Charles Harrison, the Black industrial engineer who reshaped hundreds of everyday items, including the plastic trash bin, the see-through measuring cup, sewing machine, and the popular orange 3-D View-Master toy, died Nov. 29 at the age of 87.
Harrison’s cause of death was a bacterial infection, according to his son, Charles Harrison III.
As a designer, Harrison’s mission was to refashion consumer products for mass production, ensuring they were both aesthetically pleasing and useful for everyday living. As reported by The New York Times, he was part of a “golden age” of industrial design and soon earned himself the reputation as an acclaimed designer and innovator.
As the first Black American executive at Sears Roebuck & Co., Harris knocked down racial barriers on his way to the top, where he ultimately served as the company’s chief product designer. After his hiring in 1961, he would spend the next 33 years redesigning a number of household items, including the portable hair dryer, the riding lawn mower and even the Dial-O-Matic Food Cutter.
Harrison’s most iconic work was with the View-Master, an early version of the virtual reality viewer that allowed users to click through vibrant 3-D images. The toy was introduced by a pair of inventors at the 1939 World Fair, and two decades later Harrison was tasked with updating its design while working for Robert Podall Associates. He’s credited with crafting the toy’s sleek, lightweight build, making it much more durable and easier to use.
The less-bulky design and new orange color made the toy incredibly popular among children, sending its sales through the roof.
“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 Harrison’s told The New York Times in an interview. “Because he was dyslexic, he wanted you to be able to just see how they worked.”
By his 1993 retirement Harrison is believed to have reshaped versions of more than 750 items for Sears alone. As reported by Black Enterprise, he re-imagined countless household products, including “power tools, sewing machines, steam irons, televisions, toys, baby cribs, radios, and kitchen appliances, including the electric mixer. In 1966, he redesigned and modernized the metal trash can into the ubiquitous plastic cans that we still use to this day.”
“No more clang-clang of metal before breakfast,” Harrison once said of his achievement.
He released a memoir in 2015 titled, “A Life’s Design: The Life And Work of Industrial Designer Charles Harrison,” in which he detailed his life story, successes, and personal insights. In it he lauded his plastic trash bin design as one of his most popular and widely used creations.
Harrison then spent his post-retirement years teaching product design in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Columbia College Chicago.