It's often tricky to extract design lessons from World War II. Documentaries on the subject can quickly veer into boys-and-their-toys adulations of how fast this plane was, how tough that tank was, how many bullets this machinegun could spit out. So we were happy to see the intelligent, balanced and edifying "Blueprints of War" episode of the BBC's excellent The Genius of Design program. Although the show kicks off with sensationalist quotes like "This is a program about death and product design" and "Here's what they don't teach at art school: When nations go to war, design is in the front line," the viewer is rewarded with a comprehensive look at the state of wartime design in America, the UK, Germany and Russia, and there's enough design history meat for even a pacifist to sink their teeth into.
At one hour in length the program is too long for you to sneak into a workday, but we highly urge you to at least queue it up and steal snippets of viewing time when you can. (I viewed it in four 15-minute sittings.) You'll be rewarded with an improved understanding of international design history. For example: Consider that today, German design and manufacturing is admired the world over, and they're one of the few wealthy nations with robust design and manufacturing industries. So it's difficult to comprehend that there was a time, over a century ago, when things designed and built in Germany were considered junk. The program explains, succinctly, the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation) initiative that created that transition. The examination of early German industrial design history is always tough because historians must treat with the repellency of Nazi ideology to even get at the subject matter, but the BBC does an admirable job here.
You'll also learn lots of interesting design history tidbits, like how the fearsome Tiger tank was the result of a design competition that Ferdinand Porsche lost, and how a flatpack submachine gun was produced from a British toy factory. You'll see manufacturing innovations like pre-fabricated Liberty ships, and ultrafast British bombers that needed to be constructed out of bent plywood due to a materials shortage. (That latter plane, the world's first stealth bomber as its wooden body rendered it invisible to radar, is enthused to be "the finest piece of furniture this country's ever built" by one interview subject.) You'll see the influence of Henry Ford in overseas tank factories, and the Russians' "clash in design philosophy" with the Germans vis-à-vis tank models.
There are a lot more things covered in that hour, too many to list here. But perhaps most rewardingly, you'll see, as the episode winds up in an Eames house, how Charles and Ray's furniture that we all came to know was made possible by their necessary wartime contributions.
Hit the jump to watch it in full; if you can't get to it today, bookmark it for the weekend!