Chuck Harrison may be the Jackie Robinson of design. His career followed an uncharted path from rural Louisiana to chief of design...

Share story

WASHINGTON — 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. 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.

Such feats have earned Harrison an award for lifetime achievement from FocusOnDesign, a Washington-based group that promotes diversity in design. And just a few weeks earlier, 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. The round container evolved shortly into the familiar square green hulk with two wheels and a raccoon-proof lid.

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

Harrison helped perfect the portable hair dryer, riding lawn mower and see-through measuring cup. He worked on a universe of Craftsman power tools, 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. Sears opened the door in 1961, allowing Harrison to become “one of a small number of black executives in all of corporate America,” as Victor Margolin, professor of design history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes in the foreword to Harrison’s book.

Harrison traveled the world as a designer. The objects he developed — cutting-edge steam irons, electric frying pans, mixers, juicers, televisions — defined the burgeoning consumer class.

“I tried to make things appear as if they just belong. … They didn’t need to scream,” he says in the book. “My best efforts resulted in products that did their job as expected — you look at it, right away guess what it is supposed to do, and that’s exactly what it does.”

By 1993, Sears had downsized. The entire design department was eliminated and Harrison retired. He notes today that Sears has begun to reconstitute its design group to compete with Target and Wal-Mart.

For Harrison, design was its own reward: “I came into my own as an artist and human being.

“I think I’m pretty good,” he adds.