Harley Earl


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Harley Earl is closely linked with the idea of the annual model change of automobiles, induced by extravagantly new styling features, colour schemes, and accessories. Conscious of the power of consumer desires as a route to corporate profitability, he played a key role in the emergence of General Motors as a major force in American automobile manufacture. The almost baroque essays in chrome seen in radiator grilles and the allusions to rocketry and science fiction in the sweeping tail fins and brake light clusters evident in many Earl‐inspired designs of the post‐Second World War period were symbolic of the conspicuous material affluence of 1950s USA. They aroused considerable antipathy in those circles that sought to promote the restraint associated with ‘Good Design’, such as Edgar Kauffman Jr at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and amongst others concerned with consumer affairs such as Ralph Nader.Earl studied engineering at Stanford University after the First World War. However, he gave up his studies to work in his father's coach‐building company, the Earl Automobile Works. His early styling experience was gained in customizing cars for Hollywood stars until the family firm was bought out after the Los Angeles Auto Show of 1919. Harley Earl was kept on as chief designer and increasingly worked on customizing Cadillac chassis, becoming friends with the Cadillac Division president, Lawrence Fisher. General Motors employed Earl from 1925, an early project being the softly curved 1927 Cadillac La Salle, the first mass‐production model designed by a stylist. He was made the first head of GM's Art and Colour Section in 1927, which, a decade later, became the Styling Section. It grew from a staff of 50 in 1927 to more than 1,000 when Earl retired in 1959. The curving, sculptural forms that characterized many of Earl's automobile designs derived from his use of clay models as an important part of the design process, a technique explored in the product design field by American industrial designers such as Raymond Loewy. Earl's 1937 Buick Y Job was typical of the forward looking thinking associated with the design of concept (or ‘Dream’) cars that, although too costly to produce at the time, anticipated many of the more extravagant General Motors designs of ten or fifteen years later. The Second World War and its aftermath had suppressed the demand for cars, but by the late 1940s the position had improved significantly. The striking styling of the 1948 Cadillac was noted for the use of chrome and tail fins derived from the P‐38 Lightning bomber plane, features that Earl subsequently developed more extravagantly in other models over the following decade. The 1950 long, low, extravagantly tail‐finned Buick LeSabre was another important landmark in the development of Earl's design thinking, as was the Corvette sports car of 1953. The latter was exhibited as a Dream Car at the Motorama Show of 1953 and proved a solid success with its panoramic curved windscreen, tail fins, ‘Blue Flame’ engine, low centre of gravity, and Fibreglass body panels. More extravagant ‘Cars of the Future’ were the science fiction rocket shapes of Firebird of 1956 and Firebird III of 1959. Earl became a vice‐president of General Motors in 1940, playing a highly influential role in determining the corporation's design policies until he retired in 1959. Earl had also employed a number of women industrial designers in the Styling Section at General Motors, starting in 1943. Much of their work centred on the interiors of cars, ranging from colours and fabrics through to controls. In the mid‐1950s there were sufficient numbers for them to be referred to in the press as the ‘Damsels of Design’ and they included Dagmar Arnold, Gere Kavanaugh, and Jane van Alstyne, all of whom had qualified in industrial design. In 1945 he established his own firm, Harley Earl Inc., which, in 1964, merged with Walter B. Ford Design Associates to form Ford & Earl Design Associates.


Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.

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