BUILD a better mousetrap: That's the route to business success, according to the old American adage. But for at least half a century, an equally important rallying cry for America's consumer-goods companies was: Build a different mousetrap.
Overall economic prosperity and the high standard of living enjoyed by many people in the United States have been built on talent for developing and mass-producing products that enhance people's lives. Yet the US consumer-products industry - often called the nation's economic engine - has also been powered by advances in design, packaging, and advertising that whet buyers' appetites.
The Golden Age - if that's the term - of the American craving for new-look products spanned the 50 years between 1925 and 1975. Although that craving has by no means abated, Americans' awareness of limited resources and environmental risks appears to have tempered what might be called tail-fins consumerism.
An exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York (the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design) traces the rise of design as a vital element of marketing. In particular, ``Packaging the New: Design and the American Consumer 1925-1975'' demonstrates how the concept of ``obsolescence'' was deliberately planted into buying habits.
The exhibit's creators chose that 50-year span because it shows how a watershed event developed in the years after World War I: the advent of the industrial designer. This designer wasn't an inventor or engineer. He (women generally entered the field later) was a former theater designer, graphic artist, architect, or interior designer who was hired by manufacturers to improve the appearance of consumer goods.
For many years, the field was dominated by five designers whose works are amply displayed in the exhibit - Donald Deskey, Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss.
HESE designers were talented and also remarkably versatile. Deskey, for instance, designed window displays for Saks & Co. in the late 1920s; the ornate interior of New York's Radio City Music Hall, which opened in 1932; countless products ranging from furniture and appliances to prefabricated houses; and package designs for toothpaste and shampoo, which are familiar today.
Enticed by creative product designs and new advertising techniques, the American middle class in the 1920s began ``Keeping Up With the Joneses'' - the title of a comic strip that ran in many newspapers between the world wars. And to further stimulate ``off with the old, on with the new'' buying habits, in 1926 General Motors - ``taking a cue from Paris dressmakers,'' the exhibit explains - introduced annual model changes.
Other manufacturers quickly followed. Style obsolescence was born. If obsolescence (rendering a product outmoded through style changes) seemed like a good idea to manufacturers in the '20s, it was viewed as a necessity after the Great Depression struck. By 1932, net income for US manufacturers had dropped 67 percent. Anything that would induce Americans to ``spend their way back to prosperity'' was regarded not only as good business, but also as a patriotic duty.
World War II temporarily halted the business world's supercharged quest for the consumer dollar. After the war, though, America went on a shopping spree, in the exhibit's words, as millions of veterans and their families moved into and furnished new tract houses in the burgeoning suburbs.
Consumer demand spawned new products and designs, while new products and designs stimulated demand. The cycle spiraled ever higher until the mid-'70s, when oil embargoes and environmental awareness tempered buying habits.
Through more than 200 objects arranged in chronological order, displays of original advertising, and informative commentary, ``Packaging the New'' shows how design innovations and the use of new materials like aluminum, stainless steel, plastics, and fiberglass dramatically changed the look of American households.
Given the exhibit's emphasis on design as a marketing tool, it is not surprising that the displays slight the role product improvements played in fostering consumer demand. At the same time that industrial designers were streamlining and jazzing-up consumer goods, engineers were making astounding advances in the performance, efficiency, and reliability of products.
NE result was that, just as with computers today, products often were outmoded by functional obsolescence as well as by style obsolescence. Some visitors may find the ``consciousness-raising'' dimension of the exhibit's focus on obsolescence-designing a bit heavy handed. Still, it can hardly be denied that consumer-goods manufacturers did (and still do) try to increase sales through design changes. And few people will brush aside the exhibit's closing plea for balanced consumerism that embraces ``environmentally appropriate ways to satisfy [consumers'] personal desires.''
This fascinating exhibit, itself a tribute to thoughtful and imaginative design, is well worth a visit. It runs through Aug. 14.