Anne Swainson (1900-1955)
Swedish-born Anne Swainson was one of the major American design pioneers who helped America become a giant of industry and manufacturing before and after World War II. She was educated in Fine and Applied Arts at Columbia University in New York after arriving from her native Sweden, and later she taught Textile and Applied Design at the University of California at Berkeley.
Swainson was recruited in 1931, to open Montgomery Ward’s Bureau of Design. “The conception of the Bureau of Design was new and her invention; it was a service to buyers in evaluating the quality and appearance of products that Montgomery Ward ordered from thousands of outside suppliers.”(1) In addition to designing everything from refrigerators to welding equipment, the designers in the Bureau recreated Ward’s catalog to use photography, and designed packaging systems for Ward’s many product lines.
“She revolutionized the mail order cataloging industry...commanded an army of architects and industrial designers that turned out superb products under the Montgomery Ward label and she educated and launched the careers of many important industrial designers.(2)
“She was the first woman executive at Montgomery Ward” where “she must have had enormous, self confident presence, not to mention good taste and a real eye for how to successfully wed ‘Good Design’ with ‘better manufacturing.”(3)
“The success of the Bureau,” observed Jane Thompson in her Industrial Design magazine article of May, 1956, “depended ultimately on Anne Swainson’s winning the buyer’s conﬁdence, persuading them of the value of better design on the market, and in the management of a business like Wards.”(4)
“The effectiveness of Ms. Swainson’s redesigned catalogue, together with the reorganization plan of the retail and mail order operations by Sewell Avery (1874 - 1955) however can attribute to Montgomery Ward’s quick economic rebound during the Depression. In 1931 and 1932 the company lost a total of more than $14 million . . . By 1933, with the reissue of the modernized catalogue, proﬁts leaped to over $2 million. . . By 1939, ... sales...advanced toward the half billion dollar mark.”(5)
The Bureau of Design was one of the first examples of how an in-house design department successfully impacted the assets of a large corporation. Thus, design as corporate strategic advantage, was born in the early 1930’s.
In the context of the economy of the 1930’s, the accomplishments of the Bureau of Design are extraordinary. What could be more difficult than turning a major corporation around during the Great Depression?
(1) Anne Swainson Master Designer, Montgomery Wards’s Bureau of Design 1931-1955, 1994 published in 1994 by The Chicago Athenaeum, curated by Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, ISBN: 0-935119-06-X.