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Henry Dreyfuss’ revolutionary design work for Deere

When we think of tractor design it is usually from the engineering point of view, which is obviously of first importance, but the purchase of tractors – whether or not we like to admit it – will also depend on how they look.

For the first twenty years or so of the existence of tractors their appearance was dictated by engineers, and engineers tend to be functional fellows and so any attempts at decoration were limited to small embellishments that could rarely hide the bulk of the machinery.

Style and function combine

As the internal combustion became smaller and free from the need for great heavy flywheels and evaporative radiators, more attention could be paid to how the vehicle actually looked.

One of the first manufacturers to grasp the idea that aesthetics was an important aspect of the total package was John Deere, which engaged the services of an upcoming industrial designer by the name of Henry Dreyfuss.

John Deere Dreyfuss design
The John Deere 830 was the last in the line emanating from the original A series, the radiator fins were now vertical but were to disappear altogether with the second-generation machines, also designed by Dreyfuss associates

Rather surprisingly, it was not the top brass in the Deere corporate structure who proposed the idea, but the engineers themselves, and one was despatched to talk to Dreyfuss on a chilly autumn day.

It is said that Dreyfuss was so impressed by the idea of designing tractors that he caught a train that very evening to Waterloo to meet with the design team and get the ball rolling.

Industrial design comes of age

Henry Dreyfuss was no lightweight in the emerging field of industrial design, nor was he alone in taking the rounded principles of art to the hard-edged business of making machines.

New generation tractor ttrain
Launched in 1960, the New Generation tractors broke away from the traditional horizontal twin format. Henry Dreyfuss paid particular attention to the ergonomics

A fellow designer by the name of Raymond Loewy had been active in New York at the same time, and was later engaged by the International Harvester Company, most probably in response to John Deere’s pioneering move.

Yet it was Dreyfuss who really broke the mould of staid functionality and brought style to a tractor’s appearance.

Bringing art deco to the field

His efforts were revealed to the company in 1937 with the initial model worked on being the Model B, now regarded as a watershed in tractor design. However, it was the Model A that was first released as a Dreyfuss-styled tractor the following year

In the same year the Model L was given a similar makeover, giving it a most striking appearance despite its diminutive size.

Henry Dreyfuss tractor studio
Henry Dreyfuss trained originally as a theatrical set designer. Image: Wikipedia

The association between the two companies continued until the mid-1990s when BMW Designworks started working for John Deere construction. The studio, which is part of the BMW car company, was finally appointed John Deere’s overall design partner in 2012.

Henry Dreyfuss himself went on to put ergonomics firmly on the map with his seminal work, The Measure of Man, appearing in 1960. Tragically, he and his wife committed suicide in 1972; she was terminally ill at the time.

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