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Who the heck is Donald Deskey?

By Staff | Feb 28, 2011

If you were at the Blue Earth Chamber of Commerce annual meeting and banquet in January (or if you read about it in the pages of the Faribault County Register) perhaps you remember that Gartzke’s Greenhouse won one of the GG awards.

The local business was selected as the recipient of the Curb Appeal Award, which was also named the Donald Deskey Award.

The Register was also one of the three nominees for the coveted new award. But, we graciously admit that although we feel the front of our building is quite attractive, it is hard to compete with a business which has hundreds of flowers and plants decorating its front during three-fourths of the year.

The first I heard Blue Earth Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Shelly Greimann mention calling the Curb Appeal Award the Donald Deskey Award was at a chamber Ambassadors’ Club meeting.

I remember that at the time I wondered who the heck Donald Deskey was, and thought it must be a local Blue Earth person that everyone else must know.

So, I decided to keep quiet and made a mental note to ask someone later.

But, within a couple of minutes, several others at the meeting started asking aloud who this Donald Deskey is, and why are we naming an award after him.

So, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know. Maybe you don’t know either.

Turns out, he was a famous designer. ‘Was’ being the key word, as he died in 1989.

It also turns out that he was born in Blue Earth – on Nov. 23, 1894, more than 116 years ago.

He left town right after he graduated from high school at Blue Earth – in 1912, nearly 100 years ago.

No wonder no one at the meeting knew who he was. None of us are old enough to be his classmates.

However, there is information about the man from a book written in 1987, titled “Donald Deskey: Decorative Designs and Interiors.”

Deskey left Blue Earth and turned up in California, working a variety of jobs, including helping build the Garland Theater, engineering public roads, bartending and being a draftsman at the Standard Oil Company.

In 1914 he was a student at the Mark Hopkins Institute, working as a soda jerk and a Martin County guide. In 1915 he began studying architecture at the University of California, Berkely.

One of his early interests was in the newly emerging ‘abstract’ art form.

“The mystery is that this particular man should ever have designed anything at all,” said Gilbert Seldes in a New Yorker magazine article printed in 1933. “Until he was nearly 30, Deskey’s connection with art was either as an amateur or of an advertising man.”

The Deskey book says it was 1926 which marked the start of Deskey’s career as a designer. He was doing window displays for the Franklin Simon department store in Manhattan. The displays were noteworthy because of the use of industrial materials such as corrugated iron, plywood and cork.

In the late 1920s, Reynolds Metals, then a young company, asked Deskey to find new uses for their aluminum foil. He came up with an aluminum foil wallpaper which was manufactured and sold across the country. He also created a textured type of plywood called Weldtex.

Interesting creations, but, there are two things for which Deskey received national attention and cemented his reputation as a designer.

He is best known for his 1932 design for the interiors of Radio City Music Hall, called an Art Deco masterpiece.

Secondly, he became a product packaging designer. His 20-year association with Proctor-Gamble resulted in the creation of many memorable designs.

Perhaps the best known is the packaging for Crest toothpaste, which has not changed since the 1950s.

But, Deskey also designed material for Cheer and Oxydol laundry detergents, Prell shampoo, Gleem toothpaste, Jiff peanut butter, Pampers disposable diapers and Bounty paper towels.

His package designs for Aqua Velva after-shave lotion won a gold medal for the best package design in 1956.

But, I lied. There is a third item for which Donald Deskey received national fame for having designed it.

Find out what that item is – and its connection to Blue Earth – when this column about Deskey continues in next week’s Faribault County Register.