Author: Ellen Lupton
Ralph Caplan (1925–2020) was a writer and thinker. His 1982 book By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV, and Other Object Lessons appeared at a time when few people were addressing the everyday impact of design. His 2005 book Cracking the Whip is a collection of essays on subjects ranging from posters to vending machines. Caplan wrote about how things work (and how they don’t). He wasn’t interested in connoisseurship or aesthetic theory; instead, he was fascinated by the world of stuff and what people do with it, for better or for worse. He understood that people use design to display their social status and to consume products they don’t need. Caplan encouraged designers to do better than that—to address real problems in daily life, including accessibility and sustainability.
A confirmed optimist, Caplan wrote that “Design is a process of making things right.” A critic with an eye for paradox, he also wrote, “All our media are given over to things that are better left unsaid.” His 1950 masters thesis at Indiana University was a book of poetry; his background in creative writing shines through in the witty, compact sentences he produced throughout his career. As editor of Industrial Design magazine in the 1950s and early 60s, he fell hard for design and made it the focus of his life’s work. He was inspired by the era’s brilliant generalists—such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Jane Thompson—to see design as a life force of society, which could be used to elevate human experience and build a more just and inclusive world.
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum honored Caplan with a National Design Award in 2010, acknowledging his fifty years of service as a writer, editor, educator, and design consultant. When Caplan won the AIGA Medal for lifetime achievement in 2011, design writer Julie Lasky wrote, “His formulations have not only helped designers make persuasive cases to clients and explain their jobs to their own mothers; they have also brought consciousness and conscience to the discipline.” Caplan’s brilliant books and essays continue to inspire countless makers and thinkers.
Ellen Lupton is the Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt.
Lead image: 2010 National Design Awards ceremony.