An exhibit opening Saturday shows off some of the most practical — and fashionable — designs of the 20th century.
Art Historian Daniel Schulman said while most people have seen or used objects like toasters and coffee makers, the creators don’t always get proper due.
“Nobody really paid attention to the community of designers, and it was a very large and interconnected and influential community in Chicago,” said Schulman, lead curator of African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and The Politics of Race, an exhibit at Chicago’s Cultural Center. He said the works featured aim to direct attention to these designers.
Schulman said many of the designs came from Chuck Harrison, a longtime lead product designer for Chicago-based Sears Roebuck. According to Schulman, Harrison was prolific: “He designed about 10 or 15 different sewing machines every year for Sears.” One of those sewing machines is on display — and on loan. “The person who lent us the Kenmore sewing machine was given this by her mom in the 1970s and she’s strongly attached to it,” Schulman pointed out.
The politics of the time are sprinkled throughout the exhibit, like in a poster of two silhouettes wearing Civil Defense hats surrounded by the message: “Work Together For Victory.” Schulman described its origins as a “campaign to unite black and white laborers, and black and white people who were in the armed services to work together to overcome fascism abroad.” It was created as part of the Works Progress Administration during World War II.
Schulman said during the 1960s and 1970s, Sears joined other major U.S. retailers in paying more attention to African-American consumers. Schulman said ads like the two-page magazine spread featuring an African-American woman peering over her shoulder alluringly and smoking a cigarette is a direct result of the influence of Chicago designers, like Emmett McBain and Tom Burrell.
“They were black-owned firms that pioneered getting these big companies to focus on the African American market,” Schulman said.
In addition to Sears, Marlboro and McDonald’s geared more of their ads to African-Americans during that time.
Schulman said the exhibition doesn’t just unveil overlooked designers of the time. He said it puts life in Chicago on display, especially of the African-American middle class.
“All these figures are universally relatable. It’s kind of a post-war explosion of the consumer marketplace and wealth in American society, and these two artists show African-Americans taking full part in that kind of life,” Schulman explained about the work of illustrators and cartoonists Jay Jackson and Jackie Ormes.
African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and The Politics of Race is not all look, don’t touch. Schulman said one of the viewfinders designed in the 1960s and ‘70s by Sears’ Chuck Harrison will be out for the public.
The exhibition runs through March 2019 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Carrie Shepherd is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.