Article by David A. Hanks

J
oseph Claude Sinel (1889-1975) was among the earliest in the emerging profession of industrial design in North America, along with more familiar figures such as Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey and Henry Dreyfuss. Sinel immigrated to San Francisco from Auckland, New Zealand in 1918. He had received training in calligraphy and typography in Britain and began working in advertising upon his arrival in the United States. According to a contemporary source, Sinel was the first to apply the term “industrial design” to services he was rendering to industry in 1919. In the 1920s he began teaching at the California College of Arts and Crafts before moving to Montreal and then to New York, where he opened his own design firm in 1923. Like many of his contemporaries, he moved from advertising to a career in industrial design, focusing on packaging. Two of his package designs were featured in the Annual of American Design 1931.


The Stewart Program for Modern Design in Montreal has recently acquired, as a gift of Eric Brill, two spectacular art deco weight scales by Sinel, who patented the design in 1929. The form echoes that of a New York skyscraper. In the 1920s these buildings became an important international symbol, owing to a 1916 New York zoning law that required all buildings over a certain height (depending on the width of the building and of the street on which it was set) to be recessed at the top to allow light and air to reach the streets below. The dramatic stepped set­back of skyscraper buildings became a popular motif in art and design, as seen in Sinel’s scale. With its tall shaft and stepped top, it presents the silhouette of a New York building of the period.

On the base, in art deco lettering, were the words “step on it,” re­flecting Sinel’s background in calligraphy. This specialty is reflected in his 1924 publication: A Book of American Trade-Marks & Devices. It is also possible that he designed the chic advertisement for the scale’s manufacturer, the International Ticket Scale Corporation, in which a fashionably dressed young woman checks her weight. Sinel also designed the company offices and stationery. This innovative designer deserves recognition for his important contribution to industrial design.

Image:
Joseph Sinel, Scale for the International Ticket Scale Corporation, New York, 1929
Chromium-plated steel, iron, brass, glass, rubber.
195.5 x 38.1 x 63.5 cm.
The Liliane and David M. Stewart Program for Modern Design, gift of Eric Brill, B042
Photograph: Denis Farley