At the risk of getting in trouble, I'm going to tell this story because I think any industrial designer would be interested to hear it.
The brilliant and prolific Bruce Hannah, a former IDSA Designer of the Decade, was a professor of mine at Pratt. And years before teaching us, he accidentally invented a certain famous children's toy—the design of which was stolen from him, earning other people millions of dollars. I couldn't find this story anywhere in print, and I realize that's probably for legal reasons, so I will not quote anyone directly. Also bear in mind I'm going off of an anecdote I heard only once, about twenty years ago in class, so the details aren't perfect.
Sometime circa 1970, Hannah would invite friends over to watch pro (American) football. During the games they'd toss a football around the house, but one day things got out of hand, and an errant pass either went through a painting or broke a lamp (I just called a classmate of mine, we can't agree on which it was).
At the time, Hannah and fellow designer Andrew Morrison were working on the Hannah Lounge Chair for Knoll, which came in both single-chair and seating-row configurations for airport lounges, waiting rooms and the like.
It was made from a cast aluminum frame, and between the crossbars was slung two pieces of polyurethane foam (one for the seat, one for the back) encased in wool or vinyl upholstery. We had one at Pratt Studios and the thing was super-comfortable, I slept on it more than once. Anyway, the foam was molded into a tapered shape, as you can see in the photos, pinching off at the front/rear edges for the seat, and the top/bottom edges for the back.
As the designer, Hannah had access to the factory and the production machinery, so after the roughhousing incident he created a football-shaped mold and cranked out a soft, polyurethane foam football. He and his buddies could now toss the thing around the living room without fear of drawing the missus' ire. It was a great idea for a product, but Hannah only made it for him and his friends; he was occupied with perfecting the chair design and wasn't thinking about children's toys.
Well, turns out the guy at the factory who worked that particular molding machine thought it was a good idea too, and he wasn't a designer concerned with perfecting a chair; he was a guy who wanted to get rich.
Several years before that, a certain children's toy company had come into existence. Let's just say—so that this article doesn't show up in a Google search—that the company's name begins with "N" and rhymes with "serf." They produced the basketball you see here, made of very lightweight, airy polyurethane foam:
The blend of polyurethane foam Knoll was using for the Hannah Lounge Chair was much denser, providing the perfect weight for a football. The light-fingered machine guy brought the football plans to the company that rhymes with "serf," they tweaked their foam blend, and started cranking out the football en masse in 1972. It quickly became their most popular product, earning a fortune for the company.
Hannah, of course, caught wind of this—it's hard not to notice when a best-selling children's toy that you designed but never sold starts popping up everywhere—and what happened next was relayed in a very vague way. Because of this, my classmate and I agreed that there was presumably a settlement, and as part of that settlement, parties involved would be required to keep their mouths shut. The company making the football had, presumably for marketing purposes, attributed the invention to a professional NFL player and not mentioned anything about thieving machine operators.
So, that's why you've probably never heard this story, and if it disappears from the site in a little while, you'll know why.
Up next, we'll look at another unusual production methods story involving foam balls and tons of money. Stay tuned.