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One of the most prominent African American designers of the 20th century, Charles Harrison transformed postwar living in the US with his modern designs for durable and affordable household products. During his 32-year career at the Chicago-based retailer Sears, Roebuck, and Co., Harrison designed over 750 objects for nearly every area of the home, including hair dryers, kitchen appliances, sewing machines, lawn mowers, and the country’s first plastic trash can.
After studying industrial design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with professor and mentor Henry P. Glass and serving in the United States Army, Harrison worked as a designer for a number of Chicago-based companies in the mid-1950s. One transformative early project was his acclaimed 1959 redesign for the popular toy View-Master, a stereoscope device originally introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and used by the military in WWII. Harrison’s updated—and now iconic—model replaced the dark brown, blocky unit with lightweight, brightly colored, injection-molded plastic, making the device less costly and easier to use, especially for children. The View-Master epitomizes Harrison’s approach to design, which was based on problem solving and a keen attention to the experience of the user rather than predetermined aesthetic goals.
In 1961 Harrison was hired as the first black designer at Sears, Roebuck, and Co., and rose through the ranks to become the head of the company’s design group. As part of his lifelong commitment to education and professional development, Harrison completed a master’s degree in art education at László Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design in 1963 and, after his retirement in 1993, taught design at SAIC, University of Illinois Chicago, and Columbia College Chicago. He was president of the Chicago chapter of the International Designers Society of America and involved with the Organization of Black Designers. In recognition of his impactful and groundbreaking career, Harrison received a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2008 and an honorary doctorate from SAIC in 2009.