Erie born, M.I.T. educated industrial designer and architect Wilbur Henry Adams’ (1906-1958) brief but flourishing career is the focus of an exhaustively researched overview of a collection of drawings, sketchbooks, fine art, and ephemera from Adams. Adams followed studies at Academy High School under George Ericson (Eugene Iverd) with a year at the then Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh.

He established himself as a unique talent, winning a coveted one-year scholarship to M.I.T.’s prestigious School of Architecture. While there he crossed paths with the great architect and designer Eliel Saarinen, who recommended him to Raymond Hood just as plans for Rockefeller Center were taking shape. Praised by Saarinen as “facile with pen and pencil,” Hood readily hired the unseasoned Adams, employing him on a variety of private and commercial projects ranging from Rockefeller Center and the New York Daily News building to automobile concept drawings.

At just twenty six, however, Adams was ready to strike out on his own, opening a studio in Cleveland and working with his wife, Arleen, a talented artist and interior designer. Adams found instant success with his 1934 transition to the burgeoning field of industrial design, and the couple returned to Erie, settling in the country on Wolf Road where Adams worked from a studio in the barn on the old Metcalf estate.

Erie was a hub of industrial activity and an important part of the industrial corridor bridging the Midwest and the Northeast—Adams’ clients readily followed him to this now seemingly removed location. Adams designed, styled, and streamlined everything from toilets to tractors to the SkyWay Drive-In, all while raising prize chickens, four children and living the life of a country gentleman. Alexa D. Potter, curator of Styled by Adams, places Adams in his rightful role as a major figure in early American industrial design.

Please note all images copyright of Abigail Adams Greenway, all rights reserved.


Walter Dorwin Teague. Raymond Loewy. Norman Bel Geddes. Wilbur Henry Adams? No history of American industrial design would be considered complete without exploring those first three names. Yet Erie, Pennsylvania native Wilbur Henry Adams (1906–1958) had the education, training and career to match any of them,
and many of his ideas predate the other moderns. How
is it possible, given the breadth, depth, artistry and vision of his work that we no longer know his name?

What we do know is this: Adams managed to build a lucrative career that he executed, for nearly two decades, from his farm studio in the country on Wolf Road on Erie’s west side. He tended prize-winning chickens on a working farm; raised four children in a house furnished by his interior decorator wife in early American antiques; and each day he stepped through the barn door into his studio and created some of the most modern, functional products that America had seen.

Adams was a gifted fine artist who transformed himself from the son of a small town roofer to a Jazz Age architect to a modernist bon vivant in the span of a decade. Then, in 1940, he suddenly assumed the new character of gentleman farmer. He was a practicing Christian Scientist devoted to mind over matter, yet he struggled to maintain sobriety and lost more than one fortune to a gambling addiction. Chronic alcoholism cut him down at fifty-two, but not before he had designed and styled tens of millions of dollars’ worth of products and envisioned “not the world of tomorrow, but of the world of the day after tomorrow.”


Adams, like many other Erie creative professionals, often credited his Academy High School art teacher, George Ericson, for starting him on his path. Ericson, painting under the name of Eugene Iverd, had a long running career as a commercial illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, among many others. Adams exhibited enough promise to gain entry to the Department of Architecture at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh from 1924–1925 following his graduation from Academy.

Adams left Carnegie Tech after his first year, returning to Erie to take a position with local architectural firm Shutts & Morrison, best known for The Boston Store. City directories of the time list Adams as a draftsman, and he worked on numerous residential and commercial architectural projects throughout the area. In 1927 he moved to the major Cleveland architectural firm of Walker & Weeks, and was involved in the design of the Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the Cleveland Post Office, and several smaller residential and commercial projects.

Adams’ skill and training earned him a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1927–1928. M.I.T. housed the oldest, most prestigious architectural program in the country, and Adams was admitted as a special student to the fourth year of the program. He often cited his training with professor Jacques Carlu, famously associated with both the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne movements, as a formative influence.

Adams’ practical training, combined with his M.I.T. credentials, made him an appealing hire for the firm of Raymond Hood in New York City. Adams joined the stable of architects working on Hood projects, most notably the New York Daily News building and the Rockefeller Center complex.


Adams gave up the anonymity of Raymond Hood’s firm to open his own practice in Cleveland in 1934. Billed as Wilbur H. Adams & Associates, he styled himself as an interior designer rather than an architect, specializing in hotel tap rooms, restaurants, and bars. It was a smart move coming at the end of Prohibition, and Adams’ services were quickly in demand.

The main “Associate” at this time was Adams’ new wife, Arleen. A fine artist in her own right, Wilbur and Arleen Williams met in New York while she was attending the New York School of Fine & Applied Arts, now known as Parsons The New School for Design. She was studying to be an interior decorator at the best schools in the United States and Europe. The two corresponded while she was overseas, although she seems to have been the one to woo him. The wooing a success, Wilbur and Arleen were married in August 1932 following her return from the school’s Paris campus. Arleen was a wealthy, talented, Erie girl—beautiful, well educated, fluent in French—and she was offered a job with a prestigious Cleveland decorating firm following graduation.

Not long after accepting, however, she teamed up with her husband, and the stylish young couple soon received praise and press for their sleek, modern interiors. They initially concentrated on private residences, using their own Overlook Road apartment in Cleveland Heights as an example of modernist renovation for their clients. Their apartment was a vision in chrome, glass block, coral carpets, and raspberry tinted walls. Arleen’s influence was profound, as she continuously incorporated strong colors and prints, often of her own floral design, that would normally be absent from the modernist repertoire.


Walter Teague’s 1932 Forbes magazine article, “Modern Design Needs Modern Merchandising,” inspired Adams to turn his full focus on the rapidly growing field of industrial design. While today smart design is taken for granted, it was a relatively new idea to appeal directly to consumers through a well-designed and thoughtfully marketed product. The emphasis on design also followed numerous economic factors—the 1930s saw America slowly rising from a global depression, and a savvier clientele wanted the smart design options that they saw coming out of the European marketplace.

Cleveland served as the Midwestern hub for dozens of corporations, and Adams’ credentials were impressive despite his young age. Handsome, charming, and brimming with ideas, Adams was able to quickly sell himself and his designs to a powerful manufacturing sector. Although not an engineer—few industrial designers of that time were—Adams understood the principles of engineering, and could read and produce mechanical drawings. His strength, however, lay in his artistic abilities. Adams’ earliest renderings consisted mainly of pen, ink, and wash—“Adams is facile with pen and pencil,” as Eliel Saarinen commented—and over time he grew to express himself mainly in colored pencil and gouache on Bristol board or black Ingres paper.

In today’s marketplace, a client would expect to receive a slick package, along with 3-D renderings, likely computer modeled, from a potential designer. All of Adams’ work was executed in his own hand; his initial concepts were accepted simply on the strength of his ability to articulate his vision of a product through a drawing. If the drawing was successful, or more detail was required, he would often go on to sculpt a maquette out of clay or wood. Some products, including his later designs for busses and tractors, were made into full-scale models prior to production.


While many industrial designers made a living from one-off projects, their goal was to establish consultancies with their clients. With the consultancy, the company paid for the designer to be on call to develop new product lines from year to year. After shorter relationships with companies like Stewart-Warner (refrigerators), Kalamazoo Stove Company, and Electromaster (appliances), Adams landed his first consultancy with the Perfection Stove Company in Cleveland.

Electricity in the home, particularly in the still vast rural swaths of 1930s America, was neither ubiquitous nor cheap. Kerosene and oil were the main forms of liquid fuel available, and there was tremendous demand for appliances such as stoves, hot water heaters, and refrigerators that utilized these fuel sources yet satisfied the desire for a more modern, “city” look and feel in the home. Some companies, such as Perfection, recognized that women were driving domestic consumer choices, and tailored their products—and their marketing—to appeal to them. Adams had a knack for appliances, developing features like stove top lights and doors that opened without stooping, that made an Adams’ designed appliance more desirable than the competition. From 1935 until America’s entry in the war caused domestic production to nearly cease, Adams was responsible for the look of nearly the entire Perfection product line, developing over a dozen patented designs for them. His relationship with Perfection would last well into the post-war era, when electricity finally pushed other fuel forms into the minority.

Adams’ success with appliances underscored his belief that “a simple, practical design, incorporating good mechanical features, is usually the best.” Adams’ Perfection designs are the most pared down of any in his repertoire, and his longest lasting.


Adams developed a relationship with Mayo Roe, owner of the Colson Company, of Elyria, Ohio, sometime in the early 1930s. Colson was a well-known manufacturer of wheeled vehicles, particularly wheelchairs, auto coasters and tricycles. The greater Cleveland area—geographically close to Akron, home of both Goodyear and Firestone—was a hub for the burgeoning bicycle industry. Advances in pneumatic rubber tires, which made riding human powered vehicles a far more enticing pastime than their earlier wooden or metal rimmed counterparts, the so-called “boneshakers had, was one of many reasons for the fantastic domestic growth in the demand for bicycles of all kinds.

Adams held nearly two dozen design patents for a range of Colson products, including wheelchairs, magazine racks, and laundry carts. It was his bicycle designs, however, where his eye for streamlined style most closely matched the engineering needs of the product along with the consumers’ desire for a functional yet modern vehicle. He took over design of the entire Colson bicycle line following the success of his 1936 Commander two-wheeler and Cadet tricycle. Colson also produced bicycles for other companies such as Goodyear, and Adams’ likeness and industrial design credentials were often touted as a selling feature.

Like most manufacturing concerns, Colson was retooled for the production of war matériel from 1942–1945. Although Colson and Adams attempted to circumvent the curtailment of domestic use of metal and rubber through the creation of a wooden tricycle, there was not enough demand for this version and very few were produced. Adams also designed products to satisfy the growing need for wheelchairs and other hospital equipment for war casualties. The Evans Corporation bought out Colson in the early 1950s, and while Adams’ relationship with the company ceased, they continued his designs well into the 1950s.


Despite the success that Wilbur and Arleen experienced as a designing duo, their personal relationship was in terrible turmoil. Their first child, Wilbur Henry Jr., was born in 1938. But by 1939, Arleen very publicly filed for divorce and sole custody, citing “extreme cruelty by reason of his drinking and gambling habits.” She also requested sole custody of Henry.

Part of Cleveland’s swell set, Wilbur’s fondness for drink blossomed into full-blown alcoholism by the 1930s. While he was well-compensated for his interior design work and his consultancies, he managed to financially ruin the young couple through unsound investments, a taste for fine living, and a penchant for gambling that resulted in not only the loss of his own income but a good deal of Arleen’s inheritance. The divorce never went through, however, and Wilbur  eventually went to a sanitarium to dry out.

Perhaps it was a change of scenery that saved the marriage, as the young family returned to Erie in 1940. Wilbur learned that the Metcalf’s Wolf Road estate on Erie’s west side was being broken up, and he negotiated to have the former guest cottage moved up the road and placed next to the barn.

After a brief stint working out of rental space on 7th Street, Wilbur created an office in the barn on their property. As the farm expanded to include horses, goats, and chickens, the family increased as well, adding Susan, Bruce, and Abigail over the course of the next several years. Wilbur also assumed the role of gentleman farmer, tending to the animals, bringing in the hay, and improving the property. According to his son Henry, he modeled himself after David Grayson’s The Countryman’s Year, a sentimental diary of the life of a New England farmer:

“Sometimes I have thought: Give me time enough here in this place and I will surely make a beautiful thing.”


Like all industrial designers, Adams worked across a broad spectrum of product ranges. What made Adams unlike other major industrial designers is that he worked entirely alone. Others had dozens of employees working within specialized product groupings, with some focused on interiors, some on product development, some on branding, etc. Adams embraced all of these functions within a studio of one, and Forbes magazine estimated that he had designed approximately 50 million dollars’ worth of merchandise by 1944, after only a decade in the field.

While he continued to maintain relationships with companies around the country following his move to Erie, Adams’ position as a nationally recognized industrial designer with no competition in the midst of a major manufacturing city guaranteed his success. Additionally, his advantageous social position provided access to the owners and decision makers of dozens of Erie’s manufacturing and industrial concerns. He readily found lucrative work with companies like Eriez Magnetics, American Sterilizer, Kold-Draft, Lamac Process Company, Erie Meter Systems, and American Meter Company.

From the work that remains, it appears that Adams generally presented clients with six variations on a given design. Some products obviously captured his imagination; his sketchbooks are filled with dozens of drawings for toilets and sinks for the Case Manufacturing Corporation of Buffalo, New York. His product development drawings are distinguished by their playful sense of movement. Rocking chairs rock; coffee pots slide across the paper; candleholders anticipate the evolution of air hockey. Toilets seem excited that you’ve entered the room; dials and gauges appear to turn themselves; shoe repair machines are so eager to fix your loafers they hop over to say hello.

Even Adams couldn’t guarantee the success of a product, though—the Collman’58’ Electric Shaver cost $17.95 in 1947, or $192.40 today! They didn’t make it past 1948.


Every industrial designer of the early era had hopes of attaching his name to an automobile. While Henry Ford may have streamlined automobile production, the actual design of them was anything but. American vehicles were boxy, inefficient, and uncomfortable. European carmakers were at the forefront of automotive design, and what they lacked in production numbers they more than made up for in looks. American industrial designers saw an opening, and Adams was no different. Some of his earliest designs are for fuel trucks reminiscent of those of Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and busses that owe a great deal to Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion. Adams finally got his chance when Continental-Divco merged with the Twin Coach Company of Kent, Ohio, in 1937, and new management called for a redesign of Divco’s already well-known delivery truck. Adams was part of a team responsible for rethinking the vehicle, and is likely behind the snub nosed hood of the new version, in production from1939 and largely unchanged for decades thereafter.

Adams’ work on the Divco-Twin delivery truck led directly to his consultancy with Twin-Coach. The company recognized that the changing nature of post-war America would see an increased demand for inexpensive yet comfortable transportation as people traveled greater distances between work and home and relocated from country to city. Adams’ bus plan yielded ten extra seats yet created a greater sense of space and luxury through window placement and unified and improved design detail. The Twin-Coach InterCity Deluxe was a hugely successful product line, and dozens of them saw service in American cities from 1946 through the 1970s. While the InterCity Deluxe never sported the coffee bar that he envisioned, it was a vast improvement on any bus that had come before it.


Adams was very successful at offering total design services to companies, modernizing not only the look of the products but also the company’s complete image, mainly by updating the graphic design of logos and trademarks. Within the Erie market, Adams restyled the branding of Kold-Draft, Eriez Magnetics, Lamac Process Company, Lyons Transportation Company, and American Sterilizer.

Adams’ relationship with American Sterilizer—AMSCO—began during WWII, with a line of stylized air purification units. In He created this series of nine trademark proposals for them in 1955; all except one marked a radical departure from their decades-old symbol of a soaring eagle. Keeping his own adage in mind—“a good design is one that sells”—Adams included one last sketch, that of a blockish eagle with a subtle AMSCO label threaded through its beak. The look of this eagle is undoubtedly derived from the 19th century American eagle plaque that lived above the fireplace in the Adams’ living room. It was a wise choice, as AMSCO utilized this logo for several years beginning in 1956. A more modern interpretation of their existing logo was a choice that the company was comfortable with; the others were too much of a change.

Erie Resistor Corporation, on the other hand, readily embraced one of the dozens of images Adams came up with to demarcate their company’s new Erie Plastics Dimensions offshoot. These large Erie Resistor logo sheets had dozens of holes in the corners, indicating that they were tacked to the walls of his studio and taken down on numerous occasions. He likely revisited them over and over again as new variations on the design came to him. They provide a glimpse of his process from concept to completion.


The largest client of Adams’ career was the Oliver Corporation. Oliver started planning a new line of tractors in 1940. Once again, recognition that women were exerting influence on domestic purchases was a large impetus in the decision to retool an existing product. They hired Adams in 1944 to redesign the look of their existing tractors from the ground up, even though there were wartime bans on planning for domestic consumption. An existing Oliver 60 was delivered to the Adams’ farm, where Adams proceeded to directly apply hundreds of pounds of clay to restyle the body and grill. This, combined with his artist renderings, was translated into a full scale mock up. Adams then went to the various Oliver factories to work directly with the engineers to implement his style changes.

Adams and the factories operated in great secrecy. According to Oliver engineer Herbert Morrell, Adams would sketch a single part of the tractor, which an engineer would translate into a design layout. Adams’ sketch was likely destroyed afterward. Test tractors with older styling were deployed to throw off any competitors’ observations while Adams and the engineering team worked to make his designs compatible with the sheet metal tooling.

The new Oliver Fleetline 66, 77, and 88 tractors were marketed extensively, and their unified look, interchangeable parts, emphasis on operator comfort, smart styling, and exceptional engineering made them an instant success. Fleetline tractors were sold all over the world, and they remain popular with collectors. As Morrell wrote, “Wilbur’s designs were beautiful and exotic for that era.” It is likely that the five Oliver tractor proposals pictured here are the only drawings left of the hundreds Adams made for Oliver.


Gas pumps were a natural extension of Adams’ early interest in designing vehicles, and he patented his first fuel dispenser for Erie Meter Systems, Inc., in 1935. Owned by brothers Leonard and N.A. Carlson, Erie Meter developed the world’s first electric service station gasoline dispenser. Although his earlier artwork pertaining to pumps demonstrates the streamline look we would expect, Adams’ first pump for Erie, “the Guardsman,” was a very Art Deco affair, adorned with chrome and a scalloped light. The Carlsons weren’t quite ready for the sleek, curved style that Adams had in mind. The buyer, however, was, and sales of the Guardsman were overshadowed by Adams’ later designs.

Gas was one manufacturing area where war production neither curtailed nor drastically altered the existing nature of the company, and Adams’ work for Erie Meter continued uninterrupted. Erie Meter profited from the dramatically increased wartime demand for airport fueling services, and Adams created dozens of drawings depicting Erie Meter products in air hangers and on airfields. He was seemingly obsessed mobile service units that would go to the plane, rather than the other way around. The Carlsons, by all accounts, adored Adams, and they willingly indulged his overarching creative vision. During the war he explored ideas for futuristic service stations where gas, water, and air would all be dispensed from the same system, under a sheltered canopy. He also designed plans for entire airports that would accommodate the increased demands for post-war domestic air travel.

Erie Meter merged with the A. O. Smith Company in 1955. The new company continued Adams’ consultancy until his death in 1958, and Adams’ designs influenced the look of the next generation of fuel pumps and service stations.

Almost none of Adams’ original artwork for Erie Meter from the 1930s-1940s survived.


Adams was first and foremost an artist, continuously engaged in the making of art, be it to advance the sale of a product or to simply satisfy his own creative needs. While his product and graphic design work never veered from the cutting edge and modern, his own fine art was always quite traditional. He was particularly fond of still lifes, pastoral scenes, and historic set pieces, and drew inspiration from the farm and his Erie surroundings. He drew very few figural works that we know of. He filled dozens of sketchbooks, of which less than ten survive. He regularly entered the art shows held by the Erie Art Club, particularly their annual Black and White and Watercolor show. He created pencil sketch studies of his potential subjects, sometimes over the course of several months, then executed the work in charcoal or watercolor; many won prizes and many were sold. He invariably expressed that his fondest wish was to retire to New Mexico to paint, and we know from his sketchbooks and existing artwork that he made at least one trip to the Southwest.

Adams became president of the Erie Art Club in 1955, and pushed forward the plan to find the club its own home, an idea that had been in the works since the 1920s. In fall 1956, the plan was finally realized with the purchase of the Morrison House, located next door to the Public Museum (now the Watson-Curtze Mansion). He was honored with the 1956 Lord Memorial Award in recognition of his role as a leading industrial designer and his years of service to the Erie arts community, expressed through his work as president of both the Erie Art Club and the Erie Philharmonic.


Although industrial design was at the forefront of his career, Adams never stopped working on architectural and interior design projects that encompassed both renovations and entirely new construction. He created fairly traditional homes for Wolf Road neighbors, but when given free rein over a project, he devised iconic buildings such as the towering steel structure of the SkyWay Drive-In Theater, an Erie landmark for decades. He was also responsible for the green and gold interior
of the Security People’s Trust bank and the Baldwin Building’s Century Club.

Adams was very involved in the Erie community. He was a first reader for three years at the First Church of Christ Scientist on Sassafras Street; he served as president of the Erie Art Club and the Erie Philharmonic; he was a Freemason; he gave talks to the Rotary and designed
a group home for troubled teens. His natural interest in improving the community, coupled with his futuristic leanings, meant that many of his radical proposals received much press but little interest in actualization. Reminiscent of the work he did with Walker & Walks on Cleveland’s Union Terminal, he developed extensive plans for Perry Square that would have organized all functions of city government into an elevated tower that straddled both sides of the square, allowing for parking and a direct route up and down State Street underneath. He proposed a floating amphitheater in the bay off of the Public Dock, and a modern airport with a revolving rooftop restaurant. He reexamined earlier ideas for a causeway to the Peninsula in harmony with its natural ecology. While the Erie community sought out Adams’ advice when it came to urban and arts planning, they rarely took it, and very few of his plans for Erie were ever realized.


No designer escaped the influence of the 1939 World’s Fair, the “World of Tomorrow.” Norman Bel Geddes created General Motors’ Futurama ride, which took thirty thousand visitors a day through his “Vision of the Future.” Bel Geddes’—and GM’s— vision was of an interconnected super highway system that would lie like a grid from coast to coast of the United States. Visitors to the fair were conveyed through an acre-wide model of an utopian society filled with remote controlled cars, clean and efficient power plants, artificially produced crops, skyscrapers with multi-level storefronts and rooftop landing pads for tiny personal helicopters.

When Forbes magazine asked Adams to comment on the world of tomorrow, he remarked, “People are expecting great things, and they will indeed see many improvements and innovations. But many products will have to be tested on a small scale before they’re mass produced, and I would say the so-called helicopter age is not of the world of tomorrow, but of the world of the day after tomorrow.”

Adams’ practicality when it came to the limits of forcing design never stopped him from expressing his own vision of the future. He started out with fantastic, bug-shaped vehicles in the 1930s, but after the fair he became known for his rural and domestic scenes filled with plastic farms, helicopter commuters, and North Pole ice airports. Many of his ideas were quite prescient, including shopping centers that were designed as unified store fronts where one could accomplish all of their shopping needs, and flat screen televisions that would allow for an in-home theater experience. Adams’ artwork was both futuristic and appealing, and he was commissioned by several major outlets during the mid 1940s to provide his visionary insight into the “World of Tomorrow.


Adams’ career was flourishing in 1958. His consultancies were abundant; he was an esteemed member of the Erie community; his family was happy and healthy. Adams, however, was not. Regardless of his long period of abstinence, a lifetime of hard drinking caught up with him. On November 6, 1958, he started coughing up blood; the hemorrhaging could not be stopped and he could not be saved.

Adams certainly wasn’t the first artist to die while still in his prime, so why is it that we don’t remember him? The Industrial Designers Society of America, of which he was one of the first sixty members, doesn’t even list him on their rolls. Adams isn’t referenced in books on industrial design—not that a solid history of the period exists—and those designs that have appeared in publications and exhibitions are invariably unattributed. Some of this is the nature of industrial design. Although Adams sought later in his career to assert that all original artwork remain his property, very little of his early work survives. His renderings were used to create production drawings, and were likely discarded once the next step in the process was realized. Those that may have survived were in turn lost as companies merged or closed down over the years. Not a single instance of a Wilbur Henry Adams drawing has been found in any company archive.

The Erie community did little to preserve Adams’ memory, tearing down the buildings and covering over the interiors he was responsible for locally. Having worked alone for the vast majority of his career, he hadn’t mentored younger designers or left a mammoth firm in his wake, such as Teague, Loewy and Bel Geddes all had. All of these factors, coupled with his early death, contributed to a decades’ long loss of understanding Adams’ important role in the field of American industrial design.


After Adams’ untimely death in 1958, his workshop sat idle. Arleen remarried; the children moved away; memory of his work faded over time. After her mother’s death in 1981, Abigail, the youngest child, only had twenty-four hours to clear out her father’s studio. She saved as much as she could, but all of his models and most of his personal effects were lost. Regardless of her own personal struggles, Abigail diligently paid to keep her father’s work safely in storage. Without the commitment of Abigail and her husband, Lauder, to ensure the full preservation of the collection, Adams’ significant contribution to industrial design, particularly
its earliest days, would be lost. Adams’ extant work has been digitized in its entirety. No matter its future physical state, Adams will never be lost again.