Design Heroes: Buckminster Fuller


The A&R has argued that Colin Chapman ought be considered Industrial Designer of International repute. This has not always been the case but we hope to rectify this omission by a series of articles and benchmarking.

Martin Pawley’s book makes a similar case for Buckminster Fuller. In this article we will compare ad contrast both men and allow our subscribers to make their own evaluation.

In his list of design heroes of the 20c Pawley includes or referees to:

  • Raymond Loewy
  • Harley Earle
  • Ettore Sottass [only designer not to be involved in motor cars]
  • Tom Karen
  • Colin Chapman

In his introduction to Buckminster Fuller he states:

“Colin Chapman, who founded a high performance automobile legend that he used every resource, even forbidden ones to keep out of the hands of corporate predators until he died”

 There are many similarities with Chapman especially regarding technology crossover, lightweight structures and mutation of aeronautical technology and construction method. Both men were also:

  • Radical free thinkers and visionaries
  • Designers
  • Engineers
  • Proponents of efficiency
  • Characterized by “more for less” philosophy

Pawley concludes the purpose of his series is to examine:

“Through the lives and works of designers like these, the series “Design Heroes” will change our understanding of what those men and women did who truly learned to make more production out of less work- by design.”

This is an accurate and true epitaph of Colin Chapman.

Richard Buckminster Fuller [1895-1983]

Is considered to be an American:

  • Architect
  • Engineer
  • Author
  • Designer
  • Inventor
  • Entrepreneur
  • Futurist philosopher and by some a visionary [a cosmic Quixotic?]

He was perhaps an unconventional design engineer. He possessed perhaps some contradictory qualities. However he did look to technology to solve problems. In the editors estimation Buckminster Fuller was entrepreneurial in his search and response to opportunities. Although not formally trained in architecture he has become a seminal influence in 20c design.

He is considered by many to be prophet of sustainability. Certainly his design mantra was “More for less” or re expressed as “ maximum advantage with minimum of energy”. In his career he designed:

  • Houses e.g. “Lightful House” concept [see Dymaxion below].”Full of light, light weight and delightful”
  • Cars e.g. The Dymaxion I, II, and III
  • Boats
  • Development “games “ or programmes
  • Transmitters
  • Geodesic domes
  • Promoted solar and wave generated energy

He was a product of the late 18 and early 20c when engineering and technology interfaced with manufacturing to create wealth and in some respects extend liberty. Brunel was one of the model engineers for whom conquest of physical barriers had commercial advantage. Buckminster Fuller would have been aware and aligned with the events of the early 20c. These included:

  • Mass markets
  • The First World War –the use and role of Military technology and the role of mass production
  • The Great Depression and Wall Street Crash of the 1920’s.
  • The development of aviation technology both military and civilian e.g. The Graf Zeppelin and later the Douglas DC3 [known in Europe as Dakota]
  • Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor’s dynamic and response making and responding to mass markets and consumption
  • Structural engineering achievements in steel and fero- the Buffalo Grain elevators/ silos.
  • The design ethos of the early 20c modernist/ functionalist architects like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius who were attempting to integrate engineering technology into architecture and town planning etc.

Pawley’s interpretation of Buckminster Fuller’s vision is that

“……….Human inventive ingenuity could be pitted against the exhaustion of resources and injustice of poverty to produce more by design than existed in nature…………..”

Buckminster Fuller undertook war service during the First World War and one of his first products was the Stockade Building system of lightweight weatherproof and fireproof housing materials. In the early 1920 Buckminster Fuller was in his mid 20’s and suffered the sad death of his daughter. Possible through the bereavement and introspection he emerged with philosophy of life and design .He adopted a design code that embraced the 4 Dimensional [4D]. “4D” stood for “four- dimensional” thinking. Thinking in time rather than just space with an element comprising the consequence for humanity. Some critics have suggested that the “4D” manifesto/ methodology has a comparison with “ Towards a New Architecture”.  Buckminster Fuller is also widely known through his publishing and authorship. In particular:

  • “Shelter” Magazine which may have been supported by SSA [Structural Study Association]
  • “Nine chains to the Moon’ a highly idiosyncratic work that alluded to recycling etc.

This is possible the root of his green credential along with his concern for energy efficiency, and finding ways to do more with less. Buckminster Fuller is thought to have recommended a world electricity network with the potential for cumulative technical advantage that he thought of as synergy.  His buildings aspired to be radically light strong [often alluded to as “tensgrity” structure] and he attempted prefabrication techniques to minimize assembly and reduce costs. He might have inspired aspects of “Drop City”

For all his idealism he has suffered some criticism that many of his practical ideas were adopted by multinationals, the Pentagon and the military and possible had less utopian outcomes than claimed.

In this article we will look at the sources of possible inspiration and analyse his achievements in detail and explore the links with Colin Chapman’s approach.

The Dymaxion House c 1928/29.

The term was drawn from the concepts of dynamism and maximum efficiency. The first design c 1927 was a building comprised a lightweight rectangular structure. Developed under his methodology of maximum advantage with minimum energy it was an innovative system of structural prefabrication. It was applied both to the design of 10 storey high rise blocks and to the prototype or single home suspended by steel ties from a hollow central pylon. This was the “cleaned up” version [c May 1929] comprising a hexagonal plan that achieved the greater publicity and became world famous.

“Construction was based on an observation that housing combines two elements- the hosing of utilities heat, lighting and plumbing; and the housing of people. The first must be strong, well protected and delicately adjusted, the second light and free and more or less temporary…

Steel guys from the top of a rigid tower suspend light walls and floors………..

Weight regarded as governing factor, since the house is conceived in terms of mass production and mass –distribution. Small five room type, complete with furnishing and accessories weighing 6000lbs should sell mass produced at $1,500…

The designer sees the house as a type that may be dismantled, transported, and re erected with comparative ease, even replaced at ten year intervals in much the same way that automobiles are replaced today.”

As with later projects and indeed the UK there may have been government funds for mass housing proposals after the wars to provide housing and perhaps mobilize otherwise redundant labour. The New Deal was also possibly one example where to government sought to manage the economy, address practical concerns and offered incentives. Buckminster Fuller founded “Fuller House Inc” to progress his ideas.

The Dymaxion Cars c 1933.

Some of the concept for the cars might have derived from the “4D Auto-Airplane” c1928. Three Dymaxion cars were built in 1933 and 1934. The concept was based on weight reduction, streamline and an intention they be the cars of the future. The project is believed to have been financed by Philip Pearson. They were registered:

  • FV 453
  • SI 187
  • HF 439

The design comprised:

  • Wingless, tailless fuselage; 5.7m long
  • Hand built traditional coachwork; natural aluminum over ash frame
  • Body form – streamlined monococque aircraft type
  • Near perfect teardrop profile
  • 11 seat body
  • Chrome-molybdenum aircraft steel tube ladder chassis
  • Ford V8 engine rear mounted [80bhp].

For all the futuristic ideals the machine suffered significant inadequacies that included:

  • Control / steering problems over 50mph
  • Braking problems
  • Chassis twist and camber change
  • High tyre wear
  • Visibility problems

Buckminster Fuller was involved with a further car project post war; the D45 but this for various reasons was not progressed.

The Dymaxion Bathroom c1937/38

Buckminster Fuller is believed to have submitted a patent c 1938 for the Dymaxion bathing cabin. This was in fact a prefabricated type moulding

DDU [Dymaxion Deployment Unit]

“Based on a standard cone top 5.5m Butler steel grain bin manufactured for the New Deal farm support programme………… it “involved the design of a new segmental monococque roof to provide headroom and the introduction of windows and a convection ventilation system. Promoted originally as a military module for export to Europe in 1940 ……… the DDU was soon developed into a mass production transportable low cost housing system. Erected first from a temporary mast at its destination, he fully furnished steel unit was used strapped down to a timber pallet base.”

The Wichita House c 1946

“ Using factory- built units this startlingly futuristic house was Buckminster Fullers model of technologically enhanced modern living.” Its inspiration may have been drawn from he following sources:

  • Post war housing shortage and government subsidies to provide housing
  • The labour surplus and skills made available after the war.
  • Pioneering work in prefabricated construction with examples from Brunel to Gropius.
  • A certain rejoicing in machine aesthetic
  • American lead in mass production techniques
  • The consumer concept in widest sense of market and service.
  • The availability of new technology both as assembly but also marketing futurism

Once again Buckminster Fuller was exploring “ a more for less” approach and examining the “structural possibilities of light weight envelopes using tensile metal” along the way the designer was pushing the envelope of industrial design and technological transfer.

The Wichita house was built in Kansas with support from the Beech Aircraft Co. It was in part an evolution of the Dymaxion House. It had a transportable shell structure of sheet curved aluminum alloy panels with sheets of acrylic glazing in a continuous ribbon. The Wichita House enclosed a 1000 sq.ft [93 sq m] circle of climate-controlled space. With a wood floor it comprised less than 200 components including internal partisans. However the fabric covered interior brought domestic warmth to an otherwise austere structure. Its believed the specification may have included fully fitted kitchen, 2 bedrooms 2 Dymaxion bathrooms [see above] and weighed an estimated 3500 klg. The basic unit is thought to have cost $1800 per unit and total retail price including site, assembly, labour and delivery in the USA $6500. [Useful research would be to discover comparable prices of alternative units in the UK and USA; some sources suggest that a conventional American equivalent may have been $12,000]

Pawley states:

“Between the lowly DDU and the technological tour de force of the Wichita house there appears to be a much larger gap than there is in reality, for although the Wichita house used a much larger number of components and was built of aircraft duralumin instead of steel, it embodied exactly the same structural principles………….was the consummation of all Buckminster Fuller had learned about dwelling design and industrial production…”

The Geodesic Domes

Note the comparison with an igloo.

Its believed that Buckminster Fuller was employed at the Black Mountains College in the 1930’s.Here “New Deal “ and Bauhaus ideas might have permeated and inspired and coalesced with previous experiments. Later on Buckminster fuller was at the Massattusis Institute of Technology

There is very strong evidence that the geodesic dome was invented earlier by Walter Bauersfeld in Germany, and that he took a patent .His dome was build for Carl Zeiss c 1926. Buckminster Fuller also borrows/ incorporated ideas from    Kenneth Snelson. However it was Buckminster Fuller who lodged the patent in the US in 1954 and the time / technology was possibly more receptive.

A geodesic dome is a spherical or part spherical shell structure or lattice shell based on network of circles [hence geodesic] on the surface of the sphere. The geodesics intersect to form triangles [see Colin Chapman and chassis design]

It was essentially a radically strong, light “transgrity” structure, ultra lightweight capable of using aluminum tubes and stretch resistant aircraft control wires and other state of the art aircraft industry materials and methods and of course other materials.

Buckminster Fuller full appreciated the structural efficiency and was aware that “ a good index of performance of any building frame is the structural weight required to shelter sq ft from the weather.” His geodesic dome was tiny fraction of conventional wall and roof design. However it should be noted that the dome construction can be wasteful in other respects and that much of the floor space cannot be practically utilized,

It represented, and expressed the Buckminster Fuller design methodology of:

  • High strength to weight ratio
  • Inherent stability
  • A sphere encloses greatest volume with the least surface area

Some of the most famous geodesic domes are:

  • 1960’s “Cloud Structures”
  • Tetrahedronal City
  • Expo 67
  • “Now House” for United Nations Habitat exhibition, Vancouver 1976.
  • “Triton City”
  • Carry through to the Eden Project.
  • Military applications.

Others significantly assisted Buckminster Fuller. These included Isamu Noguchi and Shoji Sadao.

Colin Chapman and Richard Buckminster Fuller Compared.

We need not repeat Chapman design methodology here. [It is see out clearly in A&R articles particularly “Motoring Icons of the 20C”].

Fundamentally what both men shared was that they were Industrial Designers who combined and embraced engineering, designers, inventor, adaptors of cross over technologies and entrepreneur which they directed to efficiency and performance. Restated this is the green agenda. The elimination of waste and the extraction or exploitation of highest yield or output with the minimum of resources and input.

Both men demonstrated this most convincingly in structural design. Buckminster Fuller through his geodesic dome and limited successful car and Chapman in his space frame chassis [which shared much in terms of triangulation] and later monocoque chassis. Further more the Chapman methodology had further results as the application of his principles used fewer raw materials, used smaller engines and with aerodynamic bodies consumed less fuel.

Both men were entrepreneurs wishing to bring products to the market place. Buckminster Fuller through his utility homes and domes and Chapman in his race /production cars, motorboats and early exploration of micro lights. Both men suffered set backs and relative failure but learnt and moved on.

Both men shared other characteristics too,  to a greater or lesser extent.

Martin Pawley in his book made a case for Buckminster Fuller that his achievements might have been underestimated. There seems to be a near universal denial and diminishing of the achievements of engineers possibly because of the very practicality, utility and their solution based design.

The editors cannot but feel that much that has become “culturally valuable” is really rooted in scarcity and hence to price and not on the intellectual and aesthetic content.


In this article we have explored in detail the career and achievements of one of the worlds greatest Industrial Designers and proponents of sustainability. This has provided the opportunity to benchmark Colin Chapman and to make the case for his greater public acknowledgement. The editors consider that Chapman is worthy of acceptance as a leading Industrial Designer and that based on objective assessment stands equal to his peers such as Buckminster Fuller.

We invite our subscribers to make their own assessment and comment.

In future issues we will continue the practice of benchmarking taking international examples both from motor racing and wider design fields including architecture and furniture.

The Proposed CCM&EC

The proposed museum believes that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our Business Plan includes provision for promoting products and services which share Chapman’s ideals of mechanical efficiency and sustainability. In addition we propose merchandising that explain and interprets the social and cultural context of Chapman’s designs in period. Its suggested there will be catalogue for on line purchasing.

In particular there will be opportunities coinciding with specific exhibitions. As Colin Chapman is considered an Industrial Designer it will be appropriate that his achievements be seen and benchmarked in the context of his peers. This will create natural opportunities for related merchandising on a dual level basis and resultant increased income.


Buckminster Fuller. Martin Pawley. Trefoil Publications.1990.
ISBN:0862941601[This book has an excellent bibliography and ought be referred to]

Oxford History of Art: Design in the USA.J.l.Meikle.Oxford. 2005

20C Design.J.M.Woodham.Oxford University Press.1997