Remembering industrial designer Charles Harrison | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Remembering industrial designer Charles Harrison 

A tribute to the designer of the View-Master, the Dial-O-Matic, and the plastic garbage can—and the first black executive at Sears.

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click to enlarge Charles Harrison

Charles Harrison

Courtesy Project Osmosis

I couldn't dial up industrial designer Charles Harrison to interview him for this story. The man behind the ubiquitous plastic trash can, the futuristic 3-D View-Master, the beehive-bonnet Jiffy-Jet hair dryer, and so many more irresistible versions of familiar 20th-century products died November 29 in Santa Clarita, California, where he'd lived for the last few years, at the age of 87.

But on a late-January Sunday at the Chicago Cultural Center—where a fraction of Harrison's vast body of work is on display as part of the "African American Designers in Chicago" exhibit—so many of his Chicago colleagues, former students, and family gathered to celebrate him that it felt like an introduction.

The first black executive at Sears's Chicago headquarters, Harrison was a pioneer and a consummate professional, said Zoë Ryan, the Art Institute's curator of architecture and design. "Someone I could look up to and aspire to be like," said Design Management Institute president Carole Bilson. A really supportive parent, said his son, composer and conductor Charley Harrison, director of the UCLA Jazz Orchestra. "An incredible nurturer" and—a telling choice of words—"a winsome man," said Michael Saubert, a Harrison mentee and the current director of industrial design for Sears Kenmore appliances.

As a designer and, ultimately, the head of Sears's design lab, Harrison was a shaper of products. A proponent of the "form follows function" aesthetic, he eschewed froufrou, found beauty in functionality, and gave the everyday objects used by millions of Americans a sleek, modern appearance.

Born in Louisiana in 1931 and raised in Texas and Arizona, where his father taught industrial arts at the only black high school in the then segregated state, Harrison was a smart kid, but he struggled with what was later diagnosed as dyslexia, and floundered as a 16-year-old economics major at the City College of San Francisco. After aptitude testing pointed him toward art, he wound up in industrial design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he flourished, though he was the only black student in his classes. He graduated from SAIC in 1954 and was drafted into the army, serving two years as a mapmaker in Germany. Returning to Chicago, he started evening classes toward a master's degree at IIT; married the love of his life, Janet Simpson; and tried, without success, to find a job. He could freelance, but no one in Chicago seemed to want to put a black designer, no matter how talented, on staff.

In his 2014 memoir, A Life's Design, Harrison wrote that in his initial attempts to get hired at Sears, which was then the nation's largest retailer, an unusually frank manager told him there was an unwritten policy against hiring black people. He finally landed a job with Henry Glass, who'd been his professor and mentor at SAIC and had his own practice. Harrison subsequently worked for two other small shops, Edward Klein & Associates and Robert Podall Associates, proving himself on everything from early transistor radios and a significant redesign for the View-Master to barber chairs and the Dial-O-Matic food cutter before Sears decided it could hire him after all in 1961. At the start of what would turn out to be a globe-trotting, 32-year-long career at Sears, he was happy to be there, he wrote in A Life's Design, "although I encountered a lot of racism, which came from every direction."

The racism ranged from frequent, mostly oblivious comments to confrontation by security for walking while black on the corporate campus—after working there for more than a decade. In another instance, when a theft occurred in his building, Harrison recalled, he was among the first to be investigated: "I couldn't find anybody else who had been checked except a couple of women in the home economics lab. It was just them and me, the only black guy."

"Over time I became more accepted," Harrison wrote, "although until the day I left Sears, I was always reminded that I could not take my guard down, that I was in a hostile environment every day. Every day!"

At Sears, he designed hundreds of products, including Craftsman tools and tractors, hearing aids tiny enough to sit on an eyeglass frame, and those sleekly molded indestructible plastic trash cans that put an end to the early-morning clanging of metal containers on garbage pickup day. The pieces of his work on display at the Cultural Center include a portable sewing machine that simplified threading, two View-Masters, and a lightweight age-of-plastic aqua-blue chair.

In 1992, the year that Sears moved out of its iconic tower to Hoffman Estates, Janet was diagnosed with cancer (she died in 1999). Harrison retired the following year and began teaching part-time, first at UIC and then at Columbia College. When Sears decided in 1997 to cut retirees' life insurance benefits to a token $5,000, he joined the National Association of Retired Sears Employees, picked up a picket sign, and marched in demonstrations protesting that the company was unfair to its workers.

"We were really an aggravation, but to no avail," Harrison wrote: in the end, the courts sided with the company.

In 2008, Harrison received the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum National Lifetime Achievement Award. At the Cultural Center celebration, under its gloriously froufrou Tiffany dome, UIC professor Stephen Melamed said Harrison was a "rare and important example of everyday design heroism," and a tearful Victoria Matranga, the design programs coordinator of the International Housewares Association, recalled him as "an elegant man with an irrepressible sense of humor." Then everyone adjourned to the fourth-floor exhibit hall to admire his artful designs for easy-to-handle paintbrushes, automatic electric coffee pots, and the trash cans that bounced, even when dropped from a helicopter.   v

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