Charles Harrison: A Decorated African-American Designer

by Duke Magazine

Charles Harrison, an African-American designer who curated the View-Master. He was undoubtably one of the best industrial designers of the 20th century. His specialization spanned through the creation of practical household products. Harrison’s innovative works still trend till today.

Born on September 23, 1931, in Shreveport, Louisiana to Charles Alfred Harrison Sr. and Cora Lee, his father was a lecturer of  industrial arts at Southern University, Prairie View A&M University, and at George Washington Carver High School in Phoenix, Arizona.

Harrison’s talent for art was groomed at Carver High School and City College of San Francisco in California. He was able to  receive a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

Meanwhile, Harrison was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to West Germany, but left the Army for SAIC when he was accepted into the school. According to the New York Times, Harrison dropped out of art school because of financial constraints and inability to secure a job. 

He said he had good references from professors, but when he showed up for openings and potential employers saw that he was black, “they suddenly no longer needed anyone.”

Image credit: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sears had told him that the company had an unwritten policy against hiring African-Americans. However, the manager at the time seemed to like him so he gave him freelance assignments.

Climbing above the hurdle of racial impediment, Harrison rose to become the chief product designer for Sears, Roebuck & Company. He was the first black executive when he was hired at Sears headquarters in Chicago.

He was an industrial designer who reconstructed the stereotype of a host of ordinary items, such as plastic trash bin on wheels, a see-through measuring cup and the 3-D View-Master. He worked under the mentoring of designer Henry Glass.

“What he strove to do with all of his designs was to make their use self-evident,” Joeffrey Trimmingham, a designer and former student of Harrison, who became a business partner. “Because he was dyslexic, he wanted you to be able to just see how they worked.”

In 1958, Harrison started working at Robert Podall Designs in Chicago, where he redesigned the View-Master toy, which became a global success. By 1961, Harrison was fully working at Sears as the company’s first black design staff.

Image credit: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

While Harrison worked at the company, most of the consumer products in the Sears catalogs had his design stamp on them, making the Model F View-Master his greatest achievement.

However, for Harrison, his 1963 design of polypropylene garbage can with a snap-lock lid stood out.

This particular design is reportedly the first-ever plastic rubbish bin. Before that, the garbage cans were made of galvanized steel. “No more clang-clang of metal before breakfast,” Harrison said of his achievement.

Image credit: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

In collaboration with Ted Nishigami from Japan and Kenneth Grange from the United Kingdom, Harrison also curated a portable sewing machine for traveling purposes, thereby reducing the traditional size by one quarter.

His works are primarily based on trendy manufacturing processes to create lighter and cheaper household products like blenders, baby cribs, portable hair dryers and many more. 

Harrison has attributed his inspiration to appreciating things built by his father, who was also a carpenter. He learned to admire design in flowers and plants or even a streambed from his mother and nature.

In 2008, the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York in its citation about Harrison on receiving the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement, said: “He improved the quality of life of millions of Americans through the extraordinary breadth and innovation of his product designs”.

Harrison retired in 1993 from Sears and delved into teaching. He taught industrial design at the University of Illinois and Columbia College Chicago.

It was reportedly gathered that upon Harrison’s retirement from Sears as the lead of the company’s design team, he had about 750 designs of everyday household appliances to his name. The prolific designer passed away on November 29, 2018 at age 87, after suffering from a bacterial infection. 

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