How Harold L.Cohen made all the difference By Al Gowan Harold Cohen was the first Chairman of Design at SIU Carbondale, serving from1955 to 1964. I was in his first class, in my junior year. He showed up with a New York accent, an Alan Arkin look alike in a shiny, somewhat rumpled suit. He enthusiastically explained how he had washed his suit coat in the bathtub the night before, and hung it on a hanger to dry. The new fabric was polyester. I was not impressed. I preferred my gray flannel sport coat and tapered slacks with a sharp crease. Besides, I was at SIU to learn advertising design, so I could return to St. Louis to get a job in an agency. But my previous teacher had left and this new guy put a box of soda straws on the table and handed us each a brick. We had an hour, he told us, to support our brick eight inches above the tabletop, using only the soda straws and rubber bands. And by the way, the student using the least amount of soda straws won. He made it a game, and I seem to recall that mine was one of the designs that worked. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just been given a classic American Bauhaus project, based on how materials worked. It was a new philosophy to me, absent of style, and would lead to Carbondale becoming the center of The World Game, a resources inventory that led to some of the most advanced design thinking in the world, under the direction of R. Buckminster Fuller. In 1946, after being discharged from the Navy, Cohen studied with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago, the so-called American Bauhaus. Moholy died five months later. “The most astounding lecture I ever heard Moholy give”, writes Cohen, “was over two and a half hours, explaining Picasso’s Guernica. After he finished that lecture, I went into his office and told him not only how great his talk was, but that he had convinced me to go into teaching.” Harold didn’t know it, but he planted the teaching seed in me, when at the end of the quarter, he interviewed me in his office. He did that with each of his students. But not until 2009, at the May 14 SIU reception at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago did I learn that it was my teacher Harold L. Cohen who had brought Bucky Fuller to Carbondale.
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Lazlo Moholy-Nagy Harold Cohen
Design at Southern Illinois University