Who came up with that?

Gumball Machine Sketch, Nathan Lerner

Gumball Machine Sketch, Nathan Lerner

Think of an activity that you do every day. Is it something like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or even turning on a lamp? Now, when was the last time you asked yourself who came up with this object? The toothpaste tube, the brush, the lamp, the bottle of soap – these are all products of design. Yes, even our most mundane tasks have designers working to improve our user experience. This field, sometimes referred to as product design, but more commonly called Industrial Design, strives to fuse aesthetics with function to create effortless and pleasing interactions with products. It is no wonder, then, that we forget who it was that came up with the ideas to make our life so easy (and good looking!).

While interning at the Gregg Museum this summer I came across a collection of products that I described and measured for the museum’s database. Let me tell you it is not easy coming up with a unique description for a ton of little glass bottles! To my shock and surprise, down near the bottom of the box sat several plastic Honey Bear bottles. ­

Honey Bear Bottles, Nathan Lerner, 1950-1995

Honey Bear Bottles, Nathan Lerner, 1950-1995

Why, I thought, would the Gregg be interested in having these in the collection? All of the items in the box appeared to be created by the same person, Nathan Lerner, so I decided to take a closer look. What I found was a collection of fascinating product sketches for many of the objects I had just painstakingly unwrapped, catalogued, and rehoused. Each drawing involved far more information than I had even though to put into my simple descriptions. In some the product’s function, dimensions, and materials are listed on the sketch.

Who knew this much thought went into these convenient ketchup bottles? Squeeze Bottle, Nathan Lerner, 20th Century

Who knew this much thought went into these convenient ketchup bottles?
Squeeze Bottle, Nathan Lerner, 20th Century

I also discovered that Lerner’s range of product designs were extremely vast and varied ranging from containers and furniture to mops and children’s toys. He even had patents on some of the new technologies he helped design. Although his inventions were not as influential as say the automobile or the plane, it’s the little things that add up to create an efficient experience. A few of his notable products include: the Honey Bear bottle, the squeeze ketchup bottle, the plastic bleach jug (previously glass, yikes!), the sponge mop, the gumball bank, the iconic Fisher Price push-toy (featured in the main photograph of this article), child safety medicine caps, and many others.

Gumball Machine Toy, Nathan Lerner, 20th Century

Gumball Machine Toy, Nathan Lerner, 20th Century

In the Gregg Museum’s catalog from the exhibition Modernist Eye: The Art and Design of Nathan Lerner from 2000, Lerner is described as “abhorring overspecialization as it thwarts creative insight” (pg 12). As I delved deeper into Lerner’s history it was apparent that he was no specializer, but had a natural talent for industrial design. Lerner was first a painter, having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago as a young person. In 1931 at the age of 18 he attended Chicago’s National Academy of Art. During this time and into old age he was interested in photography. He began by documenting Chicago during the Great Depression. Once he entered the New Bauhaus school in 1937 his photography and painting took a more abstract avenue, but he later resumed documentary photography. At the New Bauhaus in Chicago, Lerner first took a course in product design. Years later in 1949, Lerner started his own industrial design firm with former teacher, Hin Bredendick.

In product design Lerner strived to create products that functioned well and looked nice, but that were also economical and easy to produce. He used materials like plastic, plywood, and Masonite, but only where their properties lent themselves to improving the functionality of a product’s design. Lerner thought that the key to any design was to keep it simple, and by holding to this philosophy his products have made our lives simpler. I understand, now, why these mundane items were given a loving, padded home at the Gregg. Changes to our everyday objects show how a society chooses to adapt and so it is important to preserve these objects to show the progression over time.

-Blair Sly, Summer Intern 2014
For more information on Nathan Lerner or any of the pieces in the Gregg Museum’s collection you can visit http://www.ncsu.edu/gregg/ where you can find a searchable database of the items at the Gregg. There is also a library of informative art and design books waiting to be perused on site at the Gregg Museum’s office.

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