Chuck Harrison, Adding Dimension to Design

Chuck Harrison rose in the ranks of Sears, Roebuck, designing hundreds of household items. He was honored last night in Washington by FocusOnDesign.
Chuck Harrison rose in the ranks of Sears, Roebuck, designing hundreds of household items. He was honored last night in Washington by FocusOnDesign. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Chuck Harrison may be the Jackie Robinson of design.

His career followed an uncharted path from rural Louisiana to chief of design -- and the first African American executive -- at Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co. Beyond breaking through the color barrier of the postwar workplace, Harrison, 75, built a legacy of innovation and thoughtfulness into 750 household products, most created in anonymity for a company that was once the nation's undisputed retail giant.

Last night, such feats earned Harrison an award for lifetime achievement from FocusOnDesign, a Washington-based group that promotes diversity in design. It was his second honor in three weeks. The Industrial Designers Society of America gave Harrison an honorary award for "personal recognition" at its annual convention in Austin.

Though Harrison's list of credits is long, his favorite is a garbage can, the first to be made in plastic, that softened the sounds of trash day.

"No more clang-clang" of metal before breakfast, he said in an interview yesterday. The round container evolved shortly into the familiar square green hulk with two wheels and raccoon-proof lid.

In an age of iPods and feature-laden cellphones, trash cans may rank low on the fashion scale. But Harrison's goal has always been changing fundamentals -- improving the way people live.

"It's not necessary to have your name on the marquee to make a contribution," he says.

Harrison helped perfect the portable hair dryer, riding lawn mower and see-through measuring cup. He worked on a universe of Craftsman power tools, as well as percolators, fondue pots, toasters and stoves. He dreamed up eight to 12 sewing machines every year for 12 years.

No design is more iconic than the View-Master, the 3-D viewer that Harrison helped update in the 1950s. (Only recently, with the sale of the patent to Fisher-Price, was Harrison's form altered.)

Harrison tells his story in a memoir, "A Life's Design: The Life and Work of Industrial Designer Charles Harrison." He was born in Shreveport, La., in 1931. One of his first attempts at design as a child involved a "skate box," the forerunner of the skateboard, which he made from an old piece of two-by-four and some skate wheels.

His father, Charles Alfred Harrison Sr., taught industrial arts first at Southern University in Shreveport, then at Texas A&M, and finally at a high school in Phoenix. The younger Harrison showed a special talent for art at City College of San Francisco. After wangling a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, he earned a degree in industrial design.

He says his talent was acknowledged, but getting a design job in the '50s was tough because of racial prejudice. A mentor from the Art Institute, the Viennese-born designer Henry Glass, took him on and provided the experience that would allow Harrison to succeed.

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