The plastic trash can—to most people it is just a receptacle. For Charles Harrison (1931–2018), who received his master’s degree in art education from the Institute of Design in 1963, it was a crowning achievement. His design was lighter than the previously ubiquitous galvanized steel cans, as well as quieter and easier to hold.
Harrison’s plastic garbage can became the archetype for future garbage and recycling bins. Anyone who has ever taken the garbage out can thank him for making the experience better.
As the head of design for Sears, Roebuck and Company, Harrison took existing product designs and made them better looking and easier to use. As a result, like his revolutionary trash can, they became staples in the American household.
He famously redesigned the View-Master, making it intuitive and ergonomic, transforming it from an obscure photography tool to a generation-defining children’s toy. He also designed lawn mowers, cordless shavers, clear measuring cups, and much more—ultimately designing and improving roughly 750 products throughout his career. Given his impact, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum awarded him a National Design award for lifetime achievement in 2008:
[Harrison] improved the quality of life of millions of Americans through the extraordinary breadth and innovation of his product designs.
—Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Not only was Harrison one of the greatest industrial designers of his time, he was a boundary-breaking designer as well. Among the first Black industrial designers of his era, he became the first Black executive at Sears. At the time, Sears was akin to Amazon today, arguably the most important retailer in the United States.
He was a prolific educator, too. After receiving his master’s degree at the Institute of Design, he taught at several institutions, including the University of Illinois Chicago and Columbia College Chicago. During that time, he mentored Black design students, helping foster a more inclusive profession.
In honor of all of Harrison’s contributions to the field of design, ID Board of Advisors Chair Emeritus Robert C. Pew and Susan Taylor have funded the Charles Harrison Fellowship in his name. The fellowship provides financial support to ID students who are US residents from underrepresented backgrounds and bring distinct intellectual and creative perspectives.