“Good design is good business” is the phrase that continues to echo in one’s mind and beyond from Jason Andrew Cohn’s documentary Modernism, Inc: The Eliot Noyes Design Story, a detailed account of mid-century architect and designer Eliot Noyes. The film starts by asking why we should care about Eliot Noyes. The question is typed on an IBM typewriter that Noyes designed, one that turned the typewriter business upside down, outperforming Olivetti. A man who rejected the historic and staid world of Harvard for the new aesthetics of modernism made brave decisions because he was driven and gifted and recognized the opportunities and achievements available from having a sixth sense for design in the modern industrial world.
In his somewhat brief time on Earth, dying at the age of 67 from a heart attack, Noyes created and forged some of the most respected, meaningful, and influential industrial design programs in the United States. The most successful and influential were for postwar corporations that were booming, especially IBM and Mobil. The rise and attraction of modernism on the heels of the United States postwar economic boom birthed contemporary design and philosophy that continue to exist and flourish today, influencing mega businesses, including Apple. The idea of beauty with utility, which was generated from the Bauhaus art movement, continues to remain vital today, and for this, we thank Noyes. His influence as a strategist in the birth of corporate design programs continued to thrive and brought America forward in thinking about concept and design.
“…rejected the historic and staid world of Harvard for the new aesthetics of modernism…”
A well-researched and fascinating history lesson on industrial design, Modernism, Inc: The Eliot Noyes Design Story presents the influencers the subject sought to move forward his ideas, including Paul Rand and Charles and Ray Eames. They, and others, contributed, created, and evolved the concept of industrial and business design and creative processes. These are not just names, facts, and images on the screen. What they accomplished still surrounds us. These individuals worked and created at the dawn of the information age and stood through a counterculture fight against the machine and the Vietnam War. To this, Noyes and his brilliance created a new perception of technology, skyrocketing the likes of IBM into the computer orbit of business achievement.
Designing homes with integrated indoor and outdoor living spaces and houses for all seasons, Noyes was ahead of his time as this style of architecture has been embraced in the post-pandemic 21st century. Noyes “took the edge off” as his biographers, co-workers, and children discussed the man’s brilliance and aptitude for life and design to live life. He looked at what existed and turned a mirror to companies to rethink their appeal, such as the red “O” in Mobil and the design of their gas stations. There are more examples of his design aesthetics than words in this review. Although not political, Noyes was part of a design culture that had to operate in the political world of business.
Modernism, Inc: The Eliot Noyes Design Story is well-crafted and educational. Its deep dive into corporate culture design is fascinating. The amount of imagery, archival footage, and other artifacts and media used to create the look and atmosphere constructs the world of Eliot Noyes commendably. It’s a documentary that provides an excellent platform for those to learn from.
"…provides an excellent platform for those to learn from."