Life by Design

Sam Highberger of Hendersonville designed the first desktop copying machines.

Sam Highberger of Hendersonville designed the first desktop copying machines.

We live by design.

This is not a philosophical statement, but a literal one. Virtually everything with which we come in contact during our daily lives, from toasters to hair dryers to automobiles, is brought to life by an industrial designer. They are the ones who turn an engineer’s drawings into a useful product, the kind of job so basic to our existence that most of us never think of it, much less get to meet the professionals who make our world work.

One of them, and a very famous one indeed, lives in Hendersonville.

You might not have heard of him, but Sam Highberger is a familiar name in the world of design. “Mostly, when you tell people you’re an industrial designer, they usually ask ‘what’s that’?” Sam says. “But they wouldn’t have their toaster, computer or car without industrial designers. Engineers design the guts of a product, but designers have to make it look good and easy to use.”

After his 50-year long career in Michigan, Sam retired to Hendersonville with Mary, his wife of 23 years (an employment counselor for the county’s JobLink Career Center at Blue Ridge Community College). His retirement did not signal an end to his design efforts; Sam’s pro bono work included the logos for Hendersonville County’s Citizens for Transportation Planning (CTP) and for the Global Warming Task Force.

He recently celebrated his 85th birthday.

After graduating from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1949, Sam got into the business on the ground floor, so to speak, when the booming post-war economy was cast loose from military demands and needed a specialized profession to meet the demand for new consumer products. “I was very good at art in high school, but I knew I didn’t want to be an architect like my dad,” Sam recalls. “A teacher suggested industrial design, which was a brand new profession at the time.”

Among Sam’s classmates at Carnegie Tech was Andrew Warhola, a local Pittsburgh boy who would go on to drop the final ‘a’ from his last name, move to New York and help give the world Pop Art. “He would sleep in the loft of the painting studios at times when he was working on a project,” Sam remembers. “We were all in awe of his ability to create a drawing in charcoal without lifting the charcoal once until the drawing was done. He was a fabulous artist, but a really odd duck.”

More useful to Sam as an inspiration was the great Raymond Loewy, who practically invented the industrial design profession during the middle years of the last century with his Coldspot refrigerator for General Electric, the bold red-and-white packaging for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Studebaker’s modernist Avanti, and even the re-conceived Coca-Cola bottle introduced in 1955, with its slimmer shape and bright white lettering.

Sam’s creations were no less impressive, his most famous being one of the world’s first desktop copying machines, called The Secretary, which Sam designed for 3M when he was 32 years old, in 1957. His concept was so innovative that it made him the youngest designer ever to win an award for product design excellence from the Industrial Designers Institute. “A major design feature of my machine was that the lid could hinge up without the major controls also going up with it,” Sam remembers. “Mary welcomed that copy machine in her early teaching days, because before that she had to use that thin blue ink transfer paper between white paper to make worksheets for the kids. Very messy!”

Much smaller and more quotidian, but no less useful, was a series of Papermate pens Sam designed in the early 1960’s; and much more fun was a new design for the rubber waders used by fresh water fishermen. “I liked fishing, and I thought the waders needed improvements to be able to carry more stuff in the water, and not be so hot,” Sam explains. The largest project Sam ever took on was a crane for the Lorain Crane Company, a huge extendable monster whose design is still in use today, more than 30 years after Sam conceived it, and which was another award-winner for him.

Sam’s a firm believer in the Bauhaus “form follows function” mantra, to the point where some of his designs required re-engineering the product, like another crane design he took on from engineers who’d placed the operator’s foot pedals right in front of the cab window, obstructing the view of the ground below. “Luckily, the engineers took my suggestion of making the pedals hand-held instead of foot-controlled, to make it safer for the operator and the people on the ground below him.”

What contemporary designs have caught Sam’s eye? “I like the new design of the Kindle, and the iPad,” Sam notes, citing both for their seamless combination of form and function. “You can have a beautiful product design but if it doesn’t work well then no one will use it or buy it. Industrial design’s a great career. I enjoyed every day of work.”

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