GM's Design Studios 1927 to 1950

GM’s Design Studios – The “Early” Years: 1927 to 1950


Argonaut Building, 1930s

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A visitor today to any one of GM’s eleven global design studios would find it hard to imagine what Mr. Earl’s first studio was like when he arrived at GM in 1927 … in fact, it wasn’t a studio at all. Alfred P. Sloan and Lawrence Fisher hired Harley Earl away from his custom-build automobile business in Hollywood, California to create a design organization for GM. Earl’s “Art and Colour” department, as it was known back then, was an industry first.

1930 Cadillac Model in 1929 office-studio
Typical 1930 GM designer workstations

Mr. Sloan gave Earl his support, an office on the 10th floor of the GM Building and little else. He was counting on Earl to build his team and the design process. There was no studio space in the GM Building, so Earl and his team worked in a converted office area as you can see in these images of his early design team.

Rolling, full-size layout boards were used as studio dividers

Art and Colour didn’t have separate studios for each division. Their space was divided into work areas by large rolling black boards. Distinct divisional studios would not be a reality until 1937 when Earl’s team moved across the street into the newly built 11-story Argonaut Building.

1933 Aero-Dynamic coupe in Clay Modeling Room

Another difference from today, clay models were not produced in the studios, at least not until much later. Separate clay model rooms were located as close as possible to the designers, but not yet fully integrated into the design process. The 1933 World’s Fair showcased clay modeling as carried out in a typical clay model room. Note the poor lighting and very low ceiling.

Styling review on roof

Earl also needed an outdoor area where he and his designers could evaluate their proposed designs alongside competitive vehicles. Since there was no such open space around the GM building in downtown Detroit, Earl commandeered the roof. The GM (and later the Argonaut building) roofs would become the Styling “Viewing Areas” until Earl and his team moved to the GM Technical Center in 1955. As you can see from the image showing the 1932 Chevrolet Roadster on the roof, the designers had a great view of the city each time they took a model up for evaluation.

When the Art and Colour department grew to more than 50 people, they moved to a larger space on the 3rd floor of the GM Building. While the new space allowed the staff to spread out, it could hardly be considered an ideal studio layout. In 1934, the importance of the work accomplished by Earl’s team was recognized by the Corporation with a new name, the Styling Section. In addition to the new designation, Harley Earl was allowed to plan a professional studio space within the soon to be built Argonaut Building. Located directly behind the GM Building, the Argo Building provided Earl’s teams with much larger quarters ….and the more professional, functional space that they desperately needed.

Typical Argo Building studio with Mr. Earl seated (back to camera)

The Styling Section would call the Argo Building studios their home for 18 years. The new studios allowed the designers to be in the same room with the clay models, there was improved lighting, ventilation, and display areas for the designers to present their ideas. There were individual studios for each car division and an advanced design studio.

One of the most useful areas was the huge high-ceiling auditorium on the top floor. The auditorium was used for presentations, design reviews and meetings related to Styling. The designers no longer had to make the trip to the roof for a design review.

Argo Building Auditorium design review

In the next part of the story of GM’s design studios, we will look at the planning and development of the building and studios at the Technical Center.

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