Henry Dreyfuss (March 2, 1904 – October 5, 1972), was born in Brooklyn, NY to a family in the theatrical materials supply business. He completed studies as an apprentice to Norman Bel Geddes in 1924 and produced 250 stage sets for a number of theatres before 1928. He opened his own office in 1929 for stage and industrial design activities.
In 1929, he won a "phone of the future" competition by Bell Laboratories and began work in 1930 in collaboration with Bell staff. The result of this association was the "300" tabletop telephone, with a receiver and transmitter in a "combined handset" resting in a horizontal cradle. Molded in black phenolic plastic, it was introduced in 1937 and produced until 1950.
In 1933, he designed a new "flat-top" deluxe refrigerator introduced by General Electric, eliminating the previously exposed refrigeration unit by placing it beneath the cabinet. He also designed a new Toperator washing machine for Sears & Roebuck.
Dreyfuss was featured in a 1934 article, "Both Fish and Fowl," in Fortune Magazine, written anonymously by George Nelson, which had a dramatic impact on the new field of Industrial Design. An early client was Westclox, for whom he designed an alarm clock introduced in 1935, and later their famous Big Ben alarm clock in 1939.
In 1934, he was engaged by the Hoover Co. and designed its 1936 Model 150 upright vacuum cleaner with the first plastic hood in Bakelite. His retainer fee was $25,000 per year. He designed a bottle for The American Thermos Bottle Co. that appeared in 1936.
In 1936, his design of a Mercury locomotive debuted. It featured cutout holes in the "white-walled" driver wheels, lit by concealed spotlights at night. In 1938, with great fanfare, New York Central introduced 10 new streamliner steam engines and cars designed by Dreyfuss for its Twentieth Century Limited New-York-Chicago run. An upgraded version of his Mercury design, the new J 3 4-6-4 Hudson locomotives featured finned bullet-noses reminiscent of ancient warrior helmets.
In 1938, Dreyfuss's John Deere Model A tractor was introduced. Dreyfuss started working with Deere in 1937.
At the New York World's Fair in 1939, Dreyfuss designed the Democracity model in the Perisphere, representing an American city and its surrounding suburbs of the year 2039. He also designed the AT&T pavilion, featuring Vodar, an early voice synthesizer.
At the start of the war in 1941 Dreyfuss, along with Raymond Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague were involved in the design of strategy rooms for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dreyfuss built four 13-foot rotating globes, one each for Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill and the Joint Chiefs. Commercially, he designed the best-seller Skyliner fountain pen for Eversharp.
The Society of Industrial Designers (SID) was established in 1944 by 15 practitioners, including Dreyfuss, who served as its first Vice-President. After the war in 1946, Henry hired William F. H. Purcell and Robert Hose, both of whom became partners in the firm.
In 1949, the model 500 desk telephone was put into service by AT&T. Designed by Dreyfuss, it was the first to be offered in colors other than black beginning in 1954 and was still the most commonly used model in the US in 1995.
Dreyfuss appeared on the cover of Forbes Magazine in 1951. In 1953, Minneapolis Honeywell introduced a circular wall thermostat designed by Dreyfuss. He began consulting with the company in 1937.
Dreyfuss published Designing for People in 1955, an autobiography that included the first publication of "Joe" and "Josephine" anthropological charts. He focused on design problems related to the human figure, working on problems from "the inside out", and believed that machines adapted to people would be the most efficient. The technical discipline called Human Factors was begun during the war and resulted in standards for the design of military equipment. Such data formed the basis of post-war design standards by Dreyfuss.
By 1960, The Whitney Library of Design published Measure of Man, by Dreyfuss, an ergonomic data guide compiled from military records by the Dreyfuss office. It featured Joe and Josephine and popularized the idea of fitting products to human scale. The term "ergonomics" was coined in the early 1950s to describe the new profession focused on the study of human-equipment interaction.
Although Hoover discharged Dreyfuss in 1954, in 1955 they introduced their Model 82 Constellation vacuum cleaner designed by him, a spherical shape that glided on an air cushion of its own exhaust.
In 1956, the wall-mounted telephone was re-introduced by Bell Telephone. Designed by Henry Dreyfuss Associates (HDA), it was intended as a companion to the desktop model "500." In 1958 Bell introduced his design for the first push-button telephone sets. And in 1959 Bell introduced the "Princess" phone, with hand/mouthpiece spanning the dial, and fitting compactly on the base. Its petite size was designed by HDA to appeal to teenage girls
HDA designed a number of safety razors. The Pal stainless steel razor for American Safety Razor (1961), the Gem razor, for ASR Products Co. (1965), and the Flicker, a women's rotary manual safety razor, for the American Safety Razor Co. (1972).
In 1963, the Polaroid Land Co. introduced its Model 100, the first to allow removal of photo to develop while shooting the next, designed by HDA. They also designed the General Motors Futurama for the 1964 World's Fair in New York, the most popular exhibit.
In 1965, The Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) was formed by the merger of IDI, ASID and IDEA, becoming the single voice of industrial design in the US. Henry Dreyfuss served as the organization's first president. That same year, the "Trimline" telephone was introduced. Designed by Donald M. Genaro of HDA in collaboration with Western Electric staff, it combined receiver, transmitter and dial into a single element nested into a compact base
Dreyfuss formally reorganized his office in 1967 as Henry Dreyfuss Associates, naming Donald M. Genaro, James M. Conner, and Niels Diffrient as associates. Henry retired to Pasadena, CA in 1969, but continued to serve the profession. Representing the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in 1971, he chaired the first meeting of the International Organization of Standards Technical Committee (ISO/TC) in Berlin which set international standards for 145 signs and symbols. In 1972, McGraw-Hill published his Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols.
Henry Dreyfuss died in 1972.
Want to know more? Learn all about Henry Dreyfuss and his extraordinary life's work at the HDA website, or any of several publications written by him, or devoted to his accomplishments in the field of Industrial Design.