Design of the Reflex

Ansco sought the help of Henry Dreyfuss, a well known industrial designer, to design the Reflex. Dreyfuss, with whom Ansco had a long-standing relationship, is better known for his streamlined locomotive design for the New York Central System, the 1937 Bell 302 telephone (and later model 500) and the Honeywell Round thermostat.

Prior to his work on the Reflex, he had designed a number of products for Ansco, right down to the film packaging.

Dreyfuss was unique among industrial designers of the time. When commissioned to design a product, he insisted on meeting with all departments concerned with production, from executive to engineering to production. His design philosophy centered around five points: safety and ease of use, ease of maintenance, cost, appeal and appearance. Prioritizing these points focused his design on human rather than abstract values.

“Improvements in lenses and shutters give amateurs a chance to make excellent pictures. The problem for the designer is to help the photographer get the best out of his camera,” Dreyfuss said.

He brought these points to bear in the design of the Reflex. Prior to the Reflex, twin lens cameras focused with a single knob on the left or right side of the camera, depending on the manufacturer and make. Film wind, most notably in the Rolleiflex, used a fold-out wind arm. The body components of earlier competing models were largely utilitarian; this even extended to contemporary competitors like the Kodak Reflex.

Ansco’s Reflex, under Dreyfuss’s guidance, gained grace and elegance through gentle streamlining. Hard corners were subtly rounded, giving the camera a softer feel in the hand. Chrome trim emphasized the lines of the camera in one continuous ribbon across the front and sides of the camera.

Focusing became an ambidextrous effort with the Reflex. The prototype had a focus knob on the left and a geared ring on the right, placed to fall right under the photographer’s fingers. Likewise, the shutter cocking and firing levers were placed for maximum ease of use.

The f-stop and shutter speed settings appeared on top of the lens board and focusing lens, respectively, allowing the photographer to make both critical settings without moving the camera from the taking position. The Reflex was a camera designed to make the picture taking process as streamlined as possible, encouraging a work flow that minimized technical disruption.

Other subtle improvements were made to the typical twin lens design. Closing the camera back locked the two left side film pins in place, preventing accidental dislocation of the film roll. A double-exposure mechanism was incorporated, allowing Reflex users to take such photos with relative ease.

And, in what may be one of Ansco’s best improvements on twin lens design, the winding lever worked in any position. Backwinding was not necessary nor did wind have to start in any particular position.

Dreyfuss was particularly proud of his effort. In his catalog of his own works (A Record of Industrial Designs: 1929 Through 1947), he said, “In the Reflex camera, the various controls are so placed as to reduce the possibility of error — a true precision instrument in a handy and pleasing form.”

Dreyfuss enlisted the aid of Theodore Engbert, a cabinet maker who specialized in prototype mock-ups, to realize his vision. The result was the all black prototype Ansco featured in the November/December 1945 issue of Ansconian magazine. It also appeared in several trade publications and store catalogs ahead of the actual product.

Reflex design patent (pdf)