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About the Project

    Most people don’t realize that behind the products they use every day are industrial designers—trained professionals who design products to be visually appealing, comfortable and safe to use, cost-effective to produce, and fulfill market demands. And many Chicagoans don’t realize how important their city was from 1930 to the 1970s in manufacturing products for home and work.

    During those decades, Chicago made most of the telephones and televisions used in the United States, as well as microphones, cameras, furniture, children’s toys, household appliances, office equipment, and machinery. Jobs were plentiful, and employees could walk to work or take a city bus from their homes in nearby neighborhoods. 

    Chicago Design Stories tells the unknown stories of the people and places responsible for everyday products (and some innovations that were ahead of their time and were never made)—a Chicago story told through business and design. 

My  Chicago Design Story

VM purple with ivy.jpg

Photo courtesy of Sue McCormack Photography

Vicki Matranga

Industrial Design Historian

Independent Scholar

Click here to view Vicki's CV.

    When I got married in the 1970s, my mother gave me a Kenmore sewing machine as a wedding present. She was a Sears employee, so most of the products in our family home were Sears brands. I never questioned how they were made or sold—and I certainly didn’t wonder who designed them. It was only after earning a degree in history of architecture and art at the University of Illinois at Chicago and promoting public awareness of architecture in a series of jobs that I grew interested in the history of Chicago businesses.

    Then about 1990 I met Charles Harrison, who directed product design at Sears (and had designed sewing machines for many years). I began to help document his career. He suggested that I track down other Chicago designers to learn more. For the next 30 years, I interviewed more than 60 designers (and often their families) to hear about their work and to understand how the profession of industrial design evolved. Many of these people gave me papers, photographs, drawings, products, and packaging. I also stood in lines at estate sales for way too many hours! My home became crowded with boxes storing an archive that I shared with design historians and students.

    During this time, I consulted on exhibitions for the Art Institute of Chicago, Toledo Museum of Art, Chicago History Museum, and Museum of Science and Industry. I have also lectured on Chicago’s design history at conferences and in classrooms and have written about industrial design for numerous publications, including the book America at Home: A Celebration of Twentieth-Century Housewares.

    What started as a spare time activity became my mission: to gather stories of these remarkable creative people who devoted their careers to making products better for all of us. Chicago Design Stories shares unseen documentation and unheard voices that I hope will excite enthusiasts and scholars to discover Chicago’s importance in midcentury design.

Recent Appearances


International Women’s Day Virtual Symposium – Chicago Women in Midcentury Design

March 7, 2021

In recognition of International Women’s Day, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Where Women Made History” campaign and Landmarks Illinois’ “Women Who Built Illinois” project join forces to present leading Chicago women in Midcentury Design.

Watch other speakers from the event here.

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