The man once called the “Jackie Robinson of design,” who invented so many products that Sears changed its policy on hiring blacks; who created many of the household items you take for granted, has passed away at the age of 87.
Charles “Chuck” Harrison is considered the greatest black industrial designer who ever lived, and no doubt ranks among the greatest of any color, though I can’t name another industrial designer. He is unquestionably the most prolific product designer in American history and changed American life and culture so much, even he couldn’t name every single product for which he was responsible.
When I first heard that a black man had invented the plastic trash can, I thought it was one of those internet rumors like the one about Millicent LaKeisha Jenkins, who was actually the first woman who “Millie Rocked” (look it up).
But it is true. Harrison is credited with inventing that green plastic rectangular trash can on wheels that sits outside almost every home in America. Harrison once told this writer it was his favorite invention because he no longer had to listen to the noise from cylindrical metal trash cans being dragged to the curb.
After deciding to pursue industrial design because he struggled with dyslexia, Harrison graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and went on to get his Master’s from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
While working for Robert Podall Associates, Harrison was asked to redesign a set of toy binoculars that were becoming very popular. Harrison gave it a sleek design, figured out a lever system for changing the images, and colored it orange. From 1958 until the mid-’90s that toy, the Viewmaster, kept that same form and remained firmly atop the list of the most iconic toys of all time.
In 1961 after his application was initially denied because of his race, Harrison was called up to the big leagues when he became the first black executive at Sears, Roebuck and Company. At the time, Sears was the Amazon, Apple and WalMart of its day, controlling the consumer goods market.
During his time at Sears, Harrison redesigned the electric sewing machine into the product we know today. In fact, he designed 8 to 12 different sewing machine models every year for 12 years.
The first widely available portable hairdryer? That was him. The riding lawnmower? He did that. The see-through measuring cup? Harrison, too. In all, he created and designed more than 750 products, including baby cribs, hedge clippers, steam irons, riding lawn mowers, shoe buffers, portable turntables, blenders, circular fluorescent light bulbs, electric frying pans, consumer power tools, coffee percolators, fondue pots, toasters, stoves, hearing aids, band saws, wheelbarrows and cordless electric shavers.
In 1993 he retired from Sears and began a teaching career. In 2005, he published his autobiography: A Life’s Design: The Life and Work of Industrial Designer Charles Harrison. In 2008, he received a Smithsonian National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement.
He passed away on Dec. 2, 2018.