Designing a better Illinois economy
October 8, 1992
In which I am caught pouring some fresh hot water over some old coffee grounds. I had covered an international design show for the Reader, and did this piece in which I reconsidered in a statewide context some of the issues thus raised.
Finding myself in the Loop with some time to kill, I stopped by a Starbucks, the chain coffee boutique that been spreading like bankruptcy across the country. A sign on a display shelf caught my eye. "At last," it read, "an electric, automatic drip coffee-maker that we can enthusiastically recommend." The patriot in me swelled to note that it was a product of Springfield's own Bunn-O-Matic Corporation, which obviously has applied its path-breaking office coffee-maker technology to the home market.
The previous standard for U.S. electric coffee-makers was set by Mr. Coffee, a shoddily-made machine that heated water only hot enough to make a coffee-flavored emulsion rather than to actually brew coffee, and whose popularity in the '80s explains why so few American young people like coffee. In its place now stood a Bunn-O-Matic, right next to Krups machines from Germany and assorted Italian espresso apparatus—sleek, sturdy, and (thanks to the ailing dollar) competitively priced.
As it happened, I was in Chicago that day to learn more about good industrial design. The Chicago Athenaeum had mounted a salute to "Good Design" that showcases 150 products of all kinds designed by and for such Illinois firms as Motorola Inc. and John Deere. In October, a show will open called "Elegant Techniques," sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission; this exhibit is to feature Italian furniture from 1980 to 1992 by 50 designers and reportedly will reveal the various phases (including production techniques) that bring each piece to its finished form.
No art for art's sake here. It is design—not low-cost labor or superior marketing—that distinguishes Japanese electronics and cars or Italian housewares from their U.S. competitors. It is design that made Milan the fashion capital of the furniture and housewares racket. And there are people who believe that it is design that will restore Chicago's (and thus Illinois's) place in the global economic scheme of things.
Chicago and Illinois used to be the nation's top furniture makers. Location and access to cheap materials made Illinois a giant, but other places such as North Carolina, California, and Michigan now enjoy those advantages. Nonetheless, furniture design and manufacturing in Illinois is still a billion-dollar industry that employs some 20,000 workers. But while the world needs furniture—there probably isn't a dozen decent executive office suites in the whole Communist bloc—Illinois isn't selling it to them. Only about $55 million of Illinois's output in 1990 was sold abroad, according to the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs.
"Because all trends in today's design originate in Italy, Milan is considered a center of design," explains Athenaeum director and Chicago booster Christian Laine. "Chicago has equal talent and resource. The only difference is that we don't promote the industry nationally or internationally." So, last April the Athenaeum (with help from DCCA) unveiled a showing of new Chicago furniture by ten Chicago designers at the Salon de Mobile di Milano, which is a sort of World's Fair of furniture. Milan is to the well-seated buttock what Paris used to be to the well‑tailored one, and it was the first time Chicago designers have shown there.
To some, selling "Chicago" design to the Milanese is as hopeless as selling refrigerators to the Eskimos or, perhaps, selling fine foodstuffs to the French. But furniture designed at the turn of the century by Frank Lloyd Wright and manufactured in Chicago and Milwaukee not only sells at extravagant prices at auction but has inspired a sub-industry devoted to making reproductions of it for the larger retail market. (Vulpiani Workshop in New York advertises a "plant stand with leaded glass" that is just enough different from the one Wright did for the Dana house in Springfield to deceive the lawyers, if not the connoisseurs.)
Chicago and Illinois are better known for men who designed processes—mail order, meat packing, assembly plants, commodity markets—than products. Chicago is Sears and Wards, purveyors of Subdivision Chic. Nevertheless, the cellular phones made by Motorola (designed either in-house or by Chicago studios) have made Nipon Motorola that industry's leader. "The Japanese were shocked when they found out these phones are made by a U.S. company," a Motorola spokeswoman told me with pardonable pride. This year, 40 industrial design students from the University of Illinois at Chicago submitted "concepts" for leather seating for Poltrona Frau Corp. of Italy. The three best will be built as prototypes by Poltrona Frau craftsmen; in 1993 ten students will study in Italy under UIC's noted German-trained professor of design, Herbert Ohl.
After the 1940s the designer was replaced by the marketing expert. Design in the U.S. became a matter of advertising and image and less of use; selling things well, rather than selling well-made things, became the game. Today, a company needs to design for specific markets as well as sell to them. That means having to understand the sociology and the psychology of products and how products fit into a different social context.
"Design" in this larger sense requires a kind of across-the‑boundaries creative thinking, not to mention a cosmopolitanism that is alien to the analytic thinking used by financial, marketing, and engineering specialists. The task ahead of the economic development whizzes is thus vastly more subtle than selling McLean County to a Japanese carmaker at insider prices. The people who will carry Illinois forward will be not high-tech wizards or management wise men able to squeeze another nickel out of labor. Instead they will be—oh, irony!—now-despised liberal arts majors adept at languages, history, sociology. Business, like they, makes strange bedfellows. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.