Creating a Community
The years from 1938 until Alexander Kostellow’s death in 1954 were a time of extraordinary cohesiveness in Pratt’s Foundation program and its growing industrial design department. Reed and Kostellow presided over a true intellectual and artistic community--people of like minds working together toward a common goal. Their apartment in Forest Hills, Queens was a gathering place for teachers and students. Colleagues often joined them for weekends at their house near the western New Jersey/Pennsylvania border, where Alexander enjoyed cooking for their guests. The shared intellectual commitment and cooperative teaching practice that bound the community together provided a remarkable learning experience.
“The secret was in the synergy - the simultaneity,” explains Ron Beckman. “You took a battery of courses in two and three-dimensional design and the work in one class reinforced what you were doing in other classes. In 2D design you began drawing simple things in line while in 3D Rowena would have you working in wire--it was the same line in three dimensions. In nature study you might go to the Museum of Natural History and sketch animals on paper. Then in 3D you’d make three-dimensional sketches of animals and the 2D teacher would have you make drawings of the abstract equivalent of animals in line. Meanwhile Alexander was giving color lectures to lay the theoretical foundation and Dean Boudreau was lecturing on art history and the use of color in the art of Giotto and Rembrandt. The synchronized, simultaneous, reinforced learning experience was the secret. Years later synergistics got into the lexicon of science. But Alexander Kostellow recognized early on that experience was holistic, not episodic.”
The industrial design department flourished and continued to train designers throughout the Second World War. In fact, Kostellow set up special programs to prepare design students to aid in the war effort. Joseph Parriott, who graduated in l942 and returned to teach and head the Department of Industrial Design in l966, recalls the war years. “Kostellow understood that the kind of thinking ID students were doing at Pratt was essential to certain parts of the service. In 1940, as the war heated up, he set up a fantastic program in camouflage for those of us carrying draft cards. I was designing from the minute I went into the Corps of Engineers. In Paris I met up with Ivan Rigby and Robert Kolli who were working on the models for the Normandy landing and the Rhine River crossing. We all took our design training right through the war.”
In the decade between 1945 and l955 Pratt Industrial Design got a terrific boost of energy from World War II and Korean War veterans returning to school on the G.I Bill. These older, highly ambitious students were smart, focused, and had life experience. Some of them had families living in temporary barracks on the library lawn. They attacked their schoolwork with no-nonsense energy and an eye on the prize. Their mere presence could be tough for other students, many of them teenage kids just out of high school. Designer and publisher James Fulton recalls the late 40’s. “Wide-eyed and bushy tailed on the first day of school, I walked into a design class and a 28-year old Captain out of the Air Corps sat down next to me. It was daunting. These guys had a tremendous reservoir of talent.”
By l953 the Pratt program in Industrial Design had gone from a three-year certificate course of study to a four-year degree program. Kostellow was head of the department and he added courses in humanities, the “technics of civilization” and social and economic studies. He believed that the best designer was a well read, culturally and historically sophisticated person prepared to bring an informed perspective to the work.
He also believed that the industrial designer had to be a realist. He did not want to train designers “who tend to look over the market place rather than belong to it,” and he believed industry should be a participating factor.
He collaborated with a number of leading companies in the U.S. to establish and equip Pratt’s Experimental Design Laboratory and work on mutual projects. Participating companies included producers of basic materials such as Monsanto Chemicals (Plastics Division) and Reynolds Metals; large distributors such as Sears and Roebuck and Shell Oil; and manufacturers such as the Elgin National Watch Company, Gorham Silver, and E.A. Electrical Laboratories. Member companies had workroom-offices on campus and sent staff designers on a rotating basis to advise on student projects and help with independent research.
At mid-century, Pratt was one of the premier design schools in the world. Its graduating students were being snapped up by industry as well as starting firms of their own. Others were going on to found and teach in industrial design departments across the country and around the globe. Rowena and Alexander were the center of the circle.
“They were very different, but complementary,” says William Katavolos, Professor of Architecture at Pratt who studied with Kostellow and, in the l960s, taught with Rowena in the Industrial Design department. “When Rowena and Alexander were teaching side by side I don’t think there was another school in the country that could equal it. If you studied with them both you got a broad education. His lectures were extraordinary, never a boring moment. You’d get into color reversals and he’d drag in Newton. Rowena couldn’t lecture like that, but I never saw Alexander give a crit like Rowena could. There was romantic conflict. It was Arthurian.”
“I think there was a balance between them, between the aesthetic and the functional, similar to the balance between Ray and Charles Eames,” Craig Vogel says. “I think Alexander owned the mind of it--the logical system--but Rowena owned the soul.”
In the summer of l954 Reed and Kostellow went to Detroit to work on the design of General Motors Frigidaire “Kitchen of the Future.” While in Detroit, Kostellow suffered a heart attack and died. He was 58 years old.