By John Heskett
He virtually invented the consumer-goods industry in America. His products shaped the domestic landscape of our childhoods: he designed everything from meatball makers to hair clippers, electric mixers to garden sprinklers, can openers to baby-bottle warmers. In the estimation of IDEO President David Kelley, he was "the unsung hero of American design." But chances are you've never heard of him.
Missing from all the standard histories of design and absent from the design and business periodicals of his day, Ivar Jepson was the source of a remarkable stream of products that transformed Sunbeam from a manufacturer of sheep shears into one of the country's major producers of household appliances.
Jepson's undeserved lapse into obscurity is largely due to the lack of information about his work: the meticulous records he kept of every project, as well as the models he made, were later jettisoned by Sunbeam, simply loaded into dumpsters and trashed, and company representatives today seem to have little awareness of his achievements or significance. When he retired in 1963, his colleagues bound together the patent documents taken out in his name, and those four substantial volumes contain an astonishing range of devices and design concepts. But apart from these dossiers, all that remains are the memories of family and former colleagues, and a few documentary fragments.
So who was this man, and how did he come to play such a pivotal role?
The only son of five children, Jepson was born on November 2, 1903, and grew up on the family farm at Kristianstad in southern Sweden. Instead of inheriting the farm, as his father had always intended, he went to Heslehom Technical High School to study engineering, supported by his grandmother's egg money (she was in charge of the farm's poultry).
A single cardboard-covered exercise book survives from Jepson's school days, yet even this contains the major themes of his future career: among many pages of calculus formulae, annotated in Swedish, are rough sketches for motor bicycles, electric drills, engine parts and a vacuum cleaner. jumbled outlines with no detail, they nevertheless exhibit an insatiable curiosity about forms and the way things work. The address of the Swedish Patent Bureau in Malmö is jotted on the inside back cover.
After a year's graduate work at the University of Berlin at Charlottenberg (at a time when Berlin was the center of European cultural life), and mindful of the economic depression in Sweden, Jepson decided to leave for America. En route to a promised job in North Dakota, he apparently stopped off in Chicago and never went any further west. Chicago's thriving Swedish community and, more importantly, a Swedish Engineers' Club on the city' s North Side, provided welcome and anchorage.
By November 1925, he was employed as a draftsman with the Chicago Flexible Shaft Company, which operated on the west side of the city. When Jepson joined it, Chicago Flexible Shaft was renowned for sheep-shearing and horse-trimming machines. Diversification into home appliances had started in 1910 with electric irons under the "Sunbeam" brand name, and other items followed --toasters, electric clocks, coffee percolators -- though they remained secondary lines.
But with Jepson's arrival, everything changed. From around 1930, Chicago Flexible Shaft began to be transformed by an astonishing flow of patents in his name, which translated into best-selling products. Even in the depth of the Depression, in 1932, the company turned a profit, and by 1946 the Sunbeam brand was so well-known that Chicago Flexible Shaft was officially re-named the Sunbeam Corporation. In 1948, when sales of electric irons dropped 48 percent nationwide, sales of the Sunbeam Ironmaster continued to increase; the following year, five of its appliances were still on allocation to dealers in an overall declining market, while a sixth, the Shavemaster electric razor, was selling at record levels. Chief engineer from 1932, and vice president of Research and Development from 1956 until his retirement in 1963, Jepson's work for Sunbeam offers an outstanding example of consistent design-led market performance.
The first product to which Jepson's name can clearly be attached was a Health Lamp, for which a patent application was jointly made with Robert C. Hanson in 1929. The real turning point, however, was the Sunbeam Mixmaster of 1930. Subsequently refined and with added functions, this electric mixer set new standards in kitchen appliances and was a major source of company profits throughout the decade. Other appliances such as irons, can openers, toasters, fans, clocks and electric scissors followed, and in 1939, Jepson came up with another fast-selling product: a waffle iron that produced twice the number of waffles of any competing brand.
In I935, work began on what was to become the Shavemaster range of electric razors -- a product line, appearing in 1937, that was a natural development of the company's original expertise in shearing technology. An internal document summarizing the development of the first range of shavers (prepared by Jepson for patent purposes) indicates his characteristic persistence and painstaking effort over two years to get the product right. To him, Sunbeam's slogan, "The Best Electric Appliances Made," was no mere advertising boast. It had to be a self-evident fact in the quality of every product: the company only made one model in any category.
"He was always tinkering," recalls his daughter, Brit Jepson d'Arbeloff, herself a trained engineer and now living in Boston. "Everything was an idea. As long as you could plug it in and move its parts, it was something he was interested in. Basically he was an inventor. He had very rigid ideas about what people should do and what they shouldn't do. He had a kind of mad genius attitude."
When there was nothing to plug in, Jepson thought about it, and tried to devise something to make life easier. "We had a motor boat our summer place," says d'Arbeloff, "and it was difficult to get it in and out of the water, so he developed a hoist that he patented, with inner gears to help it move up and down."
The Jepsons were guinea pigs for their father's new projects, sometimes with hair-raising side effects. "It could be as scary as hell," d'Arbeloff remembers. "You would get all these incredible shocks. I grew up with things like electric blankets that gave you a buzz if you sat on them. You would turn something in the frypan and get a little buzz. There was an electric hair straightener: very exciting," she says, dubious even now. "No one in our family would get near that one!" She also recalls her father's idea for an electric shaver that could be operated in the shower, using water to cut the beard bristles.
"I will never forget one time my mom went into a department store, into the home appliance section, and realized that all these things came in a variety of colors. She almost died. She would say, 'You mean you can get them in pink?'"
Occasionally Jepson's ideas verged on the bizarre: a loose-leaf sheet dated November 28, 1932 outlines an electric alarm clock which, according to Jepson's handwritten note, "actually drags the person out of bed." A pad was to be connected to the clock, and placed under a bedpost; the clock locked during the alarm period, so the sleeper would be required to get out of bed in order to break the circuit and switch off the alarm. During his retirement, Jepson conceived of a pogo stick, equipped with motor and compressor, capable of bouncing over difficult terrain. "The grandchildren wanted toys," recalls his daughter, "and the next thing you knew he was working on some kind of a pogo stick that could go through swamps, with a big rubber ball on the bottom. You just had to laugh. Can you imagine being picked out of the swamp at the height of the jump?"
But it would be a great mistake to depict Jepson as a dotty inventor. In a company newsletter of 1958 -- the only known record of his own views of his work -- Jepson distinguished between the practical and the "wilder" aspects of product innovation. "Because of the quantity of work that moves through our department, we don't have much time to work on abstract ideas, but must carefully screen them and select those that seem to be the most practical and then give these our utmost attention. In connection with this, it might be said that an idea is abstract or wild as long as it does not work, and is practical after it has been made to work."
Jepson's ideas came from constant observation and conversation, followed by concentrated thought, using mathematics as the tool for establishing feasibility. "He laid something out first and would analyze it," says d'Arbeloff, "then he would build it and tweak it." This contemplative quality was one of Jepson's distinguishing traits: "He was the sort of person with whom you would have a conversation and he wouldn't answer you for maybe a day. Or we would drive up to our summer place in Wisconsin and he was silent the whole way because he was sort of inner-creating."
Company memos relating to Jepson's requests for information on materials and processes also reveal his immense curiosity and sense of detail. One such memo (dated June 16, 1960), from a staff engineer Ludvik Koci, begins "You ask about the possibility of using Flywheel Energy for Vacuum Cleaner Impeller in cordless vacuum cleaner." Another, from August of that year, concerning "Energy Storage of Nickel Cadmium Batteries," and their potential for use in appliances, may have inspired some subsequent pencil calculations for a Battery Mixer Motor. "He was constantly playing with ideas," says Bob Ernest, who was hired by Jepson as an industrial designer in 1948. "If he got into rubber, he studied rubber, saturated himself with technical information."
Evidently Jepson was no great talker, and he disdained the mainstream design network. He preferred to keep contact with his roots, and the hub of his social world remained the Swedish Engineers' Society. On returning from a trade show, a colleague remarked to Jepson, "You should get down there to see this new machine." He wasn't swayed. "I don't have to go down there to see that," came the reply. "I can sit here and think about it and know how it works."
A perfectionist, Jepson worked very long hours, usually leaving the office between seven and nine in the evening. Even then, his daughter recalls, "He came home, had dinner, sat in his chair and worked." Such single-minded dedication put a strain on anyone who couldn't match his pace: bets were laid in the office on how long his assistants would last, and people could be fired for unpunctuality. "He had very high standards for everything, and all the people around him," says Ernest. "You were there and you put in your day." His daughter adds, "It used to drive him crazy that he couldn't get any other engineers to take his job, although I think it would have been hard to get anyone to work under him."
In the early stages of Sunbeam's ventures into consumer products, Jepson seems to have done most of the design work himself. A patent for a clock case dated 1929 shows a geometrical approach to form and patterning that was subsequently echoed in a toaster of the early '30s. By the end of that decade, streamlined form was dominant in product design, so responsibility is more difficult to determine. Outside consultants were hired to style products, though it is not known exactly when this began. By 1948, however, Alphonso Ianelli and Robert D. Budlong, two Chicago consultant designers, were working regularly for Sunbeam. And later on, as the company expanded, more consultants were brought in: Jay Doblin worked on a vacuum cleaner in 1958-59, Jean Reinicke worked on clock development and Raymond Loewy was paid $50,000 for work on a new logotype.
When Jepson first began working in R&D, in 1927, the section consisted of four mechanics and one development engineer. As the projects increased in importance, the personnel grew, and by the late '30s, there were about 12 people working full time. Bob Ernest estimates the R&D staff comprised some 30 people when he joined in 1948, a figure that had more than doubled, to around 80, by the time Jepson retired.
In the 1958 company newsletter, Jepson described the functions of his department in a characteristic clear-cut manner: "At Sunbeam, Research and Development performs twin functions: a) to discover and develop new products, and b) to improve the appearance, design and function of existing products, and adapt them to ever-changing consumer needs and preferences."
His focus on customers' changing needs was illustrated by several examples, among them the lightweight Ironmaster, which "proved that HEAT, not weight, was the secret behind efficient ironing." Of the 1930 Mixmaster, Jepson asserted that "the basic need had long existed for a mixer powered by electricity that would eliminate tedious hand-mixing."
Many of his product designs were created with laborsaving, or more flexible operation, in mind. As d'Arbeloff explains of another domestic item, "He came up with the electric frying pan so you could plug it in on the counter, near where you were having a party, rather than having to be by the stove. And you could control the heat better. When the first electric stoves came out, they weren't particularly good: all you could do was char things -- you had no control on the cooking elements."
Jepson's efforts during World War II were apparently in the area of aircraft instrumentation. "He never talked about what he did except that we knew it was for the defense effort and he was given an award for his services," says d'Arbeloff. But his product designs were certainly greeted enthusiastically in the material environment of postwar America: suddenly there was increased demand for appliances that would make domestic life more manageable, and therefore attractive, for women. "After running factories and riveting things, women were being pulled back into the house in spades, to have children, run around in high-heeled shoes and sweep the floors," recalls d'Arbeloff. "Anything that would make their lives easier encouraged this nesting. To work outside of the home was a terrible thing. And after using a rivet gun, women would have few problems operating an electric kitchen appliance.
Jepson always set down new ideas in outline with explanatory notes - at the insistence of the company' s patent attorney, John MacCanna, to ensure patent protection. Bob Ernest's main task, on joining Sunbeam, was to develop such initial concepts into working drawings for the engineers. The product's exact form would be determined once engineering feasibility was established; from there it would go to the model shop. Ernest remembers an informal organization in which good personal relationships made everything work smoothly, with Jepson involved at all stages.
Around 1950, Jepson reported directly to the company president, Barney Bernard Graham, but here too the relationship was close, personal and informal. "Graham used to visit everyone as often as possible," recalls Ernest. "There was rarely a day he didn't visit the research section." Ironically, though, the company's continuing growth imposed new conditions, and Graham left the company in 1956, following a boardroom coup. Sunbeam began to change with a new emphasis on corporate hierarchy: lines of responsibility were established, stricter financial controls were introduced and a market-research section was established. Jepson was pressured to expand his department to cope with growth in other product categories such as power tools and gardening equipment.
All this change was not to Jepson's liking, however: he preferred to originate ideas, rather than to be the manager of a complex organization over which he had less control. Consumer research was beginning to drive product development, and he had little patience with that approach. "You didn't have to go and ask anyone. You could sit and think," says Ernest. "They spent thousands of dollars on market research and Jepson couldn't stand it." His daughter confirms his growing frustration with the management of the company, which could explain why he decided to retire in 1963, at the early age of 60. Two years later he died of a heart attack while out driving with his wife -- the person who served as his prototype for "the customer" in all his work. "He just keeled over," says d'Arbeloff.
Jepson didn't invent the consumer-goods industry single-handedly: even at Sunbeam there were products that predated his arrival. But his contribution was enormous, significantly expanding the concept of what was appropriate in the home. Just as Sunbeam's growth defied the economic trends of those days, so Ivar Jepson refuted the stereotype of the designer as stylist, tool of manipulative marketing techniques.
"Very few people today would have their name on how a thing looks and on how it works," comments David Kelley. Jepson achieved this double distinction through his command of technology, his passion for improvement in function and uncompromising commitment to quality. Planned obsolescence would have been anathema to him.
But the apparent rejection of Jepson's abilities and values is typical of what happened in many American companies, where the emphasis shifted from product quality to bottom-line issues of corporate management, finance and marketing. The thoughtless disposal of Jepson's legacy the cache of documents and models that he'd amassed -- is, regrettably, merely symptomatic of this larger story.
Jepson is also typical in another sense: typical of a whole generation of corporate designers whose work has generally been overlooked in favor of their more glamorous, often more publicity-conscious counterparts in design consultancies. Yet Jepson contributed as much as Loewy, Dreyfuss or Teague toward shaping his age, putting his stamp anonymously on myriad objects that create identity and meaning in our domestic landscape. The products he created were the backdrop of everyday life, defining perceptions in ways that people remember not just with nostalgia, but with genuine pleasure. "These are the icons of our childhood," says Kelley, who has done much to retrieve Jepson from the design history dumpster and ensure that his work receives proper recognition.
Ivar Jepson's achievements and subsequent obscurity speak volumes about the ground that needs to be recovered if design is to be respected in both business and society. If the models we choose for emulation reflect our values, then the legacy of the man they called "Mr. Sunbeam" should no longer be neglected by the design community of today.
The author would like to thank Victoria Matranga and Brit Jepson d 'Arbeloff for their help in researching this story.
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