Skip to main content

American Style: Classic Product Design From Airstream To Zippo

March 2024
1min read

Written and photographed by Richard Sexton; Chronicle Books; 135 pages; $16.95.

William Mason worked out the Colt .45 revolver—the definitive hardware of Western outlaw and lawman alike—half a century before anybody thought up the term industrial design . Nevertheless, that lethally beautiful piece of sculpture is a prime example of it, and it takes its place in this book along with the Airstream Trailer, the Aladdin Workman’s Lunch Kit (that’s the lunchbox with the thermos in its rounded top), the Osterizer Blender, and 128 other products that reflect the author’s sense of the best of American industrial design.

As the inclusion of the Colt suggests, the range of products is a wide one, from Levi Strauss’s 1853 jeans to the Head Composite Edge tennis racket introduced in 1984. In between we get such artifacts as the Mason jar (1858), the Master padlock (1931), and the Slinky (1945). Some of the author’s choices seem too self-consciously design-y—Russel Wright’s long-snouted freeform pitcher, for instance, which one of his contemporaries described delicately as a “sickroom appurtenance”—and some just seem eccentric: the Brooks Brothers Diary is given a page of its own. Moreover, the author is somewhat in thrall to the products he has chosen, and his captions can be fulsome: of a handsome gold-and-black cylinder we are told that “no carbon battery looks like, or lasts like, the Duracell Battery.”

But in between the occasional fawning there is information of value to every American (the name M&M’s stands for Forrest Mars, president of the candy company, and an associate, Bruce Murrie), and there is something oddly comforting in going through this catalog of the furniture of our lives.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate