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Harley-Davidson Museum explores Brooks Stevens’ legacy

At the intersection of art and engineering lies industrial design. Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum explores this overlap in their new exhibition “Creating a Legend: Art & Engineering at Harley-Davidson.”

“Creating a Legend” features design work by Brooks Stevens, widely considered one of the founders of industrial design as it is known today. The visionary designer was a leading educator in the Industrial Design program at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) during the 1970s, and served as one of the college’s donors and trustees until his death in 1995.

Ann Sinfield, Exhibits and Curatorial Lead at the Harley-Davidson Museum, reflects on the show, her first full-scale exhibition in her position. “The way we tell the history of Harley-Davidson in this museum is really interesting,” she says. “It touches on Milwaukee history, it touches on bigger U.S. and economic history … but something that we only include in a couple different places is history of design.”

After receiving a donation of wildlife illustrations by Harley-Davidson’s first Chief Engineer William S. Harley, Sinfield decided to use the drawings as a base for the new exhibition. “I was really fascinated by them, and I wanted to figure out how to build an exhibit around this very early connection or overlap of art making and engineering,” she explains.

“The Brooks Stevens story is an important one because it’s at the very early part of industrial design, it’s developing as a profession,” continues Sinfield. “And it’s probably the first iteration or instance of the industrial design process being brought into the motorcycle and motorcycling industry.”

Naturally, “Creating a Legend” features a myriad of motorcycles, but one notable contribution is Brooks Stevens’ original Hydra-Glide design. “This motorcycle, it’s a beautiful bike,” says Sinfield. “It’s brand new. It was never even fired. There’s evidence inside the engine which indicates it’s never been fired.”

The exhibit also highlights the strong roots of Harley-Davidson, Brooks Stevens and industrial design in Milwaukee. “Brooks Stevens was such an influential figure in not only industrial design, but in Milwaukee, too,” Sinfield contends. “It’s really important to understand that the industrial design process has transformed how products are developed since then.”

In addition to the historical sketches by William S. Harley and Brooks Stevens’ Hydra-Glide motorcycle, “Creating a Legend” also explores the hands-on aspects of industrial design. Clay sculptures provide engineers with a read on the emotional impact of a design, while leather and textile samples are available for visitors to handle. The exhibit continues its interactivity with sketching and tracing tables, encouraging attendees to design their own bikes.

Of course, visitors who sketch a new motorcycle will not walk out of the museum with a read-to-ride bike. “How do you go from this idea of a motorcycle on paper to actually making it? Engineering it in a new way so that it runs and looks good and can be manufactured and sold to people that want it?” says Sinfield. That’s exactly what “Creating a Legend” explores. “It’s a really complicated process. I think we want to tell that story better here at the museum,” Sinfield finishes.

Coming from a background in curatorial work in a university setting, Sinfield appreciates the scope and variety that the Harley-Davidson Museum offers. “Working with this collection is super interesting because the design history within Harley-Davidson is clothing, it’s marketing material, it’s photography, it’s color choices. It’s the design of motorcycles. There’s so much that you can work from.”

Sinfield continues, “The other thing that I love about being here is that the people who come to this museum are very excited and a lot of them are very dedicated. This is something that I don’t know if a lot of museums have. There’s this core group of guests here that are incredible enthusiasts, incredible fans of the brand, and they are really excited to be here.”

“It’s a bigger responsibility to tell these stories,” Sinfield reflects. “There’s a lot of weight and responsibility to honor the people that make these products, to honor the people that are devoted to this brand. To help build that and to be part of that is a very interesting, different place to be. It’s very unique.”

Plan a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum and learn more about MIAD’s Product (Industrial) Design major!

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