Migrant Knowledge

European Émigrés and the Transatlantic Circulation of Knowledge: Examples from Mid-20th-Century Consumer Capitalism

Both small entrepreneurs and corporations with global operations have transferred their activities to the Western hemisphere. . . . This wartime industrial immigration falls roughly into three classes: (1) Companies which have set up manufacturing facilities in this country . . . (2) management offices established here by companies . . . and (3) engineers and other technicians who are contributing their experience to American industry. . . . European "know how" is helping United Nations' war production and offering postwar possibilities, too.1

European migrants, and especially temporary exiles and forced émigrés, contributed to a vast transatlantic knowledge transfer during the 1930s and 40s, which not only benefitted American academia and science but, as this 1944 Wall Street Journal article notes, American industry and consumers as well. Large corporations such as Maggi Co. and Van Houten’s Cocoa relocated their facilities during World War II, and many high-skilled individuals crossed the Atlantic on their own, as entrepreneurs or experts. The German architect Ferdinand Kramer was one of them. Kramer numbered among the avant-garde reform architects of interwar Germany. He had been involved with affordable social housing and standardization efforts in 1920s Frankfurt, which made him famous for the Frankfurt Kitchen. After emigrating to the United States, Kramer worked as a designer for firms, developed department store interiors, and, together with Czech émigré Fred Gerstel, set up a studio for furniture design in New York. Based on his insights into household standardization, Kramer helped pioneer a kind of knock-down furniture that addressed wartime housing needs and today fuels the success of Ikea and similar furniture corporations.2

Kramer was one of many European émigrés who facilitated such transatlantic knowledge transfers in marketing and business, helping to shape mid-century consumer capitalism in the United States and beyond. These émigrés came from backgrounds ranging from architecture and design to academic psychology, market research, and statistics. In different ways, they all contributed to the emergence of what some contemporaries called “consumer engineering” in mid-century marketing by using aesthetic, demographic, and psychological expertise to create new products and consumption habits.3 Design studios, corporate market research departments, and, the large advertising agencies on Madison Avenue all made ample use of new forms of knowledge brought to the United States in part by artists and academics who had recently fled war and persecution.4

The story of these émigrés is frequently told as one of brain drain from Europe to the United States in the sciences and other academic fields, as if the knowledge flowed only one way and was received and put to use as something unadulterated. Not only has the area of business largely been overlooked, but recent scholarship on elite migration also cautions us to contextualize the knowledge flows associated with 1930s forced migration more carefully.5 They were embedded in a much longer tradition of transatlantic migration and knowledge transfers between Europe and the United States, dating back centuries. American advertising agencies, for example, were active in Europe as early as the 1920s. At that same time, European designers and marketing professionals could already be found in New York and Chicago. Knowledge transfers and their success, moreover, depended on the émigrés as much as on the willingness of the receiving society to accommodate them. Scholars now emphasize the importance knowledge adaptation and the translation of knowledge across cultures and disciplines, for example, when European modernist designers began to apply their skills in the employ of American corporations.6

Such knowledge transfers, finally, were rarely linear or unidirectional. Instead of a one-way stream from one continent to another, we should think in terms of knowledge circulation.7 Ferdinand Kramer returned to Germany after World War II. Well connected with two other former émigrés, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, both ardent critics of American consumer capitalism, he became the in-house architect for the University of Frankfurt. At the same time, however, he toured postwar Germany and Switzerland to give lectures about American department stores, commercial design, and modern marketing to European audiences. Like Kramer, many other émigrés returned across the Atlantic to spread such marketing innovations as modernist product forms or psychological consumer motivation research which they had helped develop in corporate America.

Studying émigré knowledge transfers can help us rethink the notion of Europe’s supposed postwar Americanization through marketing and consumption in two important ways.8 On the one hand, the transfers reveal that the American model of consumer capitalism was significantly shaped by transnational inputs. On the other hand, its much discussed export after the war was in many ways a re-export, facilitated and promoted by some of the very same European émigrés who had helped to develop it in the decades prior.

Knowledge in Demand

Although quantity measures for various goods have been developed to a certain extent in this country, their psychological approach has been very superficial. We understand that Vienna being the present center of the science of psychology has developed very important methods of analysis as applied to consumer needs.9

In 1934, Alexis Sommaripa, a marketing specialist at the Wilmington-based chemical giant DuPont who had strong ties to the U.S. government, reflected on the need for improved consumer research that built on advanced psychological knowledge. He quickly turned his sights to Vienna, in particular Paul Lazarsfeld, a young Viennese psychologist with experience in market research who had come to the U.S. on a Rockefeller grant.10 Sommaripa was not alone in his interest in émigré knowledge. In their 1932 Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity, Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens identified psychological knowledge and design aesthetics as the two aspects of marketing most crucial for American businesses working to overcome the slump in demand caused by the Great Depression. In psychology (what they call “humaneering”), product styling, and commercial design, the authors looked to European innovations.11

In the United States, consequently, designers and social scientists found relatively open doors to corporate America, and commercial contracts created opportunities for them. In Chicago, for example, local companies and retailers actively sought a Bauhaus émigré to help them set up a new design school in order to bring modernist design to retailers, corporate departments and advertisers in the Midwest. Similarly, Lazarsfeld and many of his Viennese colleagues (including Ernst Dichter, Herta Herzog, and Hans and Ilse Zeisel) not only acquired funding through Rockefeller projects to advance consumer and audience research but also quickly lined up jobs with companies such as DuPont and General Electric or with leading advertising agencies such as McCann-Erickson. Their specialized knowledge about the psychological appeal of modernist forms or consumer motivations was very much in demand.

Successful Transfers

Indeed, there was so much greater volume of [market research] work being done here, compared to Europe . . . but on a terribly unsophisticated level. So that, you see, while Europeans were far behind, if a European really specialized in the work, he'd just run rings around [his American counterparts].12

Paul Lazarsfeld’s recollections of the 1930s betrayed the air of academic superiority with which some émigré scholars and artists approached the United States in general and the world of American business and commerce in general. To be sure, in the United States they encountered marketing methods that were more differentiated and mass-market oriented than Lazarsfeld acknowledged in the above quote. Still, Lazarsfeld and his colleagues soon found that they could not only learn from their American colleagues but that instead there was much that they could teach them. European émigrés published widely in the United States, contributing to market survey methodology (Lazarsfeld), audience and consumer response measurement (Herta Herzog), statistical sampling for commercial purposes (Alfred Politz), and understanding the social dynamics of consumer persuasion (Kurt Lewin), to name just a few examples. Émigrés helped push marketing research from simple behaviorist assumptions towards more complex concepts based on social and cognitive Gestalt psychology.

By the 1950s, two of the most successful and influential market researchers in the United States were the German émigré Alfred Politz and his rival, Ernest Dichter of Vienna. Cementing their fame and attesting to their success, Dichter and several other émigré psychologists featured prominently in Vance Packard’s 1957 exposé Hidden Persuaders, which decried the new psychological marketing’s manipulative agenda.13 Social scientific knowledge, transferred and adapted with the help of émigrés, informed postwar American marketing practice in fundamental ways.

Knowledge Disconnects

The Bauhaus approach . . . lacks the realistic qualities that we Americans, rightly or wrongly, demand. . . . It will be difficult, I believe, to acclimatize the esoteric ideas of the Bauhaus in the factual atmosphere of American industry.14

Émigrés active in commercial design were similarly able to achieve knowledge transfers. Designers such as Walter Landor opened successful design studios; European modernists became art directors at U.S. magazines (such as Walter Allner at Fortune) and advertising agencies (including Herbert Bayer and Leo Lionni). Most importantly, prominent émigrés began to shape American commercial design education programs. This process started already in the 1930s, including with Peter Muller-Munk in Pittsburg, Hin Bredendiek in Atlanta, Josef Albers at Yale, and most importantly, the Institute for Design (or New Bauhaus) in Chicago.

Yet knowledge transfers from European interwar modernism—with its comprehensive artistic and social reform visions—to American consumer capitalism were frequently fraught. Despite their successes, the experiences of the Bauhaus émigrés in particular show the challenges that knowledge transfers across this cultural divide could entail. Hard-nosed commercial designers such as Harold van Doren were skeptical about the commercial applicability of avant-garde forms and design theories. The corporate designers who took classes at the New Bauhaus appreciated the experimental approach to fundamental shapes and colors. But these employees of United Airlines and other Chicago companies scoffed at the “unorganized” and “European” approach, demanding more practical applicability. At the same time, many émigré artists and scholars retained a critical distance to corporate America. For all his work with U.S. companies, for example, the Bauhaus design educator Laszlo Moholy-Nagy remained disdainful of what he saw as a purely profit-oriented, manipulative American consumer culture. He shared this sentiment with many (but certainly not all) of his migrant contemporaries—most famously perhaps Theodor Adorno, who himself had briefly worked for Lazarsfeld’s research project on commercial radio.

Knowledge Returns

Sigmund Freud is no less well-known in Germany than in the United States, and especially in this area of advertising research we should not have needed a nudge from the U.S.15

Writing in a German trade journal for market researchers, the marketing expert Hans Schad commented on the apparent irony that psychologically informed motivation research was being discussed as an “American” innovation among his European colleagues at the end of the 1950s. The former émigré Ernest Dichter was now the most prominent voice advocating the method on the continent.16 Dichter was particularly active in translating American marketing to postwar Europe, with his consulting firm opening international subsidiaries. He proudly offered knowledge and insights about European markets and consumers not only to U.S. firms operating overseas but increasingly to their European competitors as well. The design studios of Walter Landor similarly engaged with European markets by the 1950s. Although few of these experts in design and marketing permanently returned to Europe, most used their substantial networks there to facilitate a knowledge flow back across the Atlantic.

This transfer worked particularly well, precisely because the émigrés were involved. Dichter, a master in self-promotion, was fully aware of this: “[Europeans] accept me . . . because I can combine European answers with American know-how. . . . I do speak their languages and they will sort of hug me and say, ‘Well, you’re really one of us.'” In his marketing advice to companies he consciously advocated emphasizing the European “roots” of American consumer culture while highlighting transatlantic adaptation processes: “we really got it from you originally and we copied it, we developed it a little further.”17 More than flattery, this approach was employed to normalize new practices and make them appear less foreign. Similar dynamics can be found in the world of design, for example, with prominent “American” designers such as the French immigrant Raymond Loewy. U.S. public diplomacy also emphasized the aesthetic tradition of modern American consumer goods, linking their design to interwar European art reform movements. Postwar exhibitions of American consumer products and design across Europe prominently included the work of immigrant designers. Consistent with Dichter’s advice to advertisers, the focus on émigrés and the transatlantic circulation of knowledge they facilitated served to make consumer capitalism more palatable to European elites. Thus, migrant knowledge performed both economic and political functions in the context of the Cold War.

The French immigrant Raymond Loewy became one of the most influential commercial designers in the United after World War Two. Here he is seated at his desk in South Bend, Indiana, doing design work with Robert Bourke for Studebaker, a manufacturer of automobiles, Source: Raymond T. Loewy papers, Library of Congress, via Transatlantic Perspectives: Europe in the Eyes of European Immigrants to the United , 1930–1980.

Jan Logemann is assistant professor (Privatdozent) at the Institute for Economic and Social History, Georg August University of Göttingen. He most recent monograph is Engineered to Sell: European Emigrés and the Making of Consumer Capitalism (Chicago University Press, 2019).

  1. “Europeans Flee Hitler, Set up Shop Here, Like it so Well They’ll Stay,” Wall Street Journal, May 16, 1944. ↩︎
  2. This and subsequent examples are drawn from Jan L. Logemann, Engineered to Sell: European Êmigrés and the Making of Consumer Capitalism (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2019). ↩︎
  3. Jan L. Logemann, Gary S. Cross, and Ingo Köhler, eds., Consumer Engineering, 1920s–1970s: Marketing between Expert Planning and Consumer Responsiveness (New York: Palgrave, 2019). ↩︎
  4. See Lawrence R. Samuel, Freud on Madison Avenue Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). ↩︎
  5. Ursula Seeber, Veronika Zwerger, and Claus-Dieter Krohn, eds., “‘Kometen des Geldes’: Ökonomie und Exil,” Jahrbuch für Exilforschung 33 (2015); and Dittmar Dahlmann and Reinhold Reith, eds., Elitenwanderung und Wissenstransfer im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2008). ↩︎
  6. See, e.g., Christian Kleinschmidt, Der produktive Blick: Wahrnehmung amerikanischer und japanischer Management- und Produktionsmethoden durch deutsche Unternehmer 1950–1985 (Berlin: Akad.-Verlag, 2002). See also Doris Bachmann-Medick, “Introduction: The Translational Turn,” Translation Studies 2 (2009): 2–16. ↩︎
  7. For a more detailed discussion, see Jan Logemann, “Consumer Modernity as Cultural Translation European Émigrés and Knowledge Transfers in Mid-Twentieth-Century Design and Marketing,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43 (2017): 413–37. ↩︎
  8. The most sophisticated development of that argument can be found in Victoria De Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005). ↩︎
  9. Letter Alexis Sommaripa to Dexter Keezer (Consumer Advisory Board), Jan 16, 1934, Paul Lazarsfeld Archive, University of Vienna, Folder “Biographie 1933–46.” ↩︎
  10. Christian Fleck, A Transatlantic History of the Social Sciences: Robber Barons, the Third Reich and the Invention of Empirical Social Research (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011). ↩︎
  11. Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens, Consumer Engineering: a new Technique of Prosperity (New York: Arno, 1932). ↩︎
  12. Interview Paul Lazarsfeld with Joan Gordon, November 29, 1961 (New York), Paul Lazarsfeld Archive, University of Vienna, Folder “Columbia Oral History,” p. 26. ↩︎
  13. Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: McKay, 1957). ↩︎
  14. Harold Van Doren, Industrial Design: A Practical Guide (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1940), 79. ↩︎
  15. Hans Schad, “Überlegung zum Methodenstreit,” Zeitschrift für Markt- und Meinungsforschung 1 (1957/58): 217–22, here 221 (my translation). ↩︎
  16. On Dichter, see Stefan Schwarzkopf, Ernest Dichter and Motivation Research New Perspectives on the Making of Postwar Consumer Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). ↩︎
  17. Ernest Dichter, “Business Abroad Article – (Rough Copy),” March 28, 1967, Hagley Museum and Archive, Ernest Dichter Papers, Box 169. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Jan Logemann, "European Émigrés and the Transatlantic Circulation of Knowledge: Examples from Mid-20th-Century Consumer Capitalism," Migrant Knowledge, April 29, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/04/29/european-emigres-transatlantic-circulation-of-knowledge/.