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Henry Dreyfuss (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

I have, in my office, a black telephone that's over fifty years old. I'm sure you can picture it, it's THE classic phone. I like it because the handset fits my hand perfectly.

It isn't a surprise that I like its shape. It was designed by Henry Drefyuss, a man who kept very careful tabs on the size of human beings.

Dreyfuss was an industrial designer, who created nearly anything used by a human. As he liked to say, anything that was "going to be ridden, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people." This included, eventually, John Deere tractors, a jetliner cabin, and even the inside of Time magazine. He claimed that his ability to design things for humans came from his work in the theater.

At age seventeen he designed sets for a Broadway theater. Theater design, he said, requires a person to visualize and create a mood, yet be practical about placing entrances and exits, and to be considerate of the actors who work in the settings.

After designing 260 sets, he quit the theater and opened an office in New York. With only a card table and folding chairs for furniture, he proclaimed himself an industrial designer. At first, he got only small design jobs - shaving-brush handles, perfume bottles, belt buckles, and neckties. But he used these jobs to refine his approach to designing things for people.

His secret, he claimed, were Joe and Josephine, who had places of honor on the walls of his office. They were austere line drawings of a man and woman, covered with the average measurements of every aspect of a human being: The size of an arm, a finger, or a leg.

He used this information about Joe and Josephine to figure out what a typical person could easily do. For example, he learned the average distance a person can reach without strain, that handles under half an inch in diameter are likely to cut into the hand under heavy loading, and that handles more than one and one quarter inches in diameter feel fat and give a feeling of insecurity. So, when Bell Lab approached him about designing the phone, he used the measurements of 2000 faces to determine the average spacing between mouth and ear.

There is a place in your home where you're very likely to see his work. On your wall is probably a round, Honeywell thermostat. If so, reach up and appreciate how well its dial fits your hand. That'll be your tribute to Henry Dreyfuss, who, more than any other person, changed the way we feel our world.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises