Charles Harrison, Designer Who Reshaped the View-Master, Dies at 87
Charles Harrison, an industrial designer who rethought hundreds of ordinary items, including a plastic trash bin on wheels, a see-through measuring cup and the 3-D View-Master, which were then snapped up by the nation’s burgeoning postwar middle class, died on Nov. 29 in Santa Clarita, Calif. He was 87.
The cause was a bacterial infection, said his son, Charles Harrison III.
Mr. Harrison was a designer, not an inventor; his mission was to refashion consumer products so they could be mass-produced, pleasing to the eye and conducive to easier living.
He was part of a golden age of industrial design, a time after World War II when newly prosperous families were eager to acquire the products they saw advertised on their boxy television sets. With goods flooding the marketplace, design became crucial to manufacturers competing for attention and sales.
By the time he retired in 1993, Mr. Harrison, who was African-American, had broken through racial barriers and risen to become the chief product designer for Sears, Roebuck & Company. When he was hired at Sears headquarters in Chicago in 1961, he was the first black executive there.
At Sears, he had a hand in shaping versions of countless items that Americans in the second half of the 20th century realized they needed: the riding lawn mower, the cordless shaver and the Dial-O-Matic Food Cutter, among more than 750 products for Sears alone.
The product he was most closely associated with was the View-Master; a Stone Age version of the virtual reality viewer, it allowed users to look at photographs in three dimensions. Two inventors introduced the first version, a bulky model, at the World’s Fair in 1939, and it became a specialty item used mainly by photographers.
When Mr. Harrison, who was working for a small design firm at the time, was put in charge of the View-Master’s redesign in 1958, he made it lighter, more durable and much easier to use — easy enough for a child. That simplicity was a hallmark of his work; he was dyslexic, and he wanted to make all his products intuitive so that no one would have to read the instructions.
With that, the View-Master took off as a toy. When its color was later changed to red from beige, it appealed more to children and became a must-have totem for the expanding baby-boomer generation. Sales blew through the roof.
Although it has since gone through many iterations, the View-Master retained Mr. Harrison’s basic design for nearly four decades. It has continued to evolve for the digital age, now using apps and virtual reality.
“What he strove to do with all of his designs was to make their use self-evident,” Joeffrey Trimmingham, a designer and former student of Mr. Harrison’s who became a business partner, said in a telephone interview. “Because he was dyslexic, he wanted you to be able to just see how they worked.”
The product of which Mr. Harrison was most proud was the first plastic trash bin. Until the early 1960s, trash cans were round and made of galvanized steel, making them heavy and awkward to lug.
But advances in plastics prompted him and a fellow Sears employee to wonder if a mold could be made that was big enough to create a polypropylene trash can. “There was nothing produced that large up to that point using that process,” Mr. Trimmingham said.
Mr. Harrison’s 1963 design not only lightened the trash bin; it also changed the shape to rectangular and added wheels, making it the foundational design for trash bins now visible all over the country.
As Mr. Harrison said of his achievement, “No more clang-clang of metal before breakfast.”
Mr. Harrison’s creativity was driven in part by the rapidly evolving science of plastics and other materials. Just as he had done with the View-Master, he used new manufacturing processes to come up with lighter and cheaper household products — blenders, baby cribs, portable hair dryers. Turning to Kenmore sewing machines, sold by Sears, he made them lighter by using die-cast aluminum rather than sand-casted molded heavy metals.
He “improved the quality of life of millions of Americans through the extraordinary breadth and innovation of his product designs,” the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York said in its citation when it gave him its National Design Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.
“Martha Stewart introduced him at the gala and said she learned to sew on a Kenmore machine,” Victoria Matranga, an industrial design historian, said in an email. “He was tickled to hear that.”
Charles Albert Harrison Jr. was born in Shreveport, La., on Sept. 23, 1931. His father taught industrial arts at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university in Prairie View, Tex. His mother, Cora Lee (Smith) Harrison, had gone back to her parents’ house in Shreveport for the birth, since many hospitals at the time did not welcome blacks.
Mr. Harrison said he learned from his father, who was also a carpenter, to appreciate how things were built, and from his mother — and Mother Nature — to appreciate design in flowers and plants or even a streambed.
“The most beautiful thing that exists is an egg,” he said during a panel discussion at Cooper Hewitt in 2008 in conjunction with his award. “Its form is just perfect.”
The family moved to Phoenix, where the elder Mr. Harrison taught shop at the Phoenix Union Colored High School, from which Charles graduated in 1948. He briefly attended the City College of San Francisco, where he was told his future lay in art, and he headed for the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
His education was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army in the mid-1950s. He was stationed in Germany, where he served as a cartographer. When he returned to Chicago, he married Janet Eleanor Simpson. She died in 1999.
In addition to their son, Charles, he is survived by two grandsons.
Mr. Harrison dropped out of art school because he was broke and couldn’t find a job. He said he had good references from professors, but when he showed up for openings and potential employers saw that he was black, “they suddenly no longer needed anyone.”
Sears told him that the company had an unwritten policy against hiring African-Americans, but the manager liked him and gave him freelance assignments. As he pounded the pavement, friends at small design firms took Mr. Harrison on for short stints.
In 1961, Sears overrode its unwritten policy and hired him.
“Some refer to him as the Jackie Robinson of industrial design,” Nancy Perkins, an industrial designer who worked for Mr. Harrison at Sears, said in a telephone interview.
When he retired, he took teaching positions and made it a point to mentor students of color.
“He wanted to ensure there was a place at the table for us,” Mr. Trimmingham said. “That was a big part of his work.”