Charles Harrison, Industrial Designer
Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design is a collection of insightful, intimate, and often irreverent interviews with twenty architects and design luminaries over the age of eighty. More than just a record of the remarkable histories and experiences of design’s most influential figures, it is also a source of knowledge and inspiration for contemporary creatives and generations to come.
This excerpt features an interview with one of the most prolific industrial designers of the twentieth century, Charles A. Harrison.
As a designer of over 750 consumer products, Charles Harrison has a body of work matched only by his enduring desire to improve the quality of everyday life. Taking the form of everything from toothbrushes, televisions, and sewing machines to radios, binoculars, and lawn mowers, his work has brought recognizable convenience and utility to the American household. He is responsible for designing the now-ubiquitous plastic garbage can, introduced in 1966 as a replacement for its heavy, loud, and rust-prone metal predecessor, and the iconic View-Master toy, a childhood staple since 1958.
A southerner by birth, Harrison grew up in Louisiana, Texas, and Arizona during the economic scarcity of the Great Depression. His rural upbringing, coupled with the steadying influence of his parents, instilled a sense of natural form and order. He graduated high school at the age of sixteen and moved to California to attend the City College of San Francisco. Initially a weak student, Harrison took a vocational test that revealed his aptitude for art and industrial design; shortly thereafter, he transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he excelled. In 1954, after being drafted into the US Army as a cartographer remapping postwar West Germany, his worldview expanded considerably. Harrison returned to the States determined to make his mark on humanity.
That goal was achieved largely through his thirty-year tenure at Sears, Roebuck & Company, where he was hired full-time in its design department after varied freelance assignments and a brief period working for his mentor, architect Henry Glass. The first African American executive to serve in the company’s seventy-five-year history, Harrison led the design department to considerable success, navigating racism and corporate bureaucracy along the way. Initially a mail-order catalog retailer geared toward rural customers, during Harrison’s tenure Sears expanded into the urban and suburban retail markets, pioneering the modern midcentury department store as a practical resource for durable home goods and hardware. The diversity of the company’s offerings suited Harrison’s talents, as he created a vast portfolio of attractive and user-friendly products for domestic and industrial use.
Since retiring from Sears in 1993, Harrison has devoted his practice to teaching, public speaking, and writing, publishing his memoir, A Life’s Design, in 2006. He holds an honorary doctorate of fine arts from his alma mater, SAIC, and was awarded lifetime achievement awards by the Industrial Designers Society of America and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York. He is dedicated to passing his hard-earned wisdom on, believing that a designer is never working solely for him or herself but always with someone else in mind — and always for the greater good.
When did you first become interested in design?
I was probably interested in it long before I was aware that I was interested in it. In my second year at San Francisco City College, I was not doing well scholastically, so I took a course in vocational guidance to help me find my niche. Every Tuesday I’d take a test and then research a profession, and I began to suspect that design was where my interests lay. After completing the course, my instructor looked at my scores and told me I might do well in design and art.
Had you always been interested in objects?
Yes. My father was a teacher, so we lived a very modest lifestyle, but he was quite good with his hands, in particular woodworking. He made most of the things we had in the house, including the furniture and a lot of my toys. I took an interest in what he was doing, and I certainly appreciated it. My mother was a housewife — she managed our home and its appearance — and she had a strong inclination toward music and the visual arts. She worked to make the house and its interior beautiful. I would assist her with whatever she was working on, and that’s how I learned to appreciate design, how things were arranged.
As a young kid in the South, I lived in a very rural environment and observed a lot of nature: animals, trees, plants. I think that experience also helped me to establish a vision of what is beautiful or compatible — what combination of forms, factors, and colors are pleasing to human beings.
Who was your most important mentor, particularly early on in your career?
There are two people who I can immediately say influenced my approach and interest in design. Henry Glass is one: he was an architect, primarily, who also taught industrial design to first-year students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was a student. And Joseph Palmer, also a trained architect and an industrial designer. Palmer had a design firm in Chicago, and taught part-time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was very impressed and engrossed by him. He had what I thought — and still think — is important for a designer, namely, a very high level of skill in aesthetic modeling. They both had a knack for innovation and creativity.
Was it Henry Glass who first started giving you freelance work?
Carl Bjorncrantz gave me my first freelance assignments. He was a designer with a strong interest in furniture, and headed the Sears Roebuck design department when I applied for a job there. He took a look at my work, and I think because I also had a strong interest in furniture design, we found ourselves on the same wavelength. He recognized that and gave me some furniture design work to do. In those days, his department was divided into groups: one section was furniture, another section was automotive. The sporting goods section designed things like tricycles and fishing equipment. After I completed a couple of assignments, he attempted to hire me as the furniture design lead. As part of the process, I interviewed with people in several different parts of the company, and took a battery of tests that measured things like personality, interests, intelligence, and so on.
Did that ultimately lead to a job with Sears?
No, that came later. I went in to visit Carl after one of the interviews, and I could tell from his expression that he was uneasy. He said, “I don’t know how to say this, but the fact is, I’ve just learned that Sears has an unwritten policy against hiring African Americans, and so I cannot hire you to be on staff. However, I do have a bunch of projects that I control, and I would like to use you as a freelance designer on them.” And he did.
So that’s how I got my first jobs.
Carl would give me weeklong assignments. I would work on one at home, then come into the office and present what I’d done. This went on for six months. Then one day when I went in to deliver my design — usually sketches or mock-ups or drawings — he told me that he didn’t have any more freelance budget and couldn’t continue to keep me on. By some act of fate, I happened to get a call that very day from Henry Glass, who asked if I would come down and talk to him about working for his design firm. Of course I jumped on that right away. Henry really didn’t have to interview me, as I’d studied under him as both an undergraduate and graduate student. He knew my work and me as a person, and put me right on his tab. I stayed there for at least a year, and
I was just delighted to have the privilege of working in furniture design, and to work for my former professor. I learned a lot from the other employees on his staff, many of whom had more experience than me. At one point, I got a call from Bjorncrantz at Sears saying, “Charles, I can hire you now.” I said, “Well, thank you, but I already have a good job.”
What other firms did you freelance for?
After my time at Henry’s office, I worked for a couple of other people, including Edward Klein — who was heavily into radios, stereos, television design, and other electronics — and Robert Podall Associates. My furniture design skills led directly to these jobs, as television sets were considered furniture pieces in those days. We worked long hours, with little pay. All night on many occasions, with maybe a hamburger around nine o’clock. I really wanted a job like the other guys I knew from school who were working from nine to five, with no late nights, and vacation and sick pay. I really was anxious for a proper full-time job with benefits.
When I was working for Podall, I got yet another call from Carl Bjorncrantz’s office, offering me the opportunity to come back in and talk, which by then I was quite ready to do. Carl made me an offer. I was being asked to come work for Sears now — inside the company, inside the building.
What was that like, to go from being told that you couldn’t work there, to later becoming the head of Sears’s in-house design department? How did your relationship with the company evolve?
I just took it in stride. I see it as a parallel to Nelson Mandela’s life under apartheid, for example, where he was put in prison and then one day became president of the country. That’s how I feel about it; I don’t know what they thought about it. They just looked the other way. I don’t think the discrimination was willful. Ultimately I think they decided it was time to make some efforts to show that Sears was not so rigid, or mean-spirited.
What was this period like for you? How would you describe the social and political climate of the 1960s?
It’s difficult for me to talk about even today. That was just life in America. A lot of that racism still exists. It was understood clearly that African American people were on the outside of American culture. I was in a hostile environment, and as a young boy I learned how to live with it. Or, at least, I accepted it as the way life was going to be, and that I’d have to learn how to negotiate. And I did. My father did it, my brother did it, and my uncles and all my relatives. My mother, fortunately, did not have to work much outside of the home. My father was the one who had to go out and hustle, so to speak.
Did he face similar discrimination?
He faced it more than any of us, as did my older brother. We had very few employment opportunities, or options of other sorts. I recently attended
a holiday gathering of young design people and someone came to me and said, “I read your book and would like to learn more about your life. I’d like to spend some time with you, if you’d be willing?” Of course, I offered to sit with him and discuss any questions he might have. He asked, for instance, why I never owned my own design firm. I told him it was not possible for an African American man to own a design firm back then. And even if I had, I would not have been able to get any business. You could just as easily ask Jackie Robinson why he didn’t ever own a baseball team. No, those kinds of things were not options. It was a given that we would not participate in that aspect of the American economy or American life.
How would you describe your design process?
Designing is a process of problem solving, so the first thing I try to do is understand the problem. I define the problem and the project, then see
what all the negatives are. If the product is in the marketplace, I also look at what the competition is offering. I find that information either through shopping, going to stores, or looking through periodicals, magazines, and newspapers. In terms of appearance and function, we must at least meet the competition, and, in most cases, improve upon what the competition offers.
You’ve designed hundreds of everyday items: sewing machines, hair dryers, toasters, and even the now-ubiquitous plastic trash can. When you’re working on a design, are you ever able to foresee or predict its success?
Never. You know, so many good designs get stopped. Far too often, the designer is given the burden of responsibility for a product’s success or failure. Having been in corporate America for as long as I have, I’m aware of all the ways in which management can affect the success of a product. It could be marketing or engineering; it could be financial or distribution-related. There are so many factors and influences that are beyond the designer’s control. I just had to believe that if we could do a better job than anyone else, if we could produce a product — say, a garbage can — that was superior in function, durability, and ease of use to anything else out there, then the sky was the limit. I feel very good that I’ve made a contribution to humanity. That’s as much as anyone could wish for.
What do you mean when you refer to a designer’s burden of responsibility?
So often people will say, “What was the designer thinking when they made this thing?” But they don’t understand the many levels of management that influence whether, how, and what a design turns out to be. It could be some powerful vice president, or the manufacturing company, or a marketing person. So much power playing goes on in these corporations; they input or delete what they do or don’t want.
Given your years of experience in the field, what are your thoughts on the state of industrial design today?
It has played a crucial role in the economy. Industrial design got this country out of the Great Depression. Prior to that, everything was built on function alone, and not designed per se. If an engineer could put it together, that’s what it was. Customers had very little to select from, and there was no need to give a product anything more than functionality.
Once industrial design picked up, America’s heartbeat started accelerating. The economy got stronger and stronger, and more and more products became available. Those products became more user-friendly and more attractive. There began to be a popular understanding of the factors that must enter into any good design: ease of use, ease of understanding, compatibility with human beings.
You taught for twenty years after retiring from Sears. What did you try to instill in your students?
Always remember that you’re not designing for yourself; you’re designing for someone else. Thousands of people could be affected by what you do. Don’t think of it as a piece of fine art; you don’t wake up, grab a piece of paper, and start designing just to satisfy yourself.
In what ways do you think industrial design education has changed?
I wish there were more teachers out there who actually had experience in the practice of industrial design, in the real world. There’s an excess of teachers who are shy on experience. Perhaps they were unable to find an entry-level position in the field, so they went back to graduate school to get some credentials, then fell into teaching because they couldn’t do anything else and needed an income. But I think the situation is in transition, and will settle in a place where the students will demand instruction from teachers who have actually been there, who have “walked the walk” and are experienced. Design is not something that you can memorize from a lecture and then repeat. People who can recognize good design but can’t execute it may find a place in academia, but I wouldn’t want to be a student in their class any more than I’d want them as my manager or art director.
When the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum awarded you the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, you were the first African American to receive the honor. Do you feel that’s indicative of a lack of diversity within the profession, or rather a lack of recognition?
Both. There’s also a dearth of women. It’s a very white, male-dominated profession.
How can more diversity in the field be encouraged?
It’ll happen, but I don’t know when or how. I have to believe that it will; I want to stay positive on that score. Perhaps when white American males relax and are no longer fearful of losing whatever privileges they have — when they don’t mind sharing some of the goodies in the economy, and in American life.
What does receiving awards and honors mean for you?
That I’ve slipped through the cracks yet again. There’s a big wall up, and somehow I got through. That’s how I think about how I got my first job as a practicing designer, and every job since. All those cracks I slipped through and “they” didn’t catch me.
Do you consider yourself an icon?
Only in the sense that I’m an African American designer. There have not been many before me. I’m glad that I was able to change the field with my presence, and maybe I’ve created opportunities for those who come after me. I hope so.
What moment in your career would you select as the high point?
The ten years when I was manager of the design group at Sears Roebuck & Company. I was not actually doing a lot of design myself, but I was directing and conducting much of the design activity that Sears produced and sent out into the world. That was as high as I could go professionally. There was no better position from which to direct and affect the design of American products. I couldn’t have had nearly as much influence, for instance, from a position of owning and running my own firm.
And what about a low point?
The sweatshop days, when I was really struggling. I was extremely low paid and overworked. Those were rough times. But it was also a time when I was developing my professional skills — drawing skills, and learning how to transform ideas into real products.
What advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your career?
To learn how to be a professional as quickly as possible. And then, to break away from the dominance of other people and environments where I was forced to compromise my ideas.
What are some of your personal interests?
I have a soft spot for sailing. It’s very similar to design in that you have to identify the steps that are necessary to accomplish a goal, and carefully execute them. On a sailboat, you have to take into consideration uncontrollable elements — the wind, the water, and the sails — then arrange them in a compatible fashion to move the boat, so that you’ll move in thedirection you want to, at the speed you hope to achieve.
Is there something that you wish people knew about you?
What I’d like most in life is to be known as a person who is trying to help. I have offered what I can to help people, to help society and culture all over the world. That’s what I want: to give something, to help people.
You have a diverse portfolio of more than 750 different products. What has driven or motivated you to create so many things?
The challenge of improving something, and making people smile. Making life better for people — for humanity.
Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design by Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith is available from: