It's usually a safe bet that when someone asks us, "Do you have FILL IN THE BLANK in the collections at The Henry Ford?" odds are pretty good that we do. Today is #NationalSpaceDay and, as you guessed it, we've got space-related artifacts in our collections to share. Digital Access & Preservation Archivist Brian Wilson took a look in our archives and found these designs from Sundberg-Ferar. Take a look. - Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.
In the early 1980s, Detroit-area industrial design firm Sundberg-Ferar, Inc. worked with the Lockheed Corporation and NASA to develop concepts for a manned space station.
Through a series of drawings, including those shown here, Sundberg-Ferar illustrated what life in space could be like for astronauts aboard the station.
The designers considered how the astronauts would perform normal earthbound tasks in the tight quarters of the space station, including the need to exercise, bathe and sleep, and how a near-zero gravity environment would affect those tasks. For example, the shower design features a retractable toe restraint in the floor, while the treadmill uses a waist belt to keep the user in place.
In addition to the space station renderings, our collection of Sundberg-Ferar material includes their work on designs for a variety of other transportation and travel vehicles dating from the 1960s-1980s, including supersonic transport and large passenger jet planes, commuter trains, and rapid transit rail cars used in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Atlanta.
Brian Wilson is Digital Access & Preservation Archivist at The Henry Ford.
Visitors to Henry Ford Museum will see a new vehicle in Driving America. Edsel Ford’s 1941 Lincoln Continental convertible is now in the exhibit’s “Design” section, located just behind Lamy’s Diner. The original Lincoln Continental, built between 1939 and 1948, is regarded as one of the most beautiful automobiles ever to come out of Detroit. It’s an important design story that we’re delighted to share.
The Continental’s tale began in the fall of 1938 as Edsel Ford returned from a trip to Europe. While overseas, Ford was struck by the look of European sports cars with their long hoods, short trunks and rear-mounted spare tires. When Ford got home, he approached Lincoln designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie and asked him to create a custom car with a “continental” look. Using the Lincoln Zephyr as his base, Gregorie produced an automobile with clean, pure lines free of superfluous chrome ornaments or then-standard running boards.
Jens Jensen (1860–1951) was a Danish-born landscape architect who did a large amount of design work for the Ford family and Ford Motor Company. This included Ford Motor Company pavilion landscaping for the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair, landscape design for multiple residences of Edsel Ford, and complete landscaping for Fair Lane, the Dearborn estate of Henry and Clara Ford. We’ve just digitized 29 blueprints from the Jens Jensen Drawings Series showing planting plans, grading and topographical plans, and water feature plans for the Fair Lane estate, such as this one for a bird pool. View all related material in our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford.
In March of 1938 Zenith Radio Corporation introduced a remarkable product—an elegant listening device, priced at $19.95, designed to allow parents to monitor their children after bedtime.
The idea for the Radio Nurse originated with Zenith’s charismatic president, Eugene F. McDonald Jr. Like all parents, McDonald was concerned about his baby daughter’s safety—especially in the wake of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s young son. As a result, he had experimented with an ad hoc system of microphones and receivers that allowed him to keep an ear out for his daughter’s well-being.
Once he was satisfied with his improvised system’s workability, he handed it off to his company’s technicians to create something more reliable and marketable. The device they engineered could not have been simpler. The transmitter, called a "Guardian Ear" could be placed close to the child’s crib or bed; the receiver, called the ‘Radio Nurse” would be set close to wherever the parents happened to be spending their time; both components would be plugged into electrical outlets, the house wiring acted as the carrier for the transmitted sound. The final finished product however was much more than a marriage of concerned fatherhood, ingenuity, and engineering; the presence of another creative mind—that of sculptor Isamu Noguchi—resulted in a product now regarded as an industrial design classic.
Noguchi was responsible for the styling of the system’s most visible, and audible, component—the Radio Nurse receiver. Minimally, he had to create a vessel to house and protect a loudspeaker and its associated vacuum tubes, but actually his task was much more challenging: he had to find a way to soften a potentially intrusive high tech component’s presence in a variety of domestic settings.
Noguchi’s solution, remarkably, was both literal and paradoxical: he created a faceless bust, molded in Bakelite, fronted by a grille and backed by the suggestion of a cap—an impassive abstract form that managed to capture the essence of a benign, yet no-nonsense, nurse. Shimmering in a grey area where the abstract and figurative appear to meet, it strikes a vaguely surrealist note—it wouldn’t be out of place in an image by Giorgio de Chirico or Man Ray. A touch of whimsy is incorporated: adjustment of the concealed volume control wheel amounts to a kind of tickle under the unit’s chin—subtly undermining the effect of the stern Kendo mask-like visage. Still, with its human yet mechanical features, the Radio Nurse remains slightly sinister and finally inscrutable.
But was it neutral enough to sit close at hand without, in silence, striking its own discordant note? Sales never did take off, but it was a technical problem—rogue broadcasts picked up or transmitted by the house wiring—that gave cause for customer complaint. Alarming as the Radio Nurse might be when provoked into voicing one of junior’s broadcasts, the possibility that some other unknown voice might start to speak through that blank grille would surely have made the unit’s presence aggravatingly suspenseful.
McKinley Thompson Jr., an African American industrial designer, was born and raised in New York City. He knew the road he wanted to travel in life one day in October 1934. He was returning home from school in Queens when he spotted a silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow (like this 1934 model in our collections) pulling up to a traffic signal. Mr. Thompson, then just a young boy of 12, was about a half a block away. Reliving the moment for The Henry Ford in an oral history interview in 2001, Mr. Thompson recalled many of the details: “There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight.” He began running towards it, but the light turned green. Though the car drove off before he could get a closer look, the impact had been made. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life—I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.” At the time, there hadn’t been a single African American car stylist.
By 1953, Mr. Thompson was a war veteran with a family and a career as an engineering layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps. He had reached his thirtieth birthday and could have easily settled into a comfortable existence. But he still wanted to be an automobile designer—a life goal he never lost sight of. He decided to enter a contest sponsored by Motor Trend magazine, with four winners each receiving an Art Center College of Design scholarship. His turbine car, which would incorporate reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him a scholarship. He started at the Art Center in Los Angeles that same year, and was the first African American enrolled in their prestigious Transportation Design department. After graduating in 1956, he interviewed for an automotive design position with just one automaker: Ford Motor Company. He got the job.
Mr. Thompson didn’t just land the position he had dreamed of since the day that shining car caught his eye; he made history by becoming the first African American automobile designer.
He started at Ford’s Advanced Studio, where designers worked free from creative restrictions. On his first day, he was told by the Vice President of Ford Design, George Walker, “You can go as far as your talent will take you.” Mr. Thompson’s early design work included the Light Cab Forward truck, and he contributed sketches for the Mustang and the futuristic Gyron concept car. He also envisioned a forward-thinking project that had the potential to change the world.
In 1965, Mr. Thompson took his innovative idea to Ford: an all-terrain vehicle for the Third World that would have economic and social consequences. He understood that rising countries needed good transportation, and that a vehicle had to satisfy the needs of the population. He knew that like the Model T, his car should be relatively easy to build and maintain, and that production costs must be kept to a bare minimum. But Mr. Thompson’s vision extended beyond this vehicle. He anticipated his auto plants—located in the developing nations that would use car—bringing jobs, better roads and eventual economic independence to host countries. He believed automobile manufacturing would “help develop the economy as it did in the United States.”
The name he chose for the automobile that would make this grand plan possible was “the Warrior.” The car was actually intended to be the first in a series of vehicles, including a half-ton pickup truck, a six-passenger bus (an early version of the minivan), as well as boats and containers (buoys, pontoons, etc.). They would be constructed using a strong space age plastic material produced by Uniroyal called Royalex.
Though Ford was very supportive, the company ultimately passed on the project in 1967. Mr. Thompson still believed the car could succeed, and he recruited friends to invest in or assist with developing the vehicle for the African market. One of those friends and investors was Wally Triplett, who had broken a barrier of his own in 1949 as the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions).
Mr. Thompson rented a garage on Detroit’s west side and went about building the Warrior. Still working at Ford during the day, he spent at least six hours a night—plus weekends—on the vehicle. “My family was very good about that. My wife knew how badly I wanted to do this,” he recalled. Mr. Triplett assisted, and was the only other individual involved in its construction.
The prototype was modeled on the Renault R-10, a small four-door sedan. Indeed, the Warrior’s chassis came directly from a disassembled R-10. Base mechanical components, including the engine, were also incorporated. Renault already had a distribution system overseas, providing a ready-made parts supplier for Mr. Thompson’s customers. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Triplett designed and built the tools to form the sections of the body, which were then sent off to Uniroyal, who molded the Royalex plastic.
While major work on the Warrior was complete by 1969, it’s likely that modifications were made to the vehicle through the mid-1970s while continued attempts were made to turn the vision into reality.
The partners talked of building the car in Detroit themselves, but were denied a bank loan; Mr. Triplett believes race played a role. African nations were courted, but instability on the continent derailed those opportunities. As for Ford Motor Company, the automaker—like others—didn’t believe the car would sell in large enough numbers to warrant the investment. Mr. Thompson eventually stopped looking for funding, closing up shop on the Warrior in 1979. Still, he kept in touch with his project’s supporters, in the event something came up, but alas, “nothing ever came of it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson never lost faith in the Warrior, and kept the car as a leisure vehicle. He took it off-road in Northern Michigan’s sand dunes, and drove the car on family vacations. He even used it for running errands, usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Though the Warrior was never mass-produced, Mr. Thompson’s many years of driving the prototype proved it was a sound vehicle. The car got a respectable 35-40 miles per gallon on the highway and 25-27 in the city. Maximum speed was 75-80 mph. The Warrior is now a part of The Henry Ford collection.
The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when the URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.
After retiring, Mr. Thompson put together a traveling exhibit of the history of the African American designers at Ford. He wanted to show African American kids that his dream job was a career option for them, too. He traveled with the exhibit, standing next to it at malls and museums, happily fielding questions from curious visitors.
Sadly, Mr. Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease later in life. McKinley Thompson Jr. passed away in 2006 at the age of 83.
McKinley Thompson, undated. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Keefe.)
“I regret I wasn’t able to get it going,” he lamented to The Henry Ford regarding the Warrior, a project in which he had invested so much work and faith. But he was quick to add that “God has blessed a certain number of people in the world with talent and ability and I’ve always felt that those people that have that blessing—creativity and imagination—owe it to the rest of the population to make life as good as it can be. It was rewarding to me to know that I was trying to make that kind of an effort. I felt good about that.”
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
Learn more about the Warrior automobile, McKinley Thompson, and Wally Triplett with these sources:
Archives materials available in the BFRC Reading Room:
Oral History Interview with McKinley W. Thompson Regarding the 1974 Warrior Concept Car (2001.162.2)
Wally Triplett Collection (2004.40.0). Includes the photograph album, “White Paper to Wheels” and an oral history with Mr. Triplett (2004.40.1)
“Design Pioneers: Vanguards of Progress, Part II,” Isdesignet, September 1996. Archives Vertical File, African-American Workers – Inventions
Ever have an idea that just got away from you? Things started out with the best intentions in mind, and then before you knew it, a perfect storm carried your idea away, along with all of those good intentions? That's the story behind the office cubicle we all love to hate and its underappreciated designer Robert Propst.
Before it was known as the cubicle, it was called the Action Office System. Propst invented the concept in the 1960s after intense study of how "the world of work" operates. The Action Office debuted under the Herman Miller name in 1968 and literally transformed the nation's idea of the workplace.
"The name was intentional," said Marc Greuther, our chief curator here at The Henry Ford (we have an archived collection of Propst's work). "Propst believed in fluidity and movement. He had an active mind and wanted to create a space that wouldn't pen you in."
"The idea was that everyone had a unique way of working," noted Greuther, "so Propst created an area that was highly customizable, allowing workers to transform their space in a way that best suited them."
Things started to go awry when the government began offering tax incentives to businesses for office expenses. Since the Action Office System's square cubicle could create the most workspaces in a single area - equating to the biggest tax break - it quickly became the Action Office option that sold best. And Propst became the unintentional father of the office-cube farm we know today.
"Propst attacked the things that attacked him," Greuther added. "He liked solving problems and had his hands in many areas, from toys and playground equipment to hotel carts." Propst, in fact, had more than 120 patented inventions to his name when he died in 2000.
"He is a truly underappreciated and under-recognized designer of our time."
To see more from the collections of The Henry Ford, take a look at other Robert Propst-related items in our Digital Collections. You can read more from The Henry Ford Magazinehere.
Susana Allen Hunter (Object ID 2007.71.15, THF37810)
Since joining The Henry Ford in 2010, I had been hearing about the wonderful collection of quilts made by Susana Allen Hunter. I had seen photos of the exhibition that The Henry Ford mounted in 2008 and had glimpsed the quilts in storage. But, I was not quite prepared for the true beauty and historical value of the collection until I got to see the quilts displayed.
The Henry Ford recently loaned part of its collection to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) for its exhibition, “The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter.” On May 9, I attended the opening with Marc Greuther, chief curator, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life. Was I ever impressed! These quilts are a stunning representation of artistry and the daily life of an African American woman living in the difficult conditions of rural Alabama as late as the 1970s.
In collaboration with the GRAM, we loaned 22 quilts from the collection, along with personal objects that belonged to Susana. Our textile conservator, Fran Faile, worked with GRAM staff to ensure that these significant pieces were handled and installed according to museum standards.
Jeanie Miller had secured the initial collection and then painstakingly researched its rich history. She worked with GRAM curatorial and education staff and shared not only her knowledge, but her passion for this extraordinary collection. She understood its value, and the way it captures rich stories of a distinctive time and place. Such stories are elusive and very difficult to collect and preserve. In this collection, The Henry Ford holds a remarkable piece of African American and women’s history.
During the process of acquiring the collection, Jeanie had developed a strong relationship with Tommie Hunter, grandson of Susana, who had lived with her as a young boy and with whom Susana lived in her later years. After Jeanie’s masterful presentation at the GRAM exhibition opening on the quilts and the related materials she has collected, she conducted a question and answer session with Tommie, his wife, Susie, and the audience. What a delight.The personal nature of the memories and tales of Susana Hunter’s quilting had the audience’s rapt attention.
The opening was great fun - food, wine, and people to share the excitement of the evening. But the sense of pride I felt to be associated with an institution that had the foresight to acquire and preserve such a remarkable piece of American history will stay with me always.
Culture Lab Detroit is a catalyst for conversations and collaborations between Detroit's artists, designers, innovators, technologists and the larger design world. In other words Culture Lab Detroit was designed for all of us.
Two years ago I attended an exhibition in Paris that examined the importance of the relationship between nature, culture, business, and the social fabric within a city. The exhibit began with a look at how a 16th century Spanish city was designed to incorporate and encourage creativity and growth and it ended by asking the same questions of a modern city. What are the ingredients of a thriving city and how to fill its spaces.
The exhibit was called The Fertile City. And that modern day city it examined was Detroit.
It was astonishing to travel to a European museum to see an exhibit that focused so heavily on the struggles of Detroit. But I soon realized it was fitting that anyone looking at the effects of a damaged urban landscape in the 21st century would study Detroit. We have so many open uncertain spaces, and yet so many assets, so much ripe potential.
Some of those open spaces are geographic. Some are economic. Some are social. But the thing is that's all changing. Bit by bit, this city that has captured international attention is starting to fill its voids, recognizing them as assets in a way that is uniquely Detroit.
Today's Detroit innovators are pioneers. Through their efforts they're carefully blazing the trail for a more culturally vibrant landscape. They are the new vanguard of Detroit. Each one is a piece of the puzzle - gardening here, sewing there, creating art over there. And hundreds more pieces have found a home at incubator sites like the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, the Russell Industrial Center, Ponyride or the Green Garage. These places give structure and a home to artists, innovators, entrepreneurs and technologists.
This is a world-class town filled with world-class people. Culture Lab hopes to connect and inspire the best problem solvers in Detroit with world-class artists, innovators and thinkers internationally as a way to increase awareness and the imprint of Detroit's creative community around the globe.
I hope you can join me in learning more about these new innovators and celebrating this surge of creativity and ideas on Thursday, April 18, at the College for Creative Studies for an evening of conversation and collaboration with my good friend David Stark. David is a world-renowned event designer, author, and installation artist. Joining David that evening will be Mark Binelli, Michael Rush, Toni Griffin, and Daniel Caudill. You can learn more about the event, hosted by Culture Lab Detroit, here.
Jane Schulak is the founder of Culture Lab Detroit. Jane believes that by sharing these experiences this will increase the awareness and the imprint of Detroit's creative community internationally.
People often send us letters offering items for our collection. Recently, I received a letter in the mail that surprised and absolutely delighted me.
Among the notable collections of The Henry Ford are 12 quilts made by an exceptionally talented, unassuming Indiana farm wife named Susan McCord (1829-1909). I opened the letter to find that the family of McCord’s great-grandson was offering us the opportunity to acquire one more: a Triple Irish Chain quilt made for her daughter, Millie McCord Canaday, about 1900.
It was the last remaining quilt known to have been made by Susan McCord. Soon after, this beauty was on its way to Dearborn to join the other 12 McCord quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection.
The Triple Irish Chain is a traditional quilt pattern — but in Susan McCord’s hands, this design became much more. Like all of her quilts, the Triple Irish Chain demonstrates McCord's considerable skill at manipulating fabric, color and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary.
I could easily imagine Susan McCord carefully choosing fabric from her bag of scraps, cutting it into thousands of fabric squares, carefully determining their placement within the overall design and sewing the squares together. I could picture McCord then topping off this creation with her utterly unique, “signature” design — a stunning vine border, the leaves expertly pieced from tiny scraps of fabric. And it certainly wasn’t hard to imagine Millie McCord’s delight when she received this lovely gift!
To all who see Susan McCord’s quilts - whether experts or casual observers - the remarkable beauty and craftsmanship is evident. Now beautifully photographed, the story of this quilt can be readily accessed through our online collections – so that anyone, near or far, can enjoy McCord's quilt at the click of a mouse.
Do you have any special family quilts or other handmade heirlooms? Share your story in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, is an unabashed Susan McCord “groupie.”