Ralph Caplan, H/IDSA (1925-2020)

Jun 2 2022 - 9:03am


Ralph Caplan, H/IDSA was an inimitable voice in the design world as a writer and educator, and particularly eloquent on design's role in catalyzing social change. "The designer's mission is to make things right," Caplan said in a Design Matters interview in 2010. "There is a difference between making things right and making things nice."

An honorary member of the Industrial Designers Society America (IDSA), Caplan died on June 4 at his home in Manhattan, New York. He was 95.

Caplan is survived by his wife, Judith Ramquist; daughter, Leah Caplan; and three stepchildren, Stephen Ramquist, Michael Ramquist, and Stacy Pearson.

Life and career

Caplan was born on January 4, 1935 in in Sewickley, PA. He served in the Marines during World War II and later earned a bachelor's degree in English from Earlham College in Indiana and a master's of fine arts in poetry from Indiana University. He worked as a writer in New York City and, in 1957, interviewed for a position at I.D. (Industrial Design) magazine.

Fueled by an early interest in reusable packaging, Caplan started out as the packaging editor of I.D. and became editor of the magazine in 1959. Though he left this position four years later to write his first book, Say Yes, Caplan continued to contribute to I.D. as a columnist and consultant until the publication folded in 2010.

Caplan was the author of The Design of Herman Miller (1976), By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons (1982) and Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects (2005). He also worked as a consultant for Herman Miller, IBM, the Smithosonian Institution, UNESCO, and CBS, among others.

A Director Emeritus of the International Design Conference in Aspen, CO, Caplan memorably sat on a panel at the 1964 conference and was asked what he considered to be the era's best expression of design. He chose the "sit-in," calling attention to the civil rights protests occuring across the American South at the time. As design and architecture reporter Anne Quito wrote in her piece for Quartz on Caplan and his gift for getting to the root of design's highest purpose:

"To Caplan, the simple act of sitting in sections reserved for white customers achieved the ultimate goal of design: It changed an unjust system. The timing and choreography of the peaceful protests orchestrated by African-American college students somehow forced businesses to radically reconsider their racist policies."

Caplan taught design criticism at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan from 2009 to 2013 and was known for his wit and generosity in supporting his students, aspiring designers and peers. In 2010, he won the Design Mind award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Caplan was a fixture in the New York City design scene for decades, and won a Bronze Apple award from IDSA's New York chapter. Caplan also wrote the introduction and text for the IDSA publication: "Design in America: Selected work by members of the Industrial Designers Society of America" and was beloved by many in our Society. We offer our deepest condolences to his family, colleagues and friends.

Continued reading:

New York Times obituary

Lessons from design writter Ralph Caplan - Quartz

Remembering Ralph Caplan - Design Observer