John Harwood Speaks on his New Book: The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

Matthew Sprung, Staff Writer

On Leap day John Harwood, associate professor of Modern and Contemporary Architectural History and Design here at Oberlin College, gave an hour–long talk on his new book,The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976, which was published by the University of Minnesota Press in November 2011. Ray English, Azariah Smith Root director of libraries, introduced Harwood to a room filled with mostly older attendees who lived through the momentous time period in question. Light chatter bounced around the room as Professor Harwood prepared his presentation. Utilizing Moffett Auditorium’s large screen, which was hooked up to an Apple laptop, Harwood got past some technical difficulties — the irony of which did not go unnoticed.

In what he described as a “brief … guided tour of the book,” Harwood began by summarizing its basic aim, though he admits that the book tries to do a lot of things at once. His hope was that the book would provide an understanding of the computer’s role in the mid 20th century. Yet as the presentation commenced, it was quickly clear that the book contains much more than that. It provides a history of the intrinsic corporate image, the naturalization of the computer, and an explicable framework for the accepted modern technological world that currently surrounds us.

Today, smart phones have practically become an appendage to the human body. We depend on them, and if forgotten at home or depleted of battery, the panic, that feeling of vulnerability and angst, really begins to set in. But, it was not always like this. In fact, America’s psychological attitude towards technology has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. This change was brought about thanks to the keen spatial understanding that designers and architects brought to IBM after World War II. This unusual partnership proved to be an astute decision by the tech firm.

While the main focus of the book is indeed IBM, the international corporation only served as the proverbial kitchen. In the 1940s the company opened its doors and ingredients of technological riches, it was designers and architects who, for the first time in the technology world, became the innovative chefs cooking up a new idealized corporate model. In an unusual move, IBM hired a design consultancy, consisting of Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand, Charles Eames, George Nelson and Edgar Kaufmann Jr. The essential relationship that fueled the designers’ innovation was between company and the consumer, yet relationships take work.

Eliot Noyes and his fellow designers focused primarily on a multimedia strategy that recognized the importance of selling the brand’s image to the public. IBM stripped down its confusing and ineffective ads and instated a modern, straightforward ad campaign and slogan: Think. It was effective, appealing, and before long, IBM’s new model built on an appealing compromise of transparency and elegance; from its sleek offices and computers to its straightforward advertisements, IBM became the idealized corporate model.

The overarching attitude towards technology in the ’40s and ’50s was fear and confusion. Computers, big, ugly, and mysterious, were going to take over the world. Professor Harwood took the room through the technological advancements of the times that sought to disprove these assumptions, from Eames’ chair design to Noyes’ slick and modern electric typewriter. What the Eames’ ‘conversation chair’ did (gaining national recognition after winning a MOMA competition in 1934) was establish the need and desire for a more organic, naturalized relationship between people and objects. Design provided the answer. With the help of modern design, IBM was, for the first time, making technology more adaptable to human needs.

The constant presence and use of technology that surrounds us today forms a constant contrast to the strange world Harwood presented on the screen. The relationship people have with technology today leans toward obsessive and dependent, yet this trust and attitude has been 60 years in the making. So when the iPad 3 comes out this spring, we can all thank modern design while tapping Harwood’s book up onto the glossy screen.