exist today but few have been preserved. My wife and I are lucky to have purchased one in near perfect condition, and have found several others across the country that have undergone tremendous restorations that bring the homes back to Alcoa's and Goodman's vision. Photos can be viewed here.
Another item that could be found in the home is a modernist chess set designed by Austin Cox of Austin enterprises in 1962 for Alcoa to give as gifts to their top customers. These marvelous game pieces were cut from aluminum bars and displayed in a walnut case that could be mounted on a wall.
Wonderful Aluminum World of Tomorrow
Although Charles Eames is likely best-known for contributions to furniture design for Herman Miller, most Eames fans are unaware of his "Do Nothing Machine" created for Alcoa's 1959 "Design Forecast." This bizarre, yet beautiful solar mobile showcased the versatility and beauty of aluminum as a medium for art. The Airform Archive tells the story like this:
In the late 1950's, as part of the Alcoa company's "forecast collection", the Eames office created the solar toy. this toy was unique in many ways; but the most unique aspect (particularly in light of the way things seem to be done today) was the fact that Charles Eames was interested in creating a toy that did nothing. In terms of "doing nothing" he didn't mean that it would be a static and mute object -he was interested in an object that didn't direct one towards specific answers (or in the case of the work of a designer, towards a specific "use"). It followed an ideology found in much of his works, where the power of play is valued as an experience that can be quite powerful in and of itself - and where a sense of wonder can lead to a depth of thought and a kind of expansive understanding (think powers of 10).
In Alcoa's 1959 publication "design forecast 1" (the first image above is from this book), Oscar Schefler elaborates on the ideas behind the Eames's solar powered "do nothing machine"..."there is little pertinence in asking what the toy is supposed to do. it is not supposed to do. it is supposed to be. Its whole function is in its being." Eames adds, "we now have a moment in time which is very precious; but this is valid only if the toy does nothing". Eames then goes on to talk about a kind of delightful awareness - found in the attraction to little things that Rilke talks about in letters to a young poet; but with a sense of delight in the ability not to want to "know" found in Zen (particularly in the same way cage seemed to find this childlike delight in much of the world through Zen). Eames is toying with the idea that the object really is mute until receptive perceptive humans begin to interact with it and find meaning in their experience with it. it's a wonderful connection to duchamp's ideas regarding the viewer as the "art coefficient".
From the home to what goes in it, Alcoa had furniture custom designed by some of the era's most notable designers: Florence Knoll and Isamu Noguchi.
In 1954 Florence Knoll was commissioned by an executive at Alcoa to design a custom sofa. Her solution was an exquisite example of mid-century furniture design. The aluminum base was complemented by a built in walnut side table.
The prismatic table of 1957 was the last piece of furniture designed by Noguchi before his death in 1988. This small and beautiful geometric design was made completely of aluminum sheets that were bent and coated. Two versions were designed and were part of Alcoa's "Forecast Program" which explored new uses for aluminum.
Nothing gets me more excited than great design in advertising from the 50s and 60s. In addition to their contributions in home design, Alcoa's ads were beautifully executed and meticulously designed. Some of my favorite examples were crafted for their chemical division.
I love modernist design and try to draw from it in my work whenever possible. I am particularly excited to have found the Alcoa Care Free Home because it led me to the modernist era in Alcoa's history. But I have to ask: how is it that just a short 8-10 years of Alcoa's history was so magically beautiful? Why didn't they continue?
I believe the answers rest in the market conditions of the time. Coming out of World War II the United States government had split the American aluminum producers into three companies. Managementparadise.com sums it up like this:
Meanwhile, of course, the United States had entered World War II. Demand for aluminum skyrocketed. Alcoa, however, proved to be unable to keep up with the increases in demand, disappointing the War Department. During the war the government financed new plants that were built and run by Alcoa, but also encouraged the development of other aluminum producers. As the tide of the war shifted in favor of the Allies in 1944, the U.S. government began deliberations on how to dispose of these plants, which would soon become surplus capacity. As a result, a solution to the problem of how to carry out Hand's ruling became apparent. The Alcoa plants that the government had financed would be sold off to two new rivals: Reynolds Metals Company and Permanente Metals Corporation, owned by industrialist Henry Kaiser. Reynolds and Permanente were to buy the plants at cut-rate prices. In effect, this divestiture created an oligarchy where there had formerly been a monopoly. In 1950 a district court decree carved up the U.S. aluminum market between the three: Alcoa would get 50.9 percent of production capacity, Reynolds 30.9 percent, and Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation, as Permanente Metals was renamed, 18.2 percent.
Reynolds, still known today for their aluminum foil, had become a household name. Because of this increased pressure in the market, Alcoa shifted focus away from consumer products and capitalized on aluminum's versatility by highlighting the myriad uses for the material. By partnering with the top architects and designers of the time, Alcoa was able to showcase the benefits of incorporating aluminum into almost every imaginable industry. Many of the world's most iconic companies like Herman Miller, Knoll, and Lockheed became Alcoa's premier customers during the late 50s and 60s, and I believe it is no coincidence that some of the company's most visionary and inspired marketing was created during this time. Today, Alcoa aluminum can be found almost everywhere, from the aerospace and automotive industries to home building, construction materials and consumer electronics.
Given the company's storied design history, I've become inspired to further investigate where Alcoa has taken its marketing since these iconic decades. I'm hoping to find at least a hint of the design innovation and artistic collaboration that were so visible in the mid-20th century. These experiments and expeditions into the age's cutting edge of design have left me inspired and eager to find out more. I'm hopeful that I'll soon have more intriguing and interesting Alcoa design leadership to share. In the meantime, I welcome any additional information, questions, or feedback on what I've learned so far. I'm certain that I've only begun to scratch the surface of a much larger initiative.
About the Author
Jon Czeranna is an award winning Creative Director, Art Director and Designer with Wit & Craft.