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IBM Selectric Turns 50

The IBM Selectric typewriter, that splendid icon of American industrial design devised by the eminent Eliot Noyes, turns 50 today, July 31st, 2011! In addition to its stunning good looks, the portable device's significant innovation was a small spherical type head that replaced the basket of bars in previous typewriters. The Selectric jammed far less frequently making it a dream of speed and efficiency. I had a chance to talk with Noyes's daughter Derry from the vacation home Eliot designed for the family on Martha's Vineyard about the Selectric and a recent homage she was able to make to her father and his work.

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Derry Noyes is an art director for the US Postal Service, and when the chance to work on a recent set of stamps entitled Pioneers of American Industrial Design she told me, "I kinda had to put my hand up and say, 'Can I do this one?'" Collaborating with industrial designer Niels Diffrient to select the dozen objects to go on the set of stamps, and with designer Margaret Bauer of the USPS, Derry helped create set of stamps (on sale at the end of June) that any lover of iconic household objects would love.

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A selection of stamps commemorating the Pioneers of American Industrial Design.

"My thought was that I'm not interested in the people behind the objects, I'm interested in what they made," Derry said. The objects themselves made may inspire more nostalgia than awe (the Selectric, at 50, is the youngest), and though many of the products will feel familiar to fans of American design, the stamps manage to skirt the obvious icons of the 20th century. "Niels was able to tell me who had the most impact as designers, even if their names aren't recognized," Derry explained.

Another challenge she faced was, quite literally, the size of a postage stamp. "All the objects we chose had to work in nearly a one-inch square, and to work in scale." She didn't want a car on one stamp and a lamp on the next, but by concentrating on common household objects she was able to narrow the set's focus.

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Here's the Selectric stamp.

"You take daily objects for granted," Derry observed, and trying imbue the mundane with a bit of mystery was part of her aim, thus the sewing machine by Dave Chapman, the telephone from Henry Dreyfuss, and the clock by Gilbert Rohde.

As for the Selectric (she remembers seeing models of it all around her house as a girl and thinking "What's the big deal?"), "It's a really nice coincidence that this year is the 50th anniversary. I didn't plan that."

You should plan on picking up a set of stamps. And you should use them. Neither Noyes wanted their work to sit on the shelf.

 

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