A Life by Design: Sara Little Turnbull’s Center for Design

By Paula Rees

Portable teaching trays styled for off-site lectures. © 2018 Center for Design Institute.

Seattle is the new home of an inspirational educational institution called the Center for Design. It was founded by legendary industrial designer Sara Little Turnbull and focuses on her collection of international body coverings, domestic tools, cultural ornamentation, dining appointments, and fine natural specimens of rocks and shell patterns. At the center, artifacts of tribal Africa mingle with ribbons from the Vatican; an American weathervane is only a few steps from an Indian cosmetic tray or Japanese tea ceremony tools.

Natural curiosities that inspired Sara's bio-mimicry design in products from ceramics to textiles.
Natural curiosities that inspired Sara’s biomimicry design in products from ceramics to textiles. © 2018 Center for Design Institute.

Sara Little Turnbull is probably the most accomplished designer you’ve never heard of. She was one of America’s early industrial designers, developing many of the artifacts and objects that have populated our daily lives since WWII and defined the mid-century era. Sara was often called the “mother of invention” and was an early inspiration behind many now familiar terms such as human-centered design and design thinking, and she helped originate the concept of design sustainability in form, materials, and manufacturing. She was an early proponent of biomimicry in design and was quick to point out that the natural world inspired many of her innovative product developments. Her lessons are refreshingly based on domestic and cultural rituals rather than the typical business metaphors of war or sports.

Sara working with Frank Lloyd Wright on his Usonian House exhibition in NYC.
Sara working with Frank Lloyd Wright on his Usonian House exhibition in NYC. © 2018 Center for Design Institute.

Although Sara was a citizen of the world, she spent half her life living in Washington State, moving between Tacoma, Vantage, and Seattle. She was an exceptionally bright youngster who rose from a Brooklyn tenement and gained her professional education through hard work and scholarships. Eventually, she became an editor at House Beautiful, a position that she used to guide and shape the evolving American lifestyle.

Sara was instrumental in determining how kitchen spaces should work. She promoted the idea of family rooms instead of unused “living” rooms, and she reimagined the luxury bathroom as something above and beyond mere functional space. Her frugal and cleverly appointed New York City apartments were featured in magazines several times during the first decades of her 60-year career. Thanks to her impeccable taste, many of her original furnishings and careful design details were repurposed into her contemporary Seattle penthouse, where they looked as fresh as any seen in the design magazines of today. They were certainly not what you would expect to find in the home of a typical 90-year-old. The Center for Design is a replica of one of Sara’s personal living spaces in New York City.

The Center for Design study space.
The Center for Design study space. © 2018 Chris Eden, courtesy of Foreseer.

Everything in Sara’s life was there by design, from her custom clothing, shoes, accessories, and furniture to her household appliances. She never owned a home or a car, which freed her to travel around the world four times a year for the Fortune 100 companies for which she consulted. She made billions of dollars for her long-term clients, helping their R&D teams develop new materials and groundbreaking products. She worked with well-known companies including Corning, 3M, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Revlon, Coca-Cola, NASA, Macys, Ford, and many more. Products developed under her guidance ranged widely from medical facemasks, space suits, tapes and adhesives, cosmetics, paper products, storage systems, new foods (soy and vegetable-based), the glass cooktop, and beautiful yet sturdy cookware such as CorningWare and Corelle.

Sara serves buffet style on her McGuire designed table and her designs for Corning Pyrex called
Sara serves buffet style on her McGuire-designed table and her designs for Corning Pyrex called “Terra.” © 2018 Center for Design Institute.

“Quality over quantity” was Sara’s manifesto. She owned little and traveled light. Every detail was carefully considered. She was not only one of the first to preach sustainability to major corporations, she also lived it. She insisted that products should be built to last because she realized early on that we can’t continue to produce throwaway, replaceable garbage. Sara would save every penny so she could travel to Paris once a year to buy a single haute couture outfit that was designed with a specific, highly-functional purpose in mind. At only 4’11” her clothes were custom made to fit her sub-zero size, but more importantly, they addressed the demands of early global airline travel for a single, female professional. This process also provided a collaborative experience with some of the world’s leading fashion designers, including Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent, and Balenciaga, to name only a few. These incredible “body coverings,” as she called them, remained classics and served her needs over her entire life. These examples are part of the Center for Design today.

Vatican ribbons displayed next to world textiles and international accessories.
Vatican ribbons displayed next to world textiles and international accessories. © 2018 Foreseer.

The Center for Design is Sara’s gift to the future. It was formerly located in the Tacoma Art Museum and deaccessioned in 2003 when they moved to a new building with a new mission.

During the last 10 years of her life, Sara had the center relocated to Seattle, and after her passing in 2015, it was closed while being rebuilt to be of greater use. After years of research and archiving, the center is ready for visitors once more.

The Center for Design’s subjective collection has universal meaning to a wide variety of observers. Showcasing 3,500 beautifully assembled objects from Sara’s world travels, it is a place of intimate, human-scale interactions, and it reflects the ingenuity, craftsmanship, and genius of her strategic presentations and design prototypes. Viewed holistically, the collection highlights common themes throughout objects from different cultures and demonstrates that good design meets human needs.

Lotus shaped cosmetic pigment container (henna) with peacocks and elephant figures of Indian lore.
Lotus-shaped cosmetic pigment container (henna) with peacocks and elephant figures of Indian lore. © 2018 Center for Design Institute.

Another part of the center that has been reassembled in Seattle is a collection called the Process of Change lab, which was the hub of her research and teaching tools during her tenure in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Rather than preach to a choir of designers, Sara preferred to teach budding CEOs about the essential role of good design in the business world—a notable achievement in techcentric Silicon Valley.

The Process of Change Laboratory: a part of the Center for Design study facility.
The Process of Change Laboratory: a part of the Center for Design study facility. © 2018 Foreseer.

The purpose of the Center for Design is to make products of human work and thought available for study. The center serves a diversity of audiences, including students, scholars, professionals, and the general public. Sara Little understood that design is for and about people. Its purpose is to fill our needs while making our lives easier and more graceful, to sharpen our awareness and perhaps delight us in the process—to recognize and celebrate that ancient urge to blend the useful and the beautiful into a single object.

Millinery or
Millinery or “flower” irons used for embossing botanical decorations onto fabrics. © 2018 Center for Design Institute.

As Sara has said, “The way of life of a people influences the things they design. Design does more than merely reflect the imprint of man’s influence on his materials. It carries its own influence on those who use designed objects.” 

These collections in the Center for Design have attracted people from all over the world and are now available to visit by appointment. For more information, visit the Center for Design’s website.

A drinking vessel from New Guinea.
A drinking vessel from New Guinea. © 2018 Center for Design Institute.

Paula Rees is a principal of Foreseer, a Seattle based multidisciplinary design firm serving international mixed-use urban developments. She is also a research fellow and on the board of the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute.