Born in Auckland in 1889, Jo Sinel was one of a family of ten. His father
was from the Channel Island of Jersey and ran a stevedoring operation in
Auckland. Sinel attended the Elam School of Art and began his career in
the art department of Wilson & Horton Lithographers. There he
apprenticed as a lithographic artist at the New Zealand Herald from 1904
to 1909, studying under Harry Wallace. On a typical OE trajectory he went
to Australia (where he roughed it in the outback for several months), then
to England where he worked in Liverpool for lithographers Hudson, Scott
and Sons, Ltd. and the prestigious Carlton Studios in London, gaining
commercial experience in Europe's largest art studio. He later worked for
C. F. Higham Ltd, handling such clients as Goodrich Tyres and British
Government War Loans.
On the road
Sinel returned to New Zealand and Australia to work as a freelance
designer. In 1918, travelling as a wartime merchant seaman, he immigrated
to San Francisco. He found work in an advertising agency, but true to
peripatetic form he quit and decamped to the High Sierras where he built a
log cabin on the shore of Lake Susie with an artist friend Maurice Delmud.
He returned to San Francisco to find several job offers waiting for him.
His choice was a position creating promotional graphics at First National
Pictures in New York, the movie company with which Douglas Fairbanks and
Charlie Chaplin were associated.
Sinel as a young man in America.
of Gifford Jackson and ProDesign.
Sinel became fascinated by the automobile and, in an era before most of
America was even paved for driving, he set off on the road across the
States with advertising graphics for the company's movies painted on the
car's sides. Thus adorned, he was often photographed on arrival in towns
and a front-page feature in local newspapers. This early example of
ambient advertising was evidence of the flair for self-promotion Sinel
would demonstrate throughout his career.
Arriving finally in San Francisco he worked for several advertising
agencies, including Foster & Kleiser (alongside other prominent names
in the early history of modern design), specializing in outdoor
advertising. He also began teaching at the California College of Arts and
Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in the early 1920s - an association that would be
life-long. But soon, his wanderlust resurfaced: he was off to Montreal and
then New York again, where he began to freelance.
It was during this period that he popularized the term 'industrial
design'. In the US in 1919 he used the term in reference to drawings of
industrial objects used in ads, and in 1920 he stamped the title
'industrial designer' on his letterhead. His business card by-line read:
"Jo Sinel. Design for Industry, Products, Packages, Displays, Graphic
Arts. Sutter Street, San Francisco."
Sinel did not invent the correspondence of art and technology that
industrial design represented. But he did tag a term to a flourishing
movement in America. That movement would shape and expand in new
directions from where efforts in Britain (beginning in 18th Century with
the industrial revolution) and Germany (the Deutscher Werkbund, ended by
WWI, and the famous Bauhaus design school, closed by the Nazis) left off.
The blossoming of American industrial design in this period, unlike the
largely theory-driven Bauhaus movement, was compelled by industry.
Still freelancing and looking for work, Sinel approached "in fear
and trepidation" the highest paid art director in the US, Mylon
Perley. Perley, impressed with Sinel's portfolio, introduced him to the
Lennen Mitchell advertising agency in New York. He was employed as a
graphic artist, but was subsequently asked to also design
three-dimensional products for clients, many of them in art deco style. In
the seminal article on Sinel, designer Gifford Jackson writes, "This
was 1923, and the designs Jo did represented, I believe, the first steps
in America towards industrial design as we know it today." Sinel
remarked later that from years of having to scrape for work, commissions
now begun pouring in for 3D product designs. As another pioneer, Walter
Dorwin Teague said, "What had been a mere ferment became a high-grade
Design for life
Among the first of many products to be designed over his prolific career
were scales for Peerless and the International Ticket Scale Corporation
(magnificently art deco, they were crafted with motifs suggesting the then
ultra-modern skyscraper); the Acousticon and Sonotone hearing aids;
Remington typewriters ("the first of the good-looking
typewriters"); and calculators for Marchant. Douglas Lloyd Jenkins
writes that the Scale "is now considered one of the key works of
American design." Sinel also designed a short-lived automobile called
the Newton, which made "futurist designer" Marc Newson's
cross-disciplinary foray for Ford, the O21C concept vehicle, look
distinctly 20th Century.
The International Ticket Scale - one of Sinel's most famous
and below: the poster used to advertise the sleek new
Courtesy of Gifford Jackson and Designscape.
supplied by the Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.
Design offices sprang up everywhere. Most were not geared solely
towards product design, but embraced a multi-disciplinary approach,
creating everything from interiors to graphics. They took their
inspiration from the "jazz-modern" motifs and
"glamour" silhouettes of Art Deco and the developing rationalism
Sinel's famous Marchant calculator. Top: the original
wooden industrial design model of the calculator, photographed by Leo
Holub, who worked with Sinel before WWII; and below: the finished
product. Photographer Mark Glusker.
Both images reproduced courtesy of
Birth of a Salesman
Clients and engineers were initially sceptical about Sinel's and other
early industrial designers' pioneering prototypes. Sinel needed to develop
innovative PR solutions to get his products made, including educating
himself about engineering requirements, so as not to be swayed by
objections that his designs would be too difficult to produce. Recognising
the persuasive value of presentations he became a creative salesperson. He
developed a practice of only working with single contacts and promoted his
ideas through models and drawings. His simple but effective model for the
International Ticket Scale was constructed out of Del Monte fruit crates.
It earned him $10,000 and a 25 year royalty deal.
Sinel set off from Auckland and walked into the concrete jungle of
Madison Ave, but he knew what he was worth, putting a high value on his
work and getting what he asked for. One agency directed him $54,000 of
work in a single year. His promotional presentations were so effective
that he was hired by advertising agencies to help win accounts, at
$20-30,000 a show.
Packaged by Sinel: a Heidelberg Beer bottle (1954); and Alta
Tea carton (1947). Courtesy of Gifford
Jackson and ProDesign.
Sinel's graphic design continued to flourish alongside his work on
products. In a 1934 Fortune magazine his package designs were featured in
a full-page colour spread. His packaging for coffee and cocoa, beer and
wine bottles, and other containers still looks sharp 70 years later.
Font of wisdom
Sinel produced work for fifty-five advertising agencies during his career,
and his client list reads like a Who's Who of the American corporate
world. In the 1940s he returned to the CalArts and later in life he was
made an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts. He taught at a number of other
design schools, including the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and Chouinard in
LA, where he introduced industrial design courses. He was an inspirational
teacher at a time when design appeared to be on the cusp of a golden age:
the flamboyant American Modern age of electrolux, the Chrysler Building,
and art deco. As an apprentice of Sinel's, photographer Leo Holub,
"I was in product design, yes. And it was enjoyable. It shook me
up and it seemed like the great day for design was coming. There was the
magazine from Germany called Gebrauchsgraphik. I was listening to Jo Sinel
and I thought pretty soon everything would be fine design. Well, it never
happened, as you can look around now and see. Just pre-war [WWII] times
there was the sense of good design happening. But it got buried by the
kind of thing that's happening to the general chaos in the visual
Sinel was an outspoken advocate of good design as a solution to
increasing 'visual pollution'. He had what Gifford Jackson describes as a
"missionary zeal in espousing the cause of better design." He
was a frontrunner for better-living-through-design initiatives such as
21st Century designer, Bruce Mau's, Massive Change project. As Mau,
channeling Sinel, states: "… the power of design to transform and
affect every aspect of daily life is gaining widespread public awareness.
No longer associated simply with objects and appearances, design is
increasingly understood in a much wider sense as the human capacity to
plan and produce desired outcomes."
Mixed media maestro
Joseph Sinel was one of the 14 founders of the Society of Industrial
Designers in 1944, and later, a member of IDSA. He published several books
on lettering and trademarks and designed several hundred trademarks for
businesses, publishers, institutions and individuals including The Art
Institute of Chicago, Doubleday Doran, The Archaeological Institute and
Hoffman Ginger Ale. His 1924 book, A Book of American Trademarks and
Devices, laid out basic rules of corporate identity and was illustrated
with over 300 trademarks he had designed. It was a prescient textbook for
what in today's virulent corporate lingo would be called 'brand planning'
Images from Sinel's Book of American Trade-Marks. Top: the
and below, his trademarks designed for the Petri Wine Company;
the Crime Club; and a symbol for the Archaeological Institute of America.
Courtesy of Gifford Jackson and Designscape.
Image supplied by the
Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.
A mixed-media maestro, Sinel also excelled in the design of
publications, magazines (doing covers for several prominent titles), books
(including a monograph for his photographer friend Ansel Adams),
catalogues and reports. And he also worked in interiors, designing a New
York display room for the J Walter Thompson advertising agency, a
promotional exhibit on Australia, and an exhibit on the Southern Pacific
Railroad for the Golden Gate International exhibition.
A Sinel-designed desk.
Courtesy of Gifford Jackson and Designscape.
Image supplied by the Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.
Over his career Sinel won many design awards: he was the recipient of
the Art Directors' Medal for Distinguished Advertising Design, The
All-America Packaging Award and the National Alliance of Art &
Industry Award for Excellence in Product Design. Examples of his work are
held in significant design collections including the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York.
Hippie in a Rolls Royce
Gifford Jackson writes that Sinel "was a character who lived his life
on his terms with style. Almost all who knew him had tall tales to tell
about his exploits. One writer even suggested he could be called the first
hippie […] he was certainly colourful … tough, egotistical,
argumentative and stubborn, but with many endearing traits. I'm sure Jo
got away with murder on many occasions because his talent commanded such
respect." For eleven years Sinel was married to the concert pianist,
Genevieve Blue. Douglas Lloyd Jenkins adds that "although most of
Sinel's career took place offshore, unlike many expatriate designers of
the 1920s and 1930s he somehow retained many Kiwi characteristics and
should he be alive today would have revelled in the Kiwi design
invitations that surround outdoor pursuit and adventure tourism."
The inscription on the 6-ft tall standing scales he designed for the
International Ticket Scale Corporation read 'STEP/ ON/ IT'. Sinel was a
person whose life and career was driven by that imperative. He loved fast
cars, owning two Rolls Royces and a Bentley, but drove automobiles in the
ready Aotearoa style as well, cruising in caravans across much of America
and along the edge on two tours home to New Zealand. When he died in 1975,
he returned to his place of birth in spirit at least - his ashes were
scattered at Kerikeri, on one of his family's properties.
Sinel in his eighties in the early 1970s.
Gifford Jackson and Designscape.
Image supplied by the Turnbull Library,
Sinel's contemporary, the visionary R. Buckminster Fuller, remarked on his
own design process: "When I am working on a problem I never think
about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have
finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong".
Sinel had simplified Fuller's best practice mantra to "right in your
eye and in your eye right". His legacy as an innovator and great
expatriot designer stands in posterity as inspiration and stellar
historical precedent for aspiring New Zealand designers. Jo Sinel:
disciplined bohemian, strikingly modern, industrial design neologist,
passionate teacher and advocate for good design. A blueprint from the
Print: Much of the factual information in this profile is from Gifford
Jackson's indispensable essay on Sinel, "Right in your eye and in
your eye right", first published in Designscape no. 88, February 1977,
and republished in ProDesign, April/September 2003.
We are grateful to Gifford Jackson for helping us at the later
stages of preparing this story, and in particular for his help in sourcing
Jenkins, Douglas Lloyd, Design Legends (forthcoming in 2006).
[Accessed September 2006]
Further information is available online at the Industrial Design
Society of America page on Sinel. Search at: http://www.idsa.org/
Short bio on Sinel and his role in the history of American graphic design,
Other Web Resources:
Michael Smythe discusses Sinel here as one of NZ's many creative
For the catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art's exhibition,
"American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age", that
featured Sinel's scales:
For further discussion of Sinel's scales see: http://dallasmuseumofart.org/Dallas_Museum_of_Art/
Mark Glusker's site has cool material on mechanical calculators, including
Sinel's Marchant. http://www.mortati.com/glusker/
P22 Sinel Typeface, a font based on an alphabet drawn up in
the late 1920s by Sinel. Courtesy Identifont. http://ww.p22.com/products/freefont.html
STORY BY PAUL WARD
CONSULTANT EDITOR INGRID HORROCKS