Sara Little Turnbull, influential product designer, dies at 97

Sara Little Turnbull
Sara Little Turnbull

Sara Little Turnbull, an innovative product designer with Tacoma ties who found inspiration for her work in geisha styles, a Kenyan game park, an American prison and other unlikely places, died Sept. 3 at her home in Seattle. She was 97.

Sara Little, as she was known professionally, liked to say she never invented anything, only made improvements.

She traveled the world looking for design concepts, finding many in nature and human customs, and using them in furniture, storage systems, toys, foods, packaging, fabrics and countless other products.

Little moved to Tacoma in the 1960s, and in 1974, artifacts gathered in her travels — clothing, cooking and dining implements, textiles, artworks — became the Sara Little Center for Design Research at the Tacoma Art Museum.

The collection was deaccessioned in 2003 and now is set up in downtown Seattle, where universities and others can make appointments to view it.

Paula Rees is one of the people working to make the collection available. She met Little at a Tacoma seminar in 1986, and Little asked to be her mentor. Now Rees’ company, Foreseer, designs large mixed-use urban environments.

She describes Little as “one of America’s first female industrial designers” and said she was very humble.

Little focused more on getting the work done than taking credit for it, which Rees said might be why she’s not as well-known outside the design world as some of her male counterparts.

“She is every bit as accomplished, if not more,” Rees said.

“Sara’s is a story of the very powerful, bright women post World War II that is still an untold depiction in the era of the ‘Mad Men,’ ” Rees said. “She was a presence and powerhouse that could make Mad Men blush.”

Operating at a nexus of design, culture and commerce (“applied cultural anthropology,” she called it), Little studied geishas and persuaded a cosmetics maker to promote matte makeup.

She saw a cheetah grip its prey and got an idea for a pot lid handle whose shape and grip minimized slips and burns. She created rope-twist soybean candy to get children to eat more protein. And for a more pick-resistant lock, she went to prison and talked to burglars.

She was an editor at House Beautiful early in her career and late in life taught at Stanford University.

But for 30 years, from 1958 to 1988, she was an influential, behind-the-scenes consultant to dozens of major companies — “corporate America’s secret weapon,” the Corporate Design Foundation called her.

She was only 4 feet 11 inches tall — “Little Sara” to friends — and she called her business Sara Little, Design Consultant.

Soon after founding it, she wrote an article for Housewares Review, titled “Forgetting the Little Woman,” arguing that too many companies designed products for retailers, not consumers.

It caught the eye of executives at General Mills, 3M and Corning Glass, who retained her.

For 3M, she created an antipollution face mask from nonwoven fibers. To make small apartments more livable, she designed collapsible furniture, closet shelving and folding screens.

She created safer bedroom furniture for people with cognitive disabilities, new interiors for cars, and containers for drinks, foods and cosmetics.

Her client list eventually also included Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Neiman Marcus, Marks & Spencer, Macy’s, American Can, DuPont, Scott Paper, Ford, Nissan, Volvo, Pfizer, Elizabeth Arden, Lever Brothers, Motorola, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and many others.

In addition to Japan and Kenya, she sought ideas in Borneo, the Philippines, India and other lands.

In 1988, she joined Stanford’s graduate business and engineering schools, and for 18 years she taught hands-on seminars. Working in small groups, her students designed, manufactured and marketed a product — a ski rack, an alarm clock, anything — to learn the panorama of its creation.

“I see design as essentially creating order,” Little told Metropolis magazine in 2000. “But I also encourage students to learn from their experience, at times letting their minds meander to discover the unexpected and the creative accident.”

She was born Sara Finkelstein in New York on Sept. 21, 1917, attended Girls Commercial High School in Brooklyn, and in 1935 won a citywide competition in silk-print designs and scholarships to attend the Parsons School of Design. She graduated in 1939.

She joined House Beautiful in 1941 and eventually became an editor, developing articles for postwar women on sharing rooms, preparing for returning veterans, the G.I. Bill and college.

She began freelance design work in the mid-1950s before quitting the magazine and opening her consultancy.

In 1965 she married James R. Turnbull, a Monsanto executive. He died in 1991. They had no children.

Little lectured at the Rhode Island School of Design, M.I.T., Harvard, the University of Washington, San Francisco State University and other colleges. She retired from Stanford in 2006.

News Tribune staff writer Alexis Krell contributed to this report.