Nine Fine Design Pioneers

This month, in recognition of the US celebration of Black History Month, Four Corners breaks from convention to profile not one person, but nine people. Taking a moment to reflect on some of the historical achievements of African-American creative pioneers. The short biographies presented can in no way do justice to these esteemed people, but instead are designed to stimulate your natural curiosity to look further into the contribution made by these extraordinary men and women. Although all of the people featured here are no longer with us, they each made an indelible mark on the cultural and creative landscape and blazed a trail for others to follow. #Respect.Stamp featuring Madam CJ WalkerStamp featuring Madam CJ Walker

Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam CJ Walker, cosmetics designer, marketer and entrepreneur (1867-1919)

Way, way before Oprah, there was Sarah Breedlove, or Madam CJ Walker as she is more commonly known. The first child in her family born free from slavery just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, this incredible woman made her fortune designing, developing and marketing a highly successful range of beauty and haircare products for black women via the business she founded, Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company. Regarded as the first US female self-made millionaire, Walker proved herself to be a great philanthropist, using her wealth to support many black organisations such as the NAACP plus a number of schools, orphanages, individuals, and retirement homes. Her achievements have been celebrated by many prominent institutions, most notably, The National Women’s Hall of Fame and on a postage stamp as part of the USPS Black Heritage USA series. For more information visit, Sing a New Song (1934), by Charles DawsonSource: University of Illinois  O, Sing a New Song (1934), by Charles Dawson

Charles Dawson, illustrator and designer (1889-1981)

As one of Chicago’s leading black artists and designers in the 1920s and ’30s, Charles Clarence Dawson made his name creating illustrated advertisments for beauty products and many of the major black businessmen and entrepreneurs of the day, including the pioneering black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. Born in Brunswick, Georgia to hard-working parents, and a student of Booker T. Washington’s famed Tuskegee Institute, he more than paid his dues working a variety of odd jobs to pay the tuition to become the first African American admitted to the Arts Students League in New York. He later went on to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, was a founding member of Chicago’s first Black Arts collective (the Arts & Letters Society) and an integral part of the New Negro Movement in the visual arts or more commonly referred to as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. For more information visit Bondage (1944) by Aaron Douglas, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, WashingtonSource: Sarah Stierch  Into Bondage (1944) by Aaron Douglas, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington

Aaron Douglas, illustrator and designer (1889-1975)

Another leading figure and architect of the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas’ bold geometric and angular illustrations alongside the philosopher, Alain Locke’s insightful prose, featured prominently in the landmark 1925 publication, The New Negro. His work enabled the formation of a new visual language that embraced a distinct African heritage. It was a style that found its way onto many a publication cover and would later become known as ‘Afro-Cubism’. His work also translated beautifully into designs for wall murals, the best example of which is calledAspects of Negro Life’ created in 1934 for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, or as it is now called, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. For more information visit Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (1961), Paul Williams was consulted on the designSource: brew books The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (1961), Paul Revere Williams was consulted on the design

Paul Revere Williams, architect (1894-1980)

At the height of his career, Paul Revere Williams was popularly described as the ‘architect to the Stars’. This is an incredible accolade and achievement, not least for someone who was orphaned at a very young age, but also as a African American growing up through times of some of the most overt racism imaginable. In spite of all this, and encouraged by a foster mother who nurtured his education and artistic talent, he let his work ethic and perfectionist nature speak for itself. Earning academic awards, winning competition prizes and the respect of  both colleagues and clients along the way, he founded his own architectural practice in 1922 and became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923. For almost 40 years, his home designs were commissioned by the Hollywood elite of celebrities, movie stars and powerful and wealthy Californian individuals. For more information visit American Unity Mural (1939), created by Diego Rivera with Thelma Johnson-StreatSource: Joaquin Marinez Rosado Pan American Unity Mural (1939), created by Diego Rivera with Thelma Johnson-Streat

Thelma Johnson-Streat, painter, illustrator, muralist and textile designer(1911-1959)

Against all the odds, this exceptional African American ‘Renaissance-woman’, gained recognition from an early age through her Art. A passion, which she expressed through many different channels and subsequently gained recognition for all of them. Whether working with celebrated Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera; becoming the First African-American woman to have her work exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; as a teacher and activist promoting cultural diversity through art; or performing a dance recital for the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace in the 1950’s; it was all done with her customary grace, style and sophistication. For more information Proclamation stamp (1963), by Georg OldenEmancipation Proclamation stamp (1963), by Georg Olden

Georg Olden, designer and art director (1929-1975)

A man very much after my own heart, Georg Olden produced outstanding commercial work for some of America’s biggest corporations. As CBS’s Head of on-air promotions, in the early days of television, he pioneered the field of broadcast graphics, supervising the identities of programs such as I Love Lucy, Lassie and Gunsmoke, under the wing of leading art director, William Golden. If that wasn’t enough, he turned his attention to advertising, winning shelfloads awards and mentions in Graphis and Art Directors Club annuals continuously. In fact, the Clio Awards statuette of which he won several, was designed by him in 1962. He was the first black American to achieve an executive position in major corporation and also went on to become the first African American to design a postage stamp; a broken chain commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Not bad going for the grandson of slave. For more information visit Magoo. The Mr Magoo animated series was directed by Frank BraxtonSource: Kevin Dooley Mr Magoo. The Mr Magoo animated series was directed by Frank Braxton

Frank Braxton, animator (1929-1969)

Let’s paint the scene. America. The 1950s. And Jim Crow laws of racial segregation are still in place. How the hell does a black animator get his foot in the door as an animator at Warner Bros Animation? Well, the story goes that animator Benny Washam walked into the office of his production manager Johnny Burton and said, ‘I hear Warner Bros. has a racist policy and refuses to hire blacks.’ A furious Burton wheeled around in his office chair and shouted, ‘Whoever said that is a liar! It’s not true.’ ‘Well then,’ said Washam, ‘There’s a young black animator outside who’s looking for a job. Guess he’s come to the right place.’ That man was, of course, Frank Braxton, who went on to become part of the team at the legendary Chuck Jones unit at Warners. Many of Jones’ amazing cartoons of the 1950’s would contain substantial contributions from Braxton. He also served as a director for The Bullwinkle Show, Mr. Magoo, Charlie Brown TV specials and early Cap’n Crunch  commercials. For more information visit Embassy in Tokyo (1976), designed by Norma Merrick SklarekSource: jarsyl US Embassy in Tokyo (1976), designed by
Norma Merrick Sklarek

Norma Merrick Sklarek, architect (1928-2012)

As a first generation African-American, born in Harlem to Trinidadian parents, Norma Merrick Sklarek would go on to accomplish many more ‘firsts’, building an unparalleled career as a pioneering women architect. She became the first African-American director of architecture at Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles in 1966. Sklarek became the first black woman to be elected Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1980. In 1985, she became the first African-American female architect to form her own architectural firm: Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond, which was the largest woman-owned and mostly woman-staffed architectural firm in the United States. For more information Channel F (1976), designed by Jerry LawsonSource: Mulad Fairchild Channel F (1976), designed by Jerry Lawson

Jerry Lawson, video games designer (1940-2011)

His name may not be as synonymous with the gaming industry as PlayStation and Nintendo, but Jerry Lawson’s innovative technological design and engineering work helped pave the way for them to follow. For Jerry made history when he created the first ever cartridge-based video game console, The Fairchild Channel F. Hailing from humble beginnings in a housing project in Jamaica, New York, his passion and talent for technology was to take him far, becoming Head of the Fairfield Channel F project where he and his team designed many of its prototyped components. Always looking to push the systems capabilities beyond just cartridge gaming, they put together a daring initiative called TV Pow, which was the first, and only video game played via broadcast television. For more information



Acasa 16th Triennial Symposium On African Art at the Brooklyn Museum will consider the full range of topics related to the arts of Africa and the African Diaspora currently being addressed by ACASA members, from considerations of the archaeological and archival contexts of historical African art to examinations of emerging artistic practices on and off the continent. Like the accomplished Lega elder who once used a three-headed sakimatwemtwe figure, ACASA members look to the future and the past, simultaneously. For more info visit


Bermuda International Film Festival (BIFF) 2014. Since its inaugural Festival in 1997, BIFF has remained steadfast in its mission statement: to advance the love of independent film in a community welcoming to filmmakers and filmgoers and to encourage and inspire young Bermudians to capture their very special narrative through the lens of a camera. This year’s festival runs from 21-27 March.  For more information visit


Still Fighting Ignorance & Intellectual Perfidy: Video Art From Africa presents a selection of African video art that stands beyond the clichés that remain associated with the dark continent and the postcolonial image. It seeks to bring viewers closer to idiosyncratic readings of African video art and its thematic concerns, which are largely ignored. Runs 13-30 March at BEN URI Gallery & Museum, London, United Kingdom. For info

“Haute Africa” – At Photofestival Knokke-Heist 2014. From March up to June 2014, Knokke-Heist will once again focus on contemporary photography. The highlight of the festival is the outdoor exhibition, entitled “Haute Africa”, in which international leading artists and photographers such as Martin Parr, Wangechi Mutu, Zanele Muholi, Viviane Sassen, Yinka Shonibare and many others offer an alternative perspective on the contemporary African continent.For more info visit


‘Du Bois in Our Time’ Final presentations of works by Ghanaian and UK artists, Bernard Akoi-Jackson, Adwoa Amoah, Ato Annan, Yaganoma Baatuolkuu, Serge Clottey, Kelvin Haizel, Kwesi Ohene-Ayeh , Mawuli Toffah, and Mary Evans. Mullti-media and site specific works will be presented in the Du Bois Museum and Mausoleum after several months of reflecting on the legacy of civil rights leader and Pan-Africanist, W.E.B. Du Bois, in our present era.
Opening events will include a discussion, talk with artists and scholars, poetry and workshops over the 2 days. The entire programme of ‘Du Bois in our time’ Accra was sponsored by the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne. For more info visit

If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info at jon-daniel dot com.


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