The Life & Work of Industrial Designer Charles Harrison

Black DIY Tradition

Chuck Harrison designed 8-12 sewing machines every year for 12 years

Chuck Harrison designed 8-12 sewing machines every year for 12 years

This Black History Month it’s good to remember that Do-It-Yourself did not begin with the Hipsters. African Americans have a long tradition of making the objects of everyday life stretching back to their first days in the Americas. Designing more than 100 home sewing machines in 10 years, the great African American industrial designer Charles Harrison carried this tradition forward in his work during the latter 20th Century.. “85 percent of my effort went into designing consumer products to improve people’s everyday quality of life.”

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Black American Thoreau

"Butterfly" by Charles Harrison (1953)

“Butterfly” by Charles Harrison (1953)

Joining historic Americans like Thoreau and Carver, leading African American and one of the greatest industrial designers of the 20th century, Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison took much of his inspiration from nature for both fine art and function objects. His love of nature and natural forms is one of the pillars of his notion of ‘Honest Design.”

To find out more about Harrison and his design, see his memoir, A Life’s Design.

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Black TV – By Design

The 1960’s were a time of firsts for Blacks on TV, but did you know your first TV back then, might have been designed by a Black man? A Life’s Design tells the story of industrial designer Charles “Chuck” Harrison, the black history maker responsible for some of the most iconic objects in American household.

Console TVs, 1962

Console TVs, 1962

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Throw-Back Thursday

catalog-Sears-Hair-Dryers-A-Lifes-Design-Book-Charles-Harrison copyCelebrate Black History Month and Throw-Back Thursdays by remembering the styles of the 70’s and 80’s these iconic styling tools — created by African-American industrial designer, Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison — helped us pull off!  A Life’s Design tells the hidden Black History behind these and hundreds of other objects that defined us from the mid-century and beyond.

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A Life’s Design: The Untold Story of the Black Man who Designed the Objects of the American Dream

Many may be surprised to learn that during decades when America wrestled with its identity in the streets, an African American sat with a pencil and gave shape to the American Dream object by object. Much of what we know treasure as middle-class American icons, the objects that turned a house into a home, were designed by Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison. You might call him the George Washington Carver of industrial design.

Chuck Harrison with the view master A Lifes Design Book web

Chuck Harrison with the View master

If you grew up with a View Master, you grew up with Chuck. If you remember the bonnet portable hair dryer, you remember Chuck. If your family had a console television, there’s a good chance you had one by Chuck. A Life’s Design: The Life and Work of Charles Harrison tells the story behind these and hundreds more items that comprise a body of work honored by the Smithsonian Institution with its National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement.

 

This Black History Month is an opportune time for book clubs, history buffs, collectors, educators, students and aspiring creatives to explore this untold story.

 

10 Facts of Life to Consider this Black History Month:

 

1. Sitting Pretty. Madame C. J. Walker is not the only African American business icon in the beauty salon. The chair you sit in, the curling iron you use may have been designed by Chuck Harrison.

Console TVs, 1962

2. Black Box. The 1960s were a time of firsts for Blacks on TV, but did you know your first compact or console TV, might have been designed by a Black man?

 

3. D-I-Y. Do-It-Yourself did not begin with the Hipsters. African Americans have a long tradition of making the objects of everyday life stretching back to their first days in the Americas. Designing more than 100 home sewing machines in 10 years, the great African American industrial designer Charles Harrison carried this tradition forward in his work during the latter 20th Century.. “85 percent of my effort went into designing consumer products to improve people’s everyday quality of life.”

 

For all 10 Facts to Consider for Black History Month, visit A Life’s Design: The Life and Work of Industrial Designer Charles Harrison.

 

 

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Sunday Sittings Tradition

Sketches for Tabletop cooking products for Sears (1970)

Sketches for Tabletop cooking products for Sears (1970)

Before there was brunch, these iconic table-top appliances and gadgets designed in the 1960s and 70s by famous African-American industrial designer Charles Harrison, remind us that after church and after work, visiting and ‘sitting’ were African-American family, neighborly and community traditions. This Black History Month, why not invite friends to just drop by and celebrate the Black home and black creativity with A Life’s Design.

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Black Beyond Borders

Dinner in Osaka, Japan with Sears vendors

Dinner in Osaka, Japan with Sears vendors

This Black History Month, consider that Madame C. J. Walker is not the only African American business icon in the beauty salon. The chair you sit in, the curling iron you use to get ‘that look’ may have been designed by Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison, one of the most prolific and creative industrial designers in American history.  Explore his story and surprising work in A Life’s Design to see why the Smithsonian honored him with its Lifetime Achievement award.

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The Greatest Generation?

Drawing maps in the field in West Germany, 1955

Drawing maps in the field in West Germany, 1955

This Black History Month we remember that the United States Military didn’t desegregate until the 1950’s. And despite, black progress was hampered by lack of access to GI bill benefits for housing and education for African Americans until landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Despite the obstacles a few, like world-renown industrial designer, Chuck Harrison, whose story is told in A Life’s Design,  were able to use military service as a spring-board to exemplary careers when opportunities began to open for Black strivers on a world stage, if not always at home.

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Beyond Madame CJ: Black presence in the beauty salon

Beauty salon chair designed for Belvidere Beauty Products (1957)

Beauty salon chair designed for Belvidere Beauty Products (1957)

This Black History Month, consider that Madame C. J. Walker is not the only African American business icon in the beauty salon. The chair you sit in, the curling iron you use to get ‘that look’ may have been designed by Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison, one of the most prolific and creative industrial designers in American history.  Explore his story and surprising work in A Life’s Design to see why the Smithsonian honored him with its Lifetime Achievement award.

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Segregated vs Sustainable

Chuck-Harrison-child-riding-horse-A-Lifes-Design-Book-Charles-Harrison copy

Riding his horse

Segregated or Sustainable? In his book, A Life’s Design, world-renown African-American industrial designer Charles Harrison starts with his story of life in rural Louisiana and Texas under Jim Crow. “At Prairie View,” he says, “we were all African Americans, so there was no segregation. We saw white people only when they came to the hospital or brought us deliveries.

 

“The place was very self-sufficient. It had its own diary, hospital, veterinary hospital, bakeries, pharmacist, service station, fire department and even a one-man police department.”  Observations like this woven with the story of how he created hundreds of America’s most iconic collectibles like The View Master, make A Life’s Design the perfect read for a deep look at hidden Black history.

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