Industrial Designers Transform Tractor Industry

Birth of the industrial designer signals the rise of tractor design.

| January 2017

Most all tractor aficionados, especially those leaning toward the John Deere line, have heard the story (most likely fiction) of a Deere & Co. engineer showing up unannounced in the New York offices of industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. The engineer was said to have been wearing a fur coat and a straw hat.

The year was 1937; his mission was to engage Dreyfuss’ services in applying styling techniques to Deere’s Model A and B tractors. According to urban legend, the engineer’s attire so impressed the noted designer with the state of sophistication in the Midwest that Dreyfuss left for Waterloo with the Deere engineer that same day.

Whether the story is true or not, in the mid-1930s a design revolution was taking place, perhaps spurred by renewed optimism over an improving economy. Manufacturers had begun to recognize that styling and product differentiation had a positive effect on sales. Pleasing aesthetic proportions were in vogue in everything from trucks to telephones, railroad locomotives to electric switch boxes.

Up until the 1930s, tractors were considered strictly utilitarian; appearance was almost superfluous. Most cars in the early part of the century looked alike: boxy with clam fenders, 4-cylinder engines and exposed radiators. By the mid-1930s, though, styling became individualistic. Six, 8-, 12- and even 16-cylinder engines replaced 4-cylinder engines, and radiators were hidden behind elaborate grilles.

Oliver Farm Equipment Co. caught the mood of the automobile industry and incorporated a grille in the design of its 1935 Model 70. Soon other tractor makers, including Deere, were looking into the benefits of styling. Some even sought the help of a new breed of consultant emerging at that time: the industrial designer.

Creating the science of design

From the industrial designer’s perspective, markets did not simply exist: They had to be created. Potential buyers’ attitudes had to be shaped. Elaborate advertising campaigns greased the rails, persuading buyers that a stylish new product would meet their needs.