Robert I. Blaich, FIDSA (1930-2021)

Oct 30 2021 - 8:02pm


The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) remembers Dr. Robert I. Blaich, FIDSA, beloved IDSA Fellow and industrial designer for over 60 years whose advocacy for the important role of industrial design in business and around the world inspired us all. 

Upon receiving his dual degree in Architecture and Allied Arts (including Industrial Design) from Syracuse University in 1952, Dr. Blaich began his career in design at the furniture manufacturer Thonet. As part of his first assignment, he designed the seating for the United Nations’ General Assembly and Security Council in New York, which is still in use today. 

In 1953, Dr. Blaich joined the Herman Miller Furniture Company. He worked his way up in the organization, serving as Herman Miller's Vice President of Corporate Design and Communications from 1968 to 1979. During this time he worked closely with Herman Miller's consultant designers, including Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, FIDSA, and Alexander Girard. He also recruited new designers to the company, such as Vernor Panton, Fritz Haller, and the designers of the successful Aeron Chair, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick. Dr. Blaich led major design projects, including the original “Action Office," as well as many Eames seating projects, Nelson office projects, and Girard's textiles and furniture designs.

In 1980, Dr. Blaich became Senior Managing Director of Design at Royal Philips Electronics (Philips) in the Netherlands, where he integrated engineering, marketing, and design and built a new corporate image of global design. He was responsible for product design, packaging design, and corporate identity on a global scale, directing 350 designers in 28 international locations. He introduced design management as a strategic tool and is credited with enhancing the design profession’s effectiveness and position within the company. During this period, Philips won over 500 international design awards.

Dr. Blaich was a key leader of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), now World Design Organization (WDO), serving as President from 1987 to 1989. He organized the Philips/ICSID International Design Prize for young designers; and in 1992, he received the ICSID World Design Medal for his outstanding contributions to the Industrial Design Profession on a Global Basis. 

In the early 1990s, he founded Blaich Associates in Aspen, CO. In 1999, he became chair of the board for the design firm TEAGUE, formerly Walter Dorwin Teague Associates.

Additionally, Dr. Blaich served on the board of the Institute of Design-IIT, the College of Visual and Performing Art at Syracuse University, Beal Centre for Strategic Creativity at Ontario College of Art and Design, and INDEX, 2005 and 2007, based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

He was a juror for five consecutive Red Dot Awards in Essen, Germany, and a visiting professor in the Department of Industrial and Interaction Design at Syracuse University. In 1990, he received a Doctor of Fine Arts (Honoris Causa) from Syracuse University, and an exhibition of his work was shown there in 2013. In 1991, Dr. Blaich was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. 

An active and passionate member of IDSA, Dr. Blaich became a Fellow in 1981. In the late 1980s, he traveled with Lucia DeRespinis, FIDSA, and an IDSA delegation to China to promote industrial design. He also was a member of the Design Institute of Australia, a WDO enator, and Fellow of The Royal Society of the Arts UK. 

Dr. Blaich authored two publications on industrial design: Product Design and Corporate Strategy (1993), co-written with his wife, Janet Blaich, and New & Notable Product Design (1995). To nurture his interest in sculpture, he studied for many summers at the Anderson Ranch Art School in Snowmass, CO.

In 2006, Dr. Blaich received one of IDSA's highest honors: the Personal Recognition Award, now Individual Achievement Award. He was known for effectively communicating and committing to the development of design as a corporate core competency, both in the US and across the globe.

At nine years old, Blaich attended the 1939 New York World's Fair, which was largely designed by early pioneers of Industrial Design: Walter Dorwin Teague, FIDSA, as Master Planner, Raymond Lowey, FIDSA, and Norman Bel Geddes, FIDSA, among others.

As Dr. Blaich described to Marco van Plout in a 2007 interview, "The 'Futuristic Designs' made a great impression on me and probably led to my becoming a designer...An interesting factoid is that I was impressed by Walter Dorwin Teague’s NY World's Fair designs in 1939, and 60 years later I joined the Teague Board, so it went full circle!"

Dr. Blaich himself was a luminary of industrial design, our Society, and community, whose impact was vast and deeply felt. We honor and miss him dearly.

A group photo from Dr. Robert Blaich, FIDSA's personal archive, taken in 1975 at the Walker Art Museum Herman Miller exhibit. Front row, Alexander Girard, George Nelson, FIDSA, and Ray Eames. Back row, Robert Propst, Dr. Blaich, D.J. De Pree (founder of Herman Miller), and Charles Eames. 

Dr. Robert Blaich, FIDSA, (left) and Charles Eames (right) in Milan for an Eames exhibition, 1959, via Dr. Blaich's personal archive and Herman Miller

"Bob Blaich was key among those who inspired me to strive to become a corporate design leader and was a mentor and friend for much of my career. He was truly one of the first “Chief Design Officers”…before that was even a term…in a global company, and with a seat at the table. Bob understood that the role of Design and Designers must include driving organic business growth for their companies and clients, along with making things useful, usable and desirable. A long, wonderful life and a great loss."

- Robert T. Schwartz, MID, FIDSA, DMI

"I was so very saddened to hear of Bob’s passing.  Being old has negatives, one being that those you have admired, worked with and known as friends disappear before you realize.  So it is with Bob Blaich.  He was always such fun when he happened by the Nelson office and later, when we went to China, his ability to deal with some quite difficult problems, with such good humor, smoothed out our mission beautifully.

We have lost a truly amazing thinker and practitioner of this Industrial Design profession."

- Lucia N. DeRespinis, FIDSA

"A design legend who was President and Senator of ICSID, many years before it transitioned to the World Design Organization. A great loss for the Design profession! RIP."

- David Kusama, FIDSA

"I had the privilege of working under his leadership for a long time. If I had a problem I could always count on his support. He was a great design leader and innovator; he was also responsible for the major Design changes within Philips. It is a great loss for the Blaich family and the entire Design world."

- Jacques van Almen

"I had the honor to work with Bob from his first day at Philips. Under his leadership we enjoyed a great development of the design role in Philips. He supported my professional growth and career during his tenure as Managing Director of Philips Corporate Design. Bob encouraged me to succeed him at the lead of Philips Design and we maintained a warm and respectful friendship all through the last 30 years. An immense loss for Janet, the Blaich family and the world design community."

- Stefano Marzano

"Truly sorry to hear this. Bob was incredibly generous and supportive as I started my journey at Philips. I had the pleasure to also meet with him at the IDSA conference in Seattle a few years ago. A real pioneer who’ll be sadly missed. RIP Bob."

- Sean Carney

"My heart goes out to the family and Bob's vast community of friends. What a great storyteller and design advocate! I'll never forget Bob so passionately reciting the many profound experiences of his incredible career over dinners and drinks. A great loss. RIP Bob."

- Philipp Steiner

"Bob was in a class by himself and a terrific role model. He was kind, generous with his time, and it is difficult to think of the design world without him playing an inspiring role."

- RitaSue Siegel, FIDSA

"Bob's achievements as a design leader were monumental, and easy to overlook. After 27 years as head of design for Herman Miller he moved to Philips. There he brought all 29 global studios under one corporate design function, with all 300+ designers all reporting into him.

This was in 1982. 40 years later, very few global corporations have organised design so masterfully.

In his own words: 'I described a step by step process for achieving the goal to improve the quality of product design. Briefly, the steps were first to strengthen the centralized design organization in its structure, process and resources. A beginning was then made to tame the design chaos resulting from independent actions in numerous design groups around the world. The harmonization programs was the centerpiece for providing design guidance and coherency.'

Read this great mini bio from my former colleague at Philips - Gus Rodriguez. Thanks Gus.

Bob Blaich: A life well lived. Congrats Bob.

The Teague community's thoughts are with you, Jan."

- John Barratt, FIDSA

"So sorry to hear about Bob’s passing. He was a major force in the development of Design Management as a strategic discipline and he was a good friend. I have fond memories of our professional and personal experiences together every June in Aspen at the International Design Conference. RIP Bob."

- Tom Hardy, IDSA

"Great design organizer and leader (and fun!)"

- Tucker Viemeister, FIDSA

"I met him only once when I was a student, but was struck by how genuine he was for being so accomplished. No ego, just a nice man who loved design. It's hard to see such legends of our industry pass. RIP."

- Rebecca Maria Stames, IDSA

"A giant indeed, a landmark, mentor and a dear friend. Be well Bob. I will miss you."

- Alexander Manu

"I'll never forget the time Robert took to get to know us as individual designers at Teague. He eagerly wanted to know what life was like for the design staff. His genuine interest meant so much to us all. Even though I only spent one afternoon with him, his honest leadership style has stuck with me for years. My condolences to the Blaich family."

- Bernadette Berger

"RIP. He was a true leader of the Industrial Design Society in our time."

- Tom Matano


WDO In Memorium: Robert Blaich

Design & Emotion with Robert Blaich

If you have memories to share of Dr. Robert Blaich, FIDSA, please email membership [at] idsa [dot] org.