Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison, African American Industrial Designer. Born on 23 September 1931, Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison was the first African-American executive to work at Sears Roebuck&Company, starting as a designer in 1961 and eventually becoming manager of the company’s entire design group. Among his 750+ consumer product designs is the first ever plastic trash can. He also led the team that updated the View-Master in 1958. This iconic product sold with only minor colour changes for over 40 years and could be found in almost every US household and households throughout the world.
What’s your background?
I spent my early developmental years on a rural segregated college campus in Texas (Prairie View A&M). My father taught on that campus and I had an opportunity to be exposed to almost all aspects of life there.
How did you get started in design?
I was directed by an instructor at college to turn my attention to design in my first year of school. I had a little success academically and stayed with it. I gave it 90 per cent of my energy and interest and that carried me through school. I then continued to pursue the profession after school as there weren’t many other options open to me. Joe Palmer and Henry Glass taught me. They were both high-profile industrial designers who I was really energised to be associated with. They recognised and rewarded me with good grades and the opportunity to visit their studios. They were very accommodating and passionate.Chuck Harrison working for Sears Roebuck in the 1960s
What challenges did you face/overcome in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?
Getting through the segregated system in the United States and finding employment. Once I made my way through that I was able to proceed to develop a lifetime career. Other challenges were trying to live and pursue a professional career as a black person in America, which were really no different from those of any other black professionals. [For my design work] I needed drawing and model-making skills to perform and take a design concept forward to a client who would then accept it as an item that they would embrace, put it into their product list and support in their company. You had to be able to present what you’re thinking and convince a client that it’s worthy as a serious part of their company. Much like today. I had to rely on manual skills that people use the computer for today. You had to be able to draw well in order for your ideas to be accepted with little resistance and readily embraced and adopted.
Who are your greatest inspirations and influences?
I’d have to say Charles Eames for his chairs and furniture design. Elliot Noyes for his product designs, primarily typewriters for IBM. The directness, the images that they would put the products in. Simple, uncomplicated, clean forms with no superfluous decoration. I would adopt this in my work by keeping my designs as clean and pure as I could and keep the decorative components to the minimum; allow the form itself to be a strong image of the product – not decoration.
What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?
A plastic garbage can. A very strong form with a minimum of decoration, limited to texture, which is secondary to the form of the product. I enhanced the shape of the product, which allowed it the capability to nest, which gave it an advantage in shipping; it didn’t occupy a great volume and could be shipped in a small vehicle. It also didn’t require much warehouse space. The lid and the handle were moulded at the same time, which cut down on the tooling and moulding process. These considerations reduced the cost to the end user.
The plastic garbage can
What would be your dream job or project?
To connect with a manufacturer or company that could produce a product for public consumption with little consideration for profit margin but to give the the customer the best they could have in that design. To develop products for the severely disabled who need low-cost products to be able to live more independently; the need is there. That would be something I’d like to do, if the company shared my vision.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Follow this path for a life endeavour only if it’s sincerely for the love of it and you can survive mentally and physically and can distance yourself from the greed of financial gain.
What’s next for you?
Continue to be an ambassador for good design.
Chuck Harrison with the updated Viewmaster
This month’s network of events
Marvelous Color: An exhibition celebrating Black comic book super heroes can be seen through February 26 at the Caribbean Cultural Center, which is located at 1825 Park Av. Suite 602 New York, NY 10035. For more information, go to MarvelousColor.com.
The 2nd International Reggae Poster Contest 2013 Call for Entries. Closing date: 30 March. Celebrating Great Jamaican Music with an overarching aim of establishing a Frank Gehry-designed Reggae Hall of Fame Performance center in Kingston, Jamaica. Visit www.reggaepostercontest.com for details.
Design Indaba Conference 2013. The best of global creativity all on one stage. Hosted at Cape Town International Convention Centre. with live Simulcast is hosted at the same time at various venues around Southern Africa. From 27 Feb – March 1: www.designindaba.com.
In Seven Days: The story of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign told in seven iconic silkscreen prints by Nicola Green, who followed Obama and his campaign team across America as this historic journey unfolded. Runs until 14 April 2013. Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, St. George’s Quarter, Liverpool. UK. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk.
Special thanks to Joeffrey Trimmingham for his assistance with this interview.