The Creatively Conscious Donald Deskey (Review)

DAAP exhibition highlights work of design pioneer Donald Deskey

Jan 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Though he’s not a household name, it’s likely you have something designed by Donald Deskey inside your home right now. The current exhibition at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) thoroughly outlines the life of this modern Renaissance man.

Born in Blue Earth, Minn., in 1894, Deskey helped pioneer the fields of branding and industrial design long before there were university programs devoted to them. Trained as an architect, he not only designed iconic buildings but branched out into package, product, textile, furniture and publication design. Deskey passed away in 1989 in Vero Beach, Fla., where he retired in 1975 after a long and fruitful career that included the founding of a design and branding firm that still exists in Cincinnati.

Creative Conscious: The Unconstrained Mind of Donald Deskey, organized by DAAP and Deskey Associates (the Cincinnati firm founded in the 1940s by Deskey himself), fills the Reed Gallery with photographs and text to introduce visitors to Deskey’s life and ubiquitous designs. The show is on view through Feb. 16; visit for details, directions and parking information, and to learn more about a symposium on Deskey that DAAP is presenting on Feb. 3, 6-8 p.m.

A glass case near the gallery’s entrance features well-known package designs from the 1940s and ’50s: Cheer, Jif, Joy, Crest, Tide. The orange Tide bullseye and the red-white-and-blue Crest tube have changed little since Deskey’s inceptions and are so familiar that we could probably recognize them without the product’s name on the package. This is a layman’s definition of branding, a field that was literally nonexistent before World War II.

With the advent of television and the rise of advertising in the 1940s and ’50s, companies realized the importance of product familiarity with the help of designers like Deskey, who believed that “a successful package functions as an ‘effective billboard’ throughout its existence, whether in the store or in the home.”

Deskey saw connections between all kinds of design, from exterior architecture to packaging. He said, “A storefront is a label,” and backed that statement up with groundbreaking building designs that branded the businesses housed inside. Quotes like this reproduced throughout the exhibition effectively sum up Deskey’s philosophies. Perhaps most revealing, and most inspirational to young designers, is the line, “There is no such thing as an invention; there’s just the stating of a problem and the engineering of a solution.”

Deskey was the quintessential self-made man; the chronology of his life that spans two walls in the exhibition is mind-boggling. He worked a series of unusual jobs after high school, including keeping time for steelworkers, guiding visitors through California’s giant sequoia forest, helping shipbuilders and riveters and becoming a junior highway engineer. He studied architecture at Berkeley in 1915, went to Paris in 1925 and landed in New York afterwards to begin designing department store window displays.

It seems his varied life experiences and his exposure to modern art and design abroad served him well. He earned fame in 1932 when he won the prestigious commission to design the interiors of Radio City Music Hall, from which two seats are on display. The Art Deco interior remains one of America’s design treasures.

In addition to the seats from Radio City, the show includes a leather and aluminum chair. I hoped there would be more furniture on display, but this single example served to illustrate Deskey’s innovative combinations of those nifty materials we now associate with the modern era: Bakelite, Formica, plywood, brushed and tubular aluminum.

The exhibition displays only a small number of actual products and publications designed by Deskey, while many more of his creations are represented by photographs. Since its purpose is generally the creation of mass-produced consumable goods, design differs from fine art in that often there are no “originals.”

The Reed Gallery offers a nicely designed, comprehensive view of Deskey’s life and work, and visitors should also make their way to the glass case outside the DAAP library on the building’s sixth floor to see several additional examples of product packaging. With products like Duncan Hines Early American Date Nut Cake Mix, pink Charmin toilet tissue and Prell shampoo in a tube, the exhibition also evokes nostalgia for a time when the roots of our advertising-saturated society were just beginning to take hold.

CREATIVE CONSCIOUS: THE UNCONSTRAINED MIND OF DONALD DESKEY is on display at DAAP's fifth floor Reed Gallery (2624 Clifton Ave., University Heights) through Feb. 16. For more details, call 513-556-2839 or visit Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.