Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Lens of Optimism: The Henry Ford and the Industrial Designers Society of America

January 25, 2022 Archive Insight

Every year in the spring, the boxes begin to arrive from all over the world. Just a few at first…. Then more and more, day after day. They are carted from the loading dock down a long hallway and into The Henry Ford’s Main Storage Building. There, they will fill dozens of shelves and tables. In each, a product: computers and smartphones, sporting goods and medical supplies, appliances and tools, all manner of things solving all manner of problems.

Gray fabric-covered goggles with closure, pictured with box and oval-shaped accessory
Google "Daydream View" virtual reality headset, IDEA gold award winner in the consumer technology category, 2017. / THF174007

These are finalists in the Industrial Designers Society of America’s International Design Excellence Awards (known as IDSA and IDEA, respectively). Over the next several weeks, museum staff will process and sort them into 19 categories ranging from Automotive & Transportation and Service Design to Social Impact. Eventually, 41 esteemed jurors—representing a microcosm of the wide-ranging practices and interests of the industrial design community—descend upon the entries. The best will be declared winners and accessioned into The Henry Ford’s permanent collection, as they have been since 2010.

This ongoing partnership was the result of a 2009 meeting former Chief Historian Christian Øverland and current Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator Marc Greuther from The Henry Ford took with Clive Roux, IDSA’s executive director at the time. At the meeting, Øverland and Greuther pitched the idea that there could be a relationship between The Henry Ford and IDSA based on the latter’s yearly IDEA judging process. The storied professional association agreed. Greuther was asked to select the recipient of a Curator’s Choice Award each year and was eventually given a spot on the jury.

Portrait of man in black leather jacket sitting in workshop with window behind him
The Henry Ford’s Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator Marc Greuther. / Photo by Roy Ritchie.

Below, Marc Greuther and IDSA’s current executive director, Chris Livaudais, answer some questions. We talked to Greuther about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA, IDEA, and curating through the eyes of designers. Livaudais provides his own perspective on IDSA’s partnership with The Henry Ford, how IDSA helps to promote sustainability in industrial design, and more.

Circular portrait of man's head and shoulders in dark frame
IDSA’s Executive Director Chris Livaudais.

Why did The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA come about?

Marc Greuther: It partly came about because of a deeper institutional interest in design. That heightened a lot in the ‘80s under [former president of The Henry Ford] Harold Skramstad, who’d done work with the Eames Office. There was a deeper sense that The Henry Ford had good design holdings that got to the origins of the industrial design profession—and we wanted to continue building those collections.

I think a lot of how I’d looked at it at the time related to the proliferation of designers and design in everyday life. I wanted to ensure that we could stay current but also work more closely with designers, partly to get their take on things but also to make them aware of us as a resource. Unlike many museums, we didn’t just collect spectacular things to put on a plinth. We were quite eager to collect prototypical material and process-related material. It could be drawings, sketches, false starts, dead ends. We were aware that designers could look at that and it would be useful.

Silver and white comma-shaped device, coin battery, and cardboard and plastic blister packaging containing text
Starkey Laboratories S Series behind-the-ear hearing aid, IDEA silver award winner in the medical & scientific products category, 2010. / THF166375

It was based on real mutual benefit. Because design is a discipline that touches people’s lives, IDSA was interested in being more visible, so their work was better understood. Industrial design for many companies was still seen as a styling exercise. But the design discipline had evolved to a point where, no, there’s human factors—the benefits of technologies can be rendered in more usable ways if people’s needs are being better anticipated. Designers are intermediaries for those kinds of processes.

How has the partnership with The Henry Ford benefited IDSA?

Chris Livaudais: IDEA [celebrated] its 40-year anniversary [in 2020], making it one of the oldest design awards competitions around. Our collaboration with The Henry Ford provides an additional level of credibility to the program and helps preserve the legacy of design’s impact on our society. All winning IDEA products can be entered into the museum’s permanent collection, so this is a unique and huge incentive for designers to enter their work into the competition.

White rectangular device with a smiley face and two cords, one white and one black
Model of "Pico - The Projector Camera," IDEA bronze award winner in the student designs category, 2010. / THF171351

How does the IDSA collaboration relate to and benefit The Henry Ford’s mission and collections?

Marc Greuther: We’ve been able to acquire items that we might not necessarily know about—because of the markets they serve—or even be able to encounter. I think if we can build our collections in a literal sense, we’re always going to be able to get things out in front of the public that serve our mission to inspire people through America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation.

The vast majority of the designers we’ve met are interested in the design discipline as a way of making the world a better place. And that’s a good subtext for our mission. We’re not simply trying to document new or novel things; we’re looking at the deployment of human creativity and imagination.

White container with red "X" brace pattern and black handle; accessories pictured next to it
Stone Cold Systems ice-less vaccine refrigerator, IDEA bronze award winner in the social impact design category, 2018. You can get two curatorial perspectives about this artifact here. / THF185488

One of the jurors once said that one of the things he loves about going to the IDSA conference is that you’re hanging out with optimists. I think that’s another slant on our mission, which is optimistic. It’s that sense that things can be improved. I think that’s one of the best readings of how Henry Ford collected for the institution and how we’ve built off that.

Collecting via IDEA seems to create the potential for incredible contrast between the totally new and untested and the iconic artifacts already in the collection. It allows us to play with that edge, because we’re doing it through an industrial designer’s eyes. That’s why I value some of the earlier smartphones and gadgetry that have come in. You look at it and think, “Wow, I wouldn’t collect that now. That’s such a flash in the pan.” And it’s a good job that I didn’t collect it then with a future perspective of my own, because I would’ve been wrong. But it was the best guess of an industrial designer, and that has value.

Compact wheeled vacuum pictured with a box and many accessories
LG Electronics "CordZero C5" cordless canister vacuum cleaner, IDEA bronze award winner in the home & bath category, 2015. / THF176286

One of the first exhibits I enjoyed at The Henry Ford when I first visited in 1986 was called Yesterday’s Tomorrows. It was all about past views of what the future would be like. That applies to some of the IDSA materials we’ve got. It’s that notion of “Journalism is the first draft of history,” right? It’s going to get superseded pretty quick, but it’s still got value. Our IDSA collections are the first draft of an industrial designer’s sense of what’s important.

When you’re talking about an institution that has the kind of collections that The Henry Ford has, the relationship with IDSA is an incredible asset. In 10 years, if one IDEA award winner is a huge success, the museum might have the prototype already.

Marc Greuther: Or we might have the very first production model. It gets to the fact that the institution is obviously very much wanting to see things through a lens of innovation, and innovation takes place across all of our collections, but it’s apparent in some more than others, simply because of the nature of what’s going on technologically in the world.

It is interesting to think about how IDEA has grown collections that seem incredibly workaday. If you think about the impact of ergonomics and human factors research into the design of handles for ladles and traditional kitchen utensils, that grows our collection in those areas that seem utterly everyday. That’s where design is an interesting discipline. New materials come along, or new knowledge about the way the body works or doesn’t work. All the work that’s been done by companies like OXO Good Grips is deeply informed by research into arthritis and rheumatism, and just the sheer inappropriateness of so many everyday utensil designs.

Sleek black plastic and silver metal device with folded instruction sheet
OXO SteeL CorkPull, IDEA bronze award winner in the home furnishings category, 2010. / THF166376

As someone who’s been on the jury for many years now, you get these things that come up—brand-spanking-new, out-of-the-box office concepts—and you’ll look at it and say, “Yeah, OK. I saw that in a Robert Propst drawing from 1962.” It’s good to be able to wield that historical perspective and say, “Hey, you know what? That’s been noticed before, and this is how it played out.”

How does IDSA hope to promote the continued growth of sustainable design practices going forward?

Chris Livaudais: IDSA has long been active in promoting responsible and sustainable design practices to the design community. In 2014, for example, we supported the development and distribution of Okala Practitioner, a comprehensive resource for designers on materials and best practices related to the ecological impact and footprint of a given product or service. We also have an Ecodesign special interest section, which allows subject matter experts in this space to connect and generate content for publication throughout IDSA’s networks. It is very important for us as a professional association to advocate for this topic and to show that having responsibly designed products can in fact be positive for our planet, the people who use the products and the bottom line of the business.

Bernie Brooks is Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article first published in the June–December 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

International Design Excellence Awards, The Henry Ford Magazine, design, by Bernie Brooks, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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