Inventions: Sweet Design
Inventor: Henry C. Keck ’43 Th’44 Tu’44
It isn’t unusual for Thayer grads to innovate, invent, and design. However, Henry C. Keck ’43 Th’44 Tu’44 is unique in the community of Thayer alumni. Among the 1,500 items produced by Keck-Craig, the industrial design firm Keck started in 1951, are a sugar shaker and a barricade light that are now considered works of art.
Design historian Bill Stern described Keck’s 1955 sugar shaker to a reporter from the L.A. Times as “the essence of modernism, a perfect meld of function and form. There’s not a whit of unnecessary decoration. It’s made inexpensively but responsibly, so it won’t prematurely break or wear out. Viewed at a distance, it is an extremely elegant object.”
In designing the shaker, displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a 2012 special exhibit on mid-century modern life, Keck considered the needs of the coffee shops and lunch counters that would eventually purchase 25 million of them. “We engineered it to be completely smooth all around, so there’s nowhere for sugar or dirt to hide,” Keck explained.
In 1967 a second Keck-Craig product catapulted into the realm of art—the widely used yellow flashing roadside barricade light. Keck’s design is featured on the Museum of California Design’s home page, along with work by such paragons of design as Frank Gehry and Ray Eames. And winners of the museum’s annual design award are given a transparent replica of the barricade light.
How does Keck design products that are artistic, practical, and profitable? The artistic part might be genetic. “My heart has always been in two worlds: art and engineering. My father was a famous sculptor; my cousin was a famous bridge designer. For these reasons, I always had a passion for creating new designs and innovative products,” he says. He also draws from a solid education. Keck graduated from Dartmouth, Thayer, and Tuck, joined the Navy’s Advanced Electronics Program, and earned another graduate degree at Caltech.
In his book, How Design Changed America, Keck described what set Keck-Craig apart from the competition. “Our approach was to make things work, to function properly, and to be capable of being produced at a reasonable cost. Only when these hurdles were handled did we indulge in the industrial design in the sense of making the products attractive, easily used, and marketable.”
Keck’s sugar shaker was immensely profitable, but not for Keck-Craig. The firm worked for a prearranged fee. “Sales exploded,” Keck told the L.A. Times. “Our client was able to retire on the profits from that one thing.”
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