Remembering Ed Zagorski

Mark Baskinger

Ed Zagorski never taught at CMU, but his bio should be on our faculty page.

As I sat down to write this piece for the School of Design website, the mail was delivered to my house. Deciding to procrastinate, I went out to the mailbox and found that today, January 28, 2021, I received Ed and Vee’s holiday card. It was postmarked December 15, 2020. Perhaps this was more than a coincidence.

Professor Ed Zagorski passed on January 10, 2021 at the age of 99 1/4. There are numerous eulogies and writings about Ed’s passing, such as in the Chicago Tribune or IDSA. Ed was a friend to the School of Design and personal friend to our Products Track faculty. Should our students take an interest in design history, or more, an interest in the history of design education, they MUST investigate the impact of Professor Zagorski. Known as “The Famous Professor Z” among other epithets, he was an internationally recognized design educator who elevated the practice and teaching of industrial design in immeasurable ways.

The School of Design mourns his passing, celebrates his legacy, and acknowledges the influence he’s had on our industrial design program/products track.  

A Pioneer in Design Education

Ed Zagorski was a pioneer in design education who established the industrial design educational paradigm that carries on today. As Industrial Design program chair at the University of Illinois from 1956-1988, Ed taught from a perspective that “design is about people.” He was fully committed to his students’ education and believed that students will amplify the concerns for ID beyond any one educator. 

I met Ed when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, when he returned to teaching as professor emeritus. We quickly figured out that his former student Joe Ballay (CMU ID professor and head of school) was my professor when I was an undergrad. Immediately we learned that we had similar design ideologies. Immediately we became family.

Even his anecdotes were tied deeply into industrial design.

Ed and his friend Henry were late to a Buckminster Fuller lecture one night and were locked out of the auditorium. They climbed up to look in the window and were trying to get someone’s attention to unlock the door so they could get in. Buckminster Fuller was known for lecturing for hours and hours so they didn’t think they’d miss much if they were a tad late. So, they watched for a while from outside the auditorium peering in the window to see Bucky pacing across the stage lecturing to a packed house. So while it was amazing that he was able to see Fuller lecture in-person, albeit from outside, when Ed told me this story, I asked who Henry was, and he said, "Henry Dreyfuss."

A Connection to CMU

For Ed, simple, basic exercises carried great weight and importance. Design concepts, forms, and ideas may be simple but never simplistic. Design must have depth and meaning. Ed believed deeply in teaching sophomores. He felt this was the most important year in ID education because it builds the foundation. Through basic exercises, he taught principles that reached far beyond material form. His projects and lessons are present in the CMU sophomore curriculum today. 

For many years Ed provided a block of redwood to students who were required to make 3 straight cuts through the material on the bandsaw and then reassemble the parts to make a new, more complex form that was painted. This was called the “Three Cut Problem.” The cuts had to be correct and proportioned perfectly. The surfaces and edges had to be flawless. There was no margin for error. No parting lines could be visible - it had to be read as one contiguous form. It was a great challenge; especially for those (like me) who decided to use gloss black spray paint which would clearly reveal every imperfection. 

Decades ago, Joe Ballay, who taught our sophomore industrial design studio for many years, adapted this exercise into the “flowform project” that required 4 curvilinear cuts through a block of wood using the bandsaw to emphasize the flowing qualities of the resulting volume. For the past 17 years I’ve been teaching the ID/Products sophomores (first with Tom Merriman and now with Josiah Stadelmeier) and have adapted both Ed and Joe’s projects but maintained the core principles. Today we call this project the spatula, or salad tongs, etc. The lineage is important because it connects our students with the core principles of industrial design. The basics of design typically are what stays with you the longest and equip students to handle contemporary challenges. 

The Ed Zagorski Library

Ed wrote and published a book on basic design problems and principles called Get Ten Eagles. The title is a story in itself. This book was a way for him to reflect on teaching and to finally write down all the important things he felt were necessary for designers to understand. Many of us have copies of his book and will gladly share with any students who are interested. 

A number of years ago, Ed donated his entire collection of books to the School of Design. He felt that we would not only appreciate them, but to provide access for students to peruse and discover new things. Ed believed that discovery was essential to designing and that providing the space for students to pull a book off the wall was important for contemplation and questioning. Why is there a book on Maori art next to a book on technology next to a book on glass blowing? Ed’s collection of books shows the varied interests of a designer; of someone who was inquisitive; of someone who valued time and ideas. Students are welcomed to visit the library located in the office 204 in Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall.

Mark Baskinger
Date Published: 
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
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