Shortcake in Dhaka: Raymond Loewy and Culinary Metaphors in Design

This post reports on a 2012 lecture delivered at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh about “Strawberry Shortcake and Raymond Loewy’s Sears Cold Spot Super Six Refrigerator.” The invitation, content and response to the lecture practice a form of global design history that mediates cultural criteria of taste. In order to articulate design possibilities inherent in the public implications of personal preferences, the lecture hoped to generate a conversation about the relevance of design history for design practice in Bangladesh.

Method and Thesis

The lecture arose out of a larger book project that considers the role of metaphorical logic in Raymond Loewy’s 1951 autobiography, Never Leave Well Enough Alone.[1] The project offered a celebratory and cautionary reading of the autobiography and investigates the implications of his MAYA principle of palatable design for 20th Century American democracy. Using culinary references as metaphors of consumption and taste, the interpretation charts the evolution and decline of Raymond Loewy as a personification of industrial design’s superficial and substantive contributions to the American dream. In light of the eventual bankruptcy of Loewy International in 1976, his 1951 autobiography becomes a poignant self-aware and self-fulfilling statement of loss. The aim of the larger project was threefold:

  1. Offer exegetical analysis of Never Leave Well Enough Alone as an object of design mediated by Loewy’s construction of metaphors.
  2. Through a deconstructive reading of the text chart the demise of Loewy International as an inevitable culmination of Loewy’s MAYA principle.
  3. Place Loewy through his writing within a larger discussion about the material manifestation of democracy in 20th Century America.

The metaphorical, deconstructive and democratic reading of Loewy’s autobiography hoped to shed new light on American modern design and expose the public implications of our personal preferences as consumers and producers. Furthermore, the project suggested that in the post-industrial age of DIY, customization, 3D printing and user participation, articulations of emotive personal experiences and rationally deliberated public choice characterizes the democratic agency of design.

The primary goal of the class session in Dhaka was to test the pedagogical application of this metaphorical, deconstructive and democratic design history.  Specifically, I wanted to encourage design students to analyze the public and professional implications of their personal preferences as exemplified by Raymond Loewy’s autobiography. A convergence of the autobiographical, political and professional, characterizes Loewy’s successful period of production between 1930s and 1960s. Correspondingly disconnect evident in incomplete metaphors like “Swiss cheese and rye” accompany the decline of his practice. Learning from Loewy’s lesson, can designers translate their individual consumption habits into shared consumption? If we apply a metaphorical perspective to design inspiration, what directions might emerge?

Anatomy of the Class Session

Between two options on lecture topics, the BRAC University Dean of Architecture chose the option that discussed the design implications of American industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s preference for strawberry shortcake as a model for American identity and consumption habits. The other option was a lecture on William Morris and the critical relevance of the Arts and Crafts movement for Bangladesh that could re-contextualize issues of sustainability, craft, labor, materials, subjective expression and mechanical production. The dean’s choice of topic showed a preference for present relevance of disciplinary practice over historical re-interpretation. As such, the class session was motivated by an imperative to make design history directly relevant to studio practice rather than through a discussion about historical reception. The analysis of metaphors as design inspiration hoped to expose designer motivations instead of user interpretations.

I began the session by asking each student to write down a favorite food or dish (as it was the month of Ramadan, I subsequently apologized profusely for asking them to think about food at a time when many would be fasting). Not knowing the reason for writing down such a personal preference certainly left students trained towards rational responses somewhat confused. Despite their initial reluctance many did scribble down their preference.

Next, I spoke about French immigrant industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s chapter on “American Cooking” in his autobiography 1951 Never Leave Well Enough Alone. I made the argument that Loewy’s celebration of burgers and strawberry shortcake was consistent with his design aesthetic. I explained that:

Loewy invited a French friend of his for dinner in order to defend the reputation of American food. His menu consisted of cream of clams, fried chicken, corn fritters, braised endive, romaine salad and ended with strawberry shortcake.  He wrote, 

“The strawberry short cake was a dream. The old-fashioned biscuit was covered with a generous amount of ripe strawberries at the last minute to avoid sogginess. The fruit had been crushed ever so slightly and allowed to remain for an hour or so in a light syrup to which it transferred its flavor and its adorable pinkness. A restrained amount of fluffy whipped cream was placed on top. An important point: the cake as oven warmed, but the strawberries and whipped cream were cool. The contrast is pleasing.” [2]

The philosophy of simple and few ingredients, timely preparation, restrained cream and contrasting textures, I suggested, extended into his design. His Cold Spot Super Six can be interpreted to follow the same principle of the cake: Few parts, as in the few moving parts, restrained garnish as in the 3 vertical bands, contrast in texture, unity of exterior and compartments of interior etc. This retention of details, the haunting of the hausfrou aesthetic, supports his MAYA principle that his book advocates. The MAYA principle, an acronym, was a call to design with the MOST ADVANCED YET ACCEPTABLE technology. The three vertical stripes were the garnishes that made the technology of the refrigerator acceptable or palatable to American aesthetic taste.

This lesson of acceptability Loewy learned from the American housewives he criticized as being responsible for bland aesthetic and food. It was the housewives, who were the primary customers and consumers of his domestic products. He sought aesthetic balance between functionality and decorative that would make his Cold Spot Super Six so very popular (sales rose over 300%). By changing the ratio between the functional and the decorative, Loewy found the sweet spot of mid century modern American taste.

I summarized Loewy’s appreciation of strawberry shortcake in relation to his disdain for mayonnaise, I compared it to Adolf Loos’ celebration of roast beef, and finally, I connected Loewy’s ornament to function ratio evident in his refrigerator to the ratio of whip cream to shortcake.  My reading of Loewy’s culinary descriptions as metaphors for design connected the form of his refrigerator with the form of his dessert. Having charted the narrative, the relevance and the implication of Raymond Loewy’s preference for strawberry shortcake, I then asked the students to look at the food preference they wrote down. How would they translate their preference into a design aesthetic, as Loewy had?

Emergent Metaphors

The discussion that the story prompted is evidence of the critical and creative capacity of design history interpreted through cultural metaphors. In particular, the use of culinary metaphors permitted an analysis of rational relationships without privileging a particular system. For example, instead of conceptually arguing the merits of Loewy’s MAYA principle, we were able to discuss his logic of essential and ornamental dynamics.  I would like to highlight three questions that generated most dialogue related to attempts to translate cultural and culinary taste into visual taste.

1. Pizza and the Problem of Definition

When asked to share their food preferences, one student said that pizza was his favorite food. I should confess that I was expecting local dishes to be local favorites and that the preference for pizza surprised me. The student’s choice made me aware of my own simplistic cultural expectations. We asked, how would a preference for pizza translate into a local aesthetic? In trying to articulate the essential ingredients and structure of a pizza, the discussion quickly became about definitions of pizza. We identified the essential ingredients as dough, sauce and cheese. The ratio of these ingredients would determine a taste for the ornamental or the functional.  Toppings, beyond the three essential ingredients would be considered ornamental, even if meat.  We arrived at an aesthetic principle, whereby the essential and the ornamental were articulated through applied toppings over the basic ingredients of cheese, dough and sauce. This is when the logic of cheese, dough and sauce, was questioned. What if, what is understood as ‘pizza’ in Bangladesh is not consistent with what is understood as ‘pizza’ elsewhere? For example, many street vendors sell small flat dough rounds with a bit of sauce and meat, with little or no cheese, as pizza. Would that become the local articulation of a Western recipe? For people unaware of ‘Pizza Hut’ or American pizza, that would be the standard. What is the standard structure of pizza? Who decides? When does the definition of pizza fail?  Ironically, the minimal cheese version of pizza in Bangladesh, I suggested may be closer to the traditional Italian pizza. This comment raised another layer of complexity related to cultural translations of culinary recipes and by extension aesthetic criteria. We had started by talking about the proportion of essential and inessential, functional and ornamental, as a way to structure taste, yet the discussion quickly turned to the global flexibility of culinary definitions, and consequently aesthetic standards.  The problem of definitive aesthetic standards exposes an imperative towards an individual narrative of design. Depending on how a designer defines pizza, he or she can use it as a culinary recipe worthy of visual translation. The pizza metaphor allowed us to reconsider criteria of aesthetic relationships. How could we reimagine the Cold spot refrigerator through the logic of pizza, instead of strawberry shortcake? Would we allow more customizable ornamentation?

We also talked about how Loewy’s preference for burgers carried a different implication than the student’s preference for pizza. Loewy appreciated the portability, individuality of diner burgers. A pizza, although layered, is meant for collective consumption or individual slices. An aesthetic derived from a metaphor of pizza would permit, an individual and/or a collective experience, a casual but not portable experience, and a standard form with customizable options. The discussion of pizza was a proxy discussion about aesthetic structures through experiences of taste rather than stylistic conceptualizations.

2. Chicken Curry and the problem of a western meat and gravy dynamic

We also considered a cultural problem with Loewy’s identification of meat with the essential. In a Bengali context where spices determine the character of a dish, the significance of the protein content diminishes. In an attempt to apply Loewy’s logic to chicken curry our discussion faltered. Related to the question of definition, we asked, what makes a curry, the choice of protein, the method or the spices? The group agreed that the combination of spices determine the character of a curry. However without the meat, lentils or vegetables the spices would have no substance to adhere. The structure of curry seems to resist analysis into distinct components. The western criteria of layering fails when the ingredients are so inextricably codetermined that ascribing value as essential and inessential becomes impossible. There is no hierarchy of ingredients. How would such taste visually translate? How would we visually design without hierarchy but with coherent complexity? What makes a chicken curry cohesive? We considered not only the significance of multiplicity but also the increased role of process and layering of tastes. What would be a way to construct a layered and complex visual experience? Here Loewy’s promotion of simplicity through the metaphor of the strawberry shortcake failed to resonate.

3. Cardamom and the problem of qualified consumption

A third issue addressed during our discussion, concerned spices used for flavoring but not meant for consumption. For example, cardamom, tastes horrible, yet is deemed necessary for an enhanced smell.  Just as cinnamon bark or bay leaves are used extensively with the assumption that the diner will consciously not ingest these spices. How do we understand these intentional production inclusions and exclusions in consumption? This issue related to taste and use depends on local culinary convention. What may be equivalent visual conventions? A basic understanding of the use of spices is needed in order for the consumer to determine which spices are meant for direct consumption. How do we understand and design for process residue? How do we resolve the paradox of spices essential for taste but not consumption? In the Loewy logic of essential and ornamental, what would cardamom be defined as? The problem of cardamom returns us to the limits of the Loewy logic whereby design distinctions between the essential and the ornamental are culturally and locally determined.

Conclusion: Towards A Metaphorical History of Design?

These problems of interpretation, definition and application allow us to rethink design as a constructed dynamic between the practical and the symbolic, the essential and the superficial. It allowed for a shared discussion about design history and philosophy by proxy through a discussion about our personal experiences of food. My primary teaching intent was to expose the creative potential of personal narrative in design disciplines. I invoked Loewy’s autobiographical moment as a way to reinforce the professional implications of personal preferences. In doing so, I hoped students would find design potential inherent in their personal passions and choices, beyond culinary examples.

About teaching design history in Bangladesh, the lecture reminded me that local design identity is complex and not simply a matter of Western engagement or non-engagement. The students as cosmopolitan citizens of the world live multi-cultural lives where local and global influences are indistinguishable.[3] They are less interested in a quest for local identity and more interested in a search for global relevance. I suspected that if I present design principles instead of forms then possible options for applications would increase.  For example by introducing the MAYA principle in association with Loewy’s personal preferences and aesthetic criteria, instead of simply introducing Loewy and his streamline look of the Coldspot Super Six, we open interpretative possibilities beyond identifying a historical moment of stylistic evolution.

The class discussion helped me interpret my own research from an oblique and peripheral perspective. Reading Loewy in Dhaka highlighted his philosophy as premised on cultural assumptions that require critique for inspiration and qualified application. His designs were most successful when his metaphors resonated with his target audience in America. He identified his own style as contemporary American, not modern, not streamlined. He deliberately tried to merge American tradition with mechanical simplicity. As a Frenchman, cultural interpretation was a necessary condition for the development of his profession in the U.S. and the definition of his MAYA principle. Ironically, the success and failure of his design firm rested on his interpretative capacity to determine cultural acceptability.

About the use of metaphorical interpretation as a design method, I agree with John Maeda’s formulation that,

Metaphors are useful platforms for transferring a large body of existing knowledge from one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge. But metaphors are only deeply engaging if they surprise along some unexpected, positive dimension……A metaphor used as a learning shortcut for a complex design is most effective when its execution is both relevant and delightfully unexpected.[4]

Metaphors allow us to reinterpret the familiar through a change in perspective. Serving strawberry shortcake in Dhaka was an unexpected pedagogical way to introduce Raymond Loewy’s design inspiration as a provocation for students to rethink their own design motivations outside the studio. Design history can be a tool for practice only if it can lead designers back to the studio, obliquely, by orientation outside the studio. The metaphorical approach allowed us to have a design conversation about seemingly “undesigned” experiences of taste and sensation.

Similarly, In Metaphors We Live By, authors Lakoff and Johnson, argue that metaphors are a coherence of experienced connections that challenge a conceptual correspondence theory of reality.[5] The advantage of a metaphorical interpretation is at least twofold: first, it permits connections of otherwise unrelated experiences and second, metaphors allow us to focus on lived experience over conceptual abstraction through partial structuring. Lakoff and Johnson, distinguish metaphorical structuring (example: argument is war) from conceptual subcategorization (example: an argument is a conversation) and explain that metaphors allow orientation, variation, direction, emotion, and cultural mediation. Most significantly, for design, metaphorical structuring by designers allows comparisons and translations of experiences rather than concepts. According to Lakoff and Johnson,

From the experientialist perspective, metaphor is a matter of imaginative rationality. It permits an understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another, creating coherence by virtue of imposing gestalts that are structured by natural dimensions of experience. New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and therefore, new realities.[6]

Successful new metaphors are able to resonate with others by structurally re-interpreting shared imagination and experiences. For example, Raymond Loewy’s example of burgers as a portable and layered bite of democracy was a relatable way to describe modern American living without formality.  By appealing to culinary metaphors of consumption, a designer can construct systems of coherence that shares personal experience. From Raymond Loewy we learn that the social resonance of these translated lived experiences determines, design success. We also learn the commercial and cultural limits of shared object focused experience. Particularly, as we shift towards the design of integrated experiences over the design of distinct products, the metaphor of dining experience offers clues toward constructing a narrative of tastes that encompass multi-senses and multi-cultures.  Shortcake in Dhaka facilitated a discussion about cross-cultural cooking metaphors as relevant to design practice. Furthermore, the discussion offered a post-colonial moment of reversal in perspective that challenged conventional interpretations of the MAYA principle.[7] The session practiced a metaphorical translation of experience into design motivation and made design history a tool for practice in the following ways:

First, the metaphorical interpretation framed a trans-cultural discussion about design inspiration. It allowed for a conversation about a shared experience of eating to be qualified by subjective experiences of taste. The response to the question, how could your favorite food motivate your design aimed to prompt considerations of identity, everyday practice, intentionality that shows everyday experience outside the studio as the possibility of conceptual projections in the studio.

Second, the discussion moved between gastronomic taste and visual taste and encouraged students to imagine multi-sensory experiences of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. This way design inspiration can be invoked from experiences beyond visual response.

Third, the metaphorical interpretation of Loewy’s autobiography presented living experience as a condition of design inspiration. Indeed, the students live a global condition of eating pizza and curry in Dhaka. Instead of conceptualizing design and globalization, students recognize their everyday lives as a global encounters, at the dinner table, in the streets and in the studio.

The metaphorical reading enhanced both the pedagogical and critical potential of design history. This may be a small but significant step towards articulating a multi-cultural conversation centered on diversity of experience and unity of objective materiality. It relates to current efforts towards global design history that overcomes center-periphery dynamics, a Western meta-narrative and an academic dominance of the English language. The Loewy metaphor of strawberry shortcake exposed continuities of personal and professional activities, experience and concept, consumption and production. In turn, the qualified metaphorical resonance of strawberry shortcake in Dhaka, as a discussion about the dynamics between fundamental and ornamental features, actively demonstrated cultural constructions of design connections.

In short, multi-cultural, multi-sensory and multi-dimensional experiences exposed by metaphorical interpretations of design history empower designers to construct their own “new realities.”


[1] Raymond Loewy, Never Leave Well Enough Alone. 1951. Baltimore: John Hopkins University.

[2] Raymond Loewy, Never Leave Well Enough Alone. 1951. Baltimore: John Hopkins University.

[3] Geeta Kapur, essay in Contemporary Art in Asia, 2011. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[4] John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity. 2006. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p. 41.

[5] Lakoff and Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Ibid, 235. Emphasis to the phrase “Imaginative rationality” is mine.

[7] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture. 1994. Oxford: Routledge.

Image and recipe for Strawberry Shortcake from:

https://www.onceuponachef.com/recipes/strawberry-shortcake.html

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