African-American Designers Hidden in Plain Sight

African-American Designers Hidden in Plain Sight
Sawyer’s model G View-Master designed by Charles “Chuck” Harrison (image via Wikipedia)

I recently participated in a symposium dedicated to celebrating the rich contributions made to design history by Black designers in Chicago. The presentations often interrogated the absence of these names and the histories of established canons. I focused on two immediately recognizable designs that I helped usher into the Museum of Modern Art’s collection between 2016 and 2017: Charles Harrison’s View-Master (1959) and the New Breed dashiki (1968). They’re both iconic designs — one associated with mass culture, the other with counterculture — yet they haven’t featured in mainstream textbooks and design collections, even though they have both been profoundly important to the development of major cultural, political, aesthetic, and material currents of their time. We have seen them often in our daily lives and yet find them almost nowhere in the places where we preserve and examine our culture.

It was during University of Chicago professor Adam Green’s keynote speech that I had a real epiphany. Green discussed the idea of building design histories by talking to folks in-person, and the value of looking beyond established collections, archives, and records for what a fellow presenter, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor Romi Crawford, called “what’s in the air.” He noted that working outside of (and, if necessary, rejecting outright) dominant aesthetic and historical canons was the only way to a more representative and inclusive set of histories, and called for:

“ … some skepticism as to the priority of taste in defining our standards of art, beauty, and the outcomes of human imagination. There simply is no other way to engage with minds and works of marginal people, besides taking strong, sustained, and specific interest in them and their condition, as opposed to validating them upon their satisfying presumably universal standards of excellence. The surest proof of this, it seems to me, is how many of the wonderful inquiries shared [at the symposium] began with face-to-face interviews, and, ultimately, interpersonal trust.”

Later, Green called this approach “empathetic scholarship.” In my own scholarship I straddle art, design, and architectural histories, wherein the foundational aspects of my degrees have required rote memorization and regurgitation of a narrow set of dates, names, and images. Green’s suggestion that taking the time to seek out alternative histories and arguing for their inclusion, even in the face of institutional hurdles, reflects the work of other scholars I respect, such as Marta Gutman, Dolores Hayden, and Dianne Harris. Having a name for this felt powerful, subversive, and meaningful. I realized in that moment why I have often been frustrated when I have sought institutional models to emulate — they simply aren’t there. 

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At its genesis, the View-Master was manufactured and sold by Sawyer’s, a company specializing in slide projectors, slides, and scenic postcards; it debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. It was invented by Harold Graves, a postcard maker, and William Gruber, an organ maker and photographer for Sawyer’s Photo Services in the US. But it was only after Charles “Chuck” Harrison intervened in the late 1950s that the View-Master became a mass consumer device sold in the hundreds of thousands alongside stereoscopic reels of Kodachrome color photographs. Harrison first redesigned the View-Master in 1958 as a young employee at the Chicago design firm Robert Podall Associates. His Model F refined the bulky internal battery, but it was his Model G, produced from 1959 on, that switched from Bakelite to injection molded plastic. This allowed for a range of colors and designs that revolutionized its market appeal, taking it from a niche instrument for specialists and enthusiasts to a design that was cheap, accessible, and used by adults and children alike. Its countless permutations of slide reels — current events, brands, and tourist sites, among others — cemented its place in popular culture. 

Charles Harrison at NeoCon, undated (photo courtesy of Victoria Matranga)

Harrison’s View-Master was hardly his only mass-market success. After Podall’s and some freelance work, he joined the staff of Chicago-headquartered Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1961, remaining with the company for 33 years, and ultimately heading the in-house industrial design department. At Sears, Roebuck and Company, Harrison was responsible for over 400 everyday items that he either created or re-imagined, forming new classics, including toasters, lawn mowers, power tools, pots, stoves, and the first plastic trashcan. The trashcan was credited with “softening the sounds of trash day” by exchanging the clanging of metal cans with the muted sound of plastic. It was also part of a bold marketing stunt when it was filled with concrete and thrown from a helicopter to prove that it was indestructible. So why is Harrison’s work so little-known outside of Chicago?

Part of this anonymity was deliberate. Like the creators of so many other designs that shape our worlds on a daily basis, Harrison was part of an interdisciplinary team. At Sears, all remained steadfastly anonymous in their work for the American consumer market. Harrison retired in 1993 and was awarded the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. Yet, unlike celebrated designer Dieter Rams (whose career at Braun spans almost the exact chronology, number of designs, and product popularity as Harrison’s at Sears), Harrison’s career was almost erased before it started. In conversation with me this past March at his home in Santa Clarita, California, he recalled a design manager at Sears telling him that when the manager “first attempted to employ me there, it was rejected, because Sears had an unwritten policy against hiring African-Americans.” He was the first Black executive at the company’s headquarters, one of very few designers of color in the professional ranks of design at that time, and he worked at a moment when very few black executives existed within US company culture more generally. I asked him whether he found it ironic or painful that a company — and a country — that was so blatantly racist benefited from a designer who, through his work, left such a profound impact on so many homes and lives. His response was a circumspect and considered “Yes” — marking the difference between choosing to remain behind the scenes within a corporation, and deliberate elision from the canon.

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The New Breed fashion boutique in Harlem, 1968. (Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The year in which Harrison’s candy-colored View-Master debuted, 1959, was also the first year in which a model of color appeared in a mainstream fashion magazine: the February issue of Harper’s Bazaar featured photographs of Portuguese-American model China Machado by Richard Avedon. And in contrast to Harrison’s anonymity behind a corporate facade, the founders of the short-lived fashion company New Breed were vocal in aligning their identities and their clothing — the dashiki in particular — with the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Founded in 1967 with the modest sum of $250, New Breed was the vision of young urban professionals Jason and Mabel Benning, shoe designer Howard Davis, and a handful of their friends and acquaintances, including NBA player Emmette Bryant. From the start, the group saw the company’s mission as “to uplift the black man by working toward economic independence and developing pride in his heritage.”

Central among the styles they retailed to an enthusiastic crowd (including activists and celebrities — among them, Sammy Davis Jr. and Aretha Franklin) was the dashiki, a waist-length tunic with roots in the Yoruba culture of West Africa. New Breed co-opted the idea, though not the literal form — New Breed’s were fashioned from muted fabrics and featured a diamond kangaroo-style pocket in front — to help foster Black American identity through fashion at a crucial moment in the Civil Rights era. Mabel Benning sewed the first dashikis by hand in the company’s Harlem storefront (a former brownstone parlor room decorated with African print textiles and a portrait of Malcolm X). The company secured a factory space in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood from which could be built, in the words of contemporary author Herbert Simmons, “an industrial complex for black people … cultural identification through practical, comfortable, quality merchandise.”

New Breed Factory, Brooklyn, New York (photo by Gideon Manasseh, courtesy Valerie Benning)

At the height of its short-lived run, the company had approximately 50 employees and promoted its business as one of economic development and job training as much as fashion innovation. Its 19 storefronts throughout the United States collapsed within a two-year period, as finances ran dry, but New Breed provided a key element of the sartorial backdrop for larger pan-African politics of that era; it was partially thanks to New Breed that this garment reached a fashion pinnacle in the US — a few years later, “dashiki” was entered into Webster’s Dictionary.

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The View-Master and the New Breed dashiki were the first and the second works, respectively, by African American designers to enter MoMA’s holdings. Yet there’s a much larger issue at play here than recognizing and collecting two outstanding designs. That the names and work of so many designers are hidden in plain sight is, to a great extent, a function of the way modern Euro-US design history plays out in the museum gallery. Think, for example, of MoMA’s Machine Art, organized by Philip Johnson and Alfred J. Barr in 1934, which fetishized anonymous products of industry, like airplane propellers and ball bearings, rather than their progenitors. The same was true of another MoMA gem, Paola Antonelli’s Humble Masterpieces in 2004, which expanded the celebration of quotidian objects, including the cotton bud and the condom. Then, as now, the name of the work — not the name of the designer or design team — came first on the wall labels. But design collections within art museums still woefully underrepresent across many intersections. A marginalized design object like the breast pump would have looked completely at home in Machine Art. We don’t need to guess why it wasn’t included in 1934. But why not now?

Power writes histories. It is on the peripheries — which are really the epicenters — that Adam Green’s call to action offers an alternative path to simply learning and repeating the canon in exhibitions and collections. It is imperative to parse the difference between forms of anonymity often germane to a discipline as team-based as design and the engineered absences that, if left as they are, only weaken design’s canons. There is now a clear acknowledgment by people inside and outside museum walls that it is deeply necessary to interrogate the ways in which power has written designers into and out of histories, controlled access to design education, and shaped public conversations in museums and other public spaces. But more concrete action is sorely needed across institutions. (Some of the best work on this front is actually coming from designers themselves, including the endlessly inspiring Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Lucy Jones.) Internal action committees within museums and curatorial travel and exchange programs that enable curators to come into contact with — and thus support — an ever-widening roster of practitioners are important, ongoing measures. Valuing Green’s model of empathetic scholarship is also imperative.

Charles Harrison passed away at the age of 87 on November 29, as I finalized this essay, and only a few days after I last spoke with him by phone. Two weeks before that, Dieter Rams picked up the annual Collab Design Excellence Award at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His heartfelt acceptance speech began with the acknowledgement that many, many hands and minds went into the work he made. He focused on how his mantra of “less, but better” was not just an aesthetic commandment but one intended to reduce consumption across the board. He ended with a quote from philosopher Karl Popper: “it is simply not worth searching for certainty, but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them.” Intended to address design flaws, I took the provocation to include the issues in design’s histories, too.

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