donald dohner

Design Education: Pratt, 1952

Originally posted October 8, 2010 on

If all of the objects from the early 1950’s shown here look unfamiliar, that is because none of them was ever produced or distributed. All are student projects from the Experimental Design Laboratory at Pratt, taken from an article by Alexander Kostellow, chairman of Pratt’s Industrial Design Department, published in Interiors magazine in June, 1952. Founded by Donald Dohner in 1936, Pratt’s Industrial Design Department took a broadly humanistic approach to training future designers, one that sought to develop creative potential, but one that ultimately centered around machine techniques, hands-on experience, and constant experimentation.

The Experimental Design Laboratory, headed in the 1950’s by Luigi Contini, an engineer, and Victor Canzani, collaborated with companies such as Monsanto Chemicals (Plastics Division), Reynolds Metal, Shell Oil, Elgin Watch, Gorham Silver, and E.A. Electrical Co, so that by the fourth (and final) year of study, students were working on actual, real-world problems.

Some of the solutions proposed by these students are shown here. Of the furniture shown in the group photo, I like the profile of the chair on the middle right, and the low rectangular coffee table in the middle left. The chair with the woven seat in the middle also looks interesting. I’ve looked many times at the self-contained kitchen unit made of wood, metal, and plastic. Raised off the floor to prevent dirt collection, it included electric hot plates, work and storage space, and a sculptural hood that floats over the top, suspended by a guide wire. Overall, a sort of Milo Baughman meets the Jetsons fantasy that could be plugged into a high-end interior today.

Also intriguing to me is the cylindrical voltmeter with its electronics exposed inside a plastic tube. I could see this object re-cast as a radio I’d want to own. “More charming than functionally serious” is how the Japanese-looking scale is described in the article, but on a visual scale of 1-10, it is at least a 9. Thrown in too, are the second-year experiments in designing with metal strips, which also shows the students’ interest in photography. A look at a larger sampling of student work from the 50’s and 60’s would make a great blog, article, or exhibit. Any lenders out there?