Eugenic Design

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Christina Cogdell. Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2004. Pp. xviii, 328 pp. Cloth $39.95

Summary

Contents:

1: Introduction: Controlling Evolution

2: Products or Bodies? Streamlined Design as Applied Biology

3: Progenitors of the Future: Popularizing Stramlining and Eugenics During the 1930s

4: "Flow Is the Word": Biological Efficiency and Streamline Design

5: Race Hygiene, Product Hygiene: Curing Disease Through Steralization

6: Future Perfect? The Elusive "Ideal Type"

7: Conclusion: Pseudoscience? Pseudostyle?

Commentary

Roger D. Connor, Spring , 2012

Christina Cogdell in Eugenic Design argues that the streamlined design movement of the 1930s, led by Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy, was closely correlated to the eugenics discourse of the time. This is a dramatically revisionist account and one that fails the test of extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As Cogdell admits, this is “an idea that cannot be –literally- [her emphasis] documented in the archives” [4]. By not refuting the literature of streamlining, such as that of Jeffrey Meikle demonstrating the link with the “aesthetics of flight” [222], Cogdell is limiting herself to illuminating “the theoretical overlaps” between streamline design and eugenics.” This is useful in illustrating a progressive rationalism operating broadly in American creative and social science thinking, but it is not the same as proving a direct correlation.

What Cogdell does do is to demonstrate a progress narrative in both the eugenic approach to human improvement and in the aesthetics of industrial design. However, the link between the transition of “neo-Lamarckian rhetoric” to a “Mendelian approach” and streamline design remains unproven as does the notion of “politicians, health reformers, and designers [turning] to streamlining as a means of restoring purity to their respective areas of reform.” Sure, Bel Geddes’ fascination with the lifecycle of amphibians may well speak to an interest in eugenics, but is that a more convincing argument for his interest in overturning antiquated aesthetics than the speed and efficiency narratives that covered the front pages of newspapers with accounts new records set or of efficiency improved? Cogell can’t see the discourse for the trees.

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