John Harwood talks IBM history on ROROTOKO

John Harwood is author of THE INTERFACE, about how IBM altered the face of corporate culture and design in America.

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In 1956 the president of IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., hired the industrial designer and architect Eliot Noyes, charging him with reinventing IBM’s corporate image at every level, from the logo to products to buildings and beyond.  The Interface tells this story in full for the first time, showing how Noyes and his fellow consultants (Charles Eames, Paul Rand, George Nelson, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., and a host of architects from around the world) remade IBM in a way that went well beyond this particular corporation—to transform the relationships between design, computer science, and corporate culture.

This history is more significant than a mere “case study.”  It is a determining case.

IBM was the largest business machine corporation in the world; by the 1960s it was the size, in capital and employees, of Portugal and Norway combined.  As such, it completely dominated the market for computers.  Its products—and the new mode of managerial and logistical practice that came with them—impacted nearly every sphere of cultural endeavor from politics to art to science.  As its executives were fond of saying, “IBM is a business whose business is how other businesses do business.”

Thus designers themselves were hardly unaffected by the insertion of the computer into manifold aspects of everyday life. I show how, in the period stretching from the “invention” of the computer just before and during WWII to the appearance of the personal computer in the mid-1970s, disciplines once well outside the realm of architecture—information and management theory, cybernetics, ergonomics, computer science—became integral aspects of design theory and practice.

The Interface is organized according to media—which are the “interfaces” through which the corporation appears as part of the world.  It moves upward and outward in scale.  Beginning with IBM’s graphics, it then moves to consider its products, architecture, multinational expansion, and its films and spectacles.  In doing so, the book provides the first critical history of the industrial design of the computer, of Eliot Noyes’s influential career, and of some of the most important and long-forgotten work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames.

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Published in: ROROTOKO