Remembering the Prolific Industrial Designer, Charles “Chuck” Harrison (1931-2018)

“I don’t think designers can change the world, rather they can take what’s here and make the most of it.”

Charles “Chuck” Harrison (1931-2018). What comes to mind when you hear the name? He was one of the first Black industrial designers, and a gracious creative who excelled in a profession that deliberately excluded people of color. In his lifetime, Harrison designed over 700 products.  His designs influence everyday life around the globe, even today.  Picture this:You are a young child who is curious to know what a fictional world looks like. Chuck Harrison allowed millions to experience many real and fictional scenes by his transformation of the original View Master to a more modern design that enabled 3D images. Harrison’s contributions do not stop there.

I first learned of Chuck Harrison while working on a research assignment for a design class. A biography of the designer had just been completed so I reached out to the publisher to see what else I could learn or where I could find examples of his work. They went even further than I expected. A few days later, I got a call from Chuck Harrison and an opportunity to know first hand about his life, many achievements, design principles and challenges. In spite of the racism that he experienced that could bring some down, Chuck Harrison spent 30+ years as a product designer at Sears, Roebuck and Company.  Eventually, he became chief designer, where he oversaw the creation and improvement of everyday consumer items such as the see through measuring cup, the cordless shaver, the riding lawn mower, the groundbreaking polypropylene trash can on wheels and much more than I can even name.

Plastic trash can
Harrison’s iconic redesign of a common household trash can (credits: A Life’s Design)

Harrison wanted to make sure EVERYONE would be able to use his projects. That was his trademark. Harrison had a learning disorder, called dyslexia, which made tasks such as reading, writing and math difficult for him. Because of that, he designed with the idea that anything he made would not need instructions to use. Harrison also believed design should be basic, not embellished or ornamental. One of his childhood friends Ernest Norris said: “Charles was a pretty smart kid, pretty innovative…I remember especially when we were building model airplanes and I learned a lot from him. He used just the right amount of glue. Things weren’t smeared over.”

Chuck Harrison lived by the principles of aesthetics, ingenuity, honesty and sincerity.  In 2008, he received the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award, becoming the first African American to do so. Chuck Harrison’s achievements extended beyond the awards, as he became a successful author and educator covering his expertise in art, language and history. 

(credits: A Life’s Design)

In the book “A Life’s Design” we learn more about Harrison’s influences, qualities and countless design ideas that drove his success.  The vice president of Sears and Roebuck stated: “The first word that comes to mind when describing Chuck is integrity. He’s completely honest, not only in his personal relationships but in approaching a job.”

Harrison noted that “I don’t think a designer can change the world. Rather we can take what we have and make the best of it.” To sum up Charles “Chuck” Harrison’s life work in a couple of paragraphs does not do the under-appreciated yet significant impact he had on everyday life justice. But, to shed light on a man who saw the potential for greatness in the art of simplicity is a step in the right direction. Learn more at; A Life’s Design.