• Sara Little Turnbull

  • Sara Little Turnbull ’39 was an influential industrial designer and product consultant whose 70-year career spanned the period many art historians consider the golden age of American design. Described by MoMA senior curator Paola Antonelli as “a daring trailblazer,” she designed interiors, furniture, housewares, and textiles; developed new materials and food innovations; and even helped devise medical devices, toys, and space suits. A pioneering woman in a field dominated by men, she touched the lives of Americans in countless ways, bringing a uniquely research-driven and optimistic approach to the design of everyday life.


    Born Sara Finkelstein in 1917 in New York, she was called Little Sara by her Brooklyn neighbors because of her small stature. She made the moniker her own, adapting it as Sara Little, which she used as her professional name throughout her life. Little attended Parsons School of Design on scholarships from the School Art League of New York City and the National Council of Jewish Women. At Parsons, she studied advertising design and had Paul Rand as a classmate. She took her first job at Marshall Field’s department store as a product and packaging designer and assistant art director. In 1941, Little joined House Beautiful magazine as the writer of the Girl with a Future column. She eventually became decorating editor, a position in which she began influencing the American lifestyle by redesigning the home environment and changing habits of consumers — especially women — in the postwar period. An advocate of casual entertaining, she introduced her reading public to self-serve buffet dining and later designed informal tableware.

    In 1958, Little established Sara Little Design Consultant, an industrial design and market research firm that brought her ideas and influence into the boardrooms of companies including Corning, 3M, General Mills, Revlon, Campbell’s Soup, Neiman Marcus, Ford, Macy’s, and Coca-Cola. Little came to be known as “corporate America’s secret weapon” for her creativity, research abilities, and capacity to communicate ideas effectively. “Her most exceptional skill was getting the attention and trust within the C-suite of America’s top corporations to guide critical decisions,” says Paula Rees, a research fellow and board member of Little’s Center for Design Institute, an educational study facility located in Seattle, Washington.

    Equally remarkable was Little’s versatility. She designed everything from Corning’s popular Classic Centura and Terra patterns to award-winning furniture for McGuire (both shown above). She also presented a strategic vision to guide development of 3M’s earliest nonwoven material (resulting in hundreds of products today) and designed commercial finger foods inspired by her visits to India and Japan.

    Travel was integral to Little’s research process, and many design ideas came to her from tools, objects, and cultural customs observed around the world. To publicly display the 3,500 artifacts she collected over the years, Little founded the Center for Design Research, which included her Process of Change: Laboratory for Innovation and Design in the Tacoma Art Museum after moving to Washington State. Little’s promotion of design education took other forms as well: In 1988, she relocated the Process of Change Lab to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Over the next 18 years, she mentored students from around the world and worked directly with visiting corporate executives in using design to formulate forward-looking business solutions.

    Little died in 2015, leaving behind the Sara Little Turnbull Foundation, a grant-making organization that supports the Parsons Scholars program and helps underrepresented youth and women advance in design. She also left her Center for Design Institute, which draws on Little’s teachings, intellectual properties, collections, and lab to educate the public about design. Today, Little’s legacy lives on in hundreds of products we use daily and in the lives of the students she mentored.


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