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Harold L. Cohen
In April 2010, I sat in Harold Cohen’s studio in Buffalo.
We were joined by his wife, Mary. He turned to a photo of
a young sailor and his parents.
HLC: That’s me after serving on a destroyer escort in the
Pacific. I was a radar operator and in charge of the ship’s
newspaper. Shipmates with guys from New York—Italians
except for me—but we were a community. A kamikaze hit
us and the pilot’s body was thrown on deck,
still clutching a codebook. The men went after
him. He shook his head. I saw intolerance
first hand, and not for the first time since I was
one of only three Jews on board.
After my return to the U.S., I had a medical
problem. My Navy doctor was a real bigot,
and I was so disturbed by how he attacked me
and other negative remarks against Jews that I
went into a deep depression, and I suffered a
nervous breakdown. Later, I applied to what
I thought was an art school in Chicago. It
turned out to be the Institute of Design. One of
my teachers was László Moholy-Nagy. After I
graduated, I was offered a teaching job there.
AG: How did you end up in Carbondale?
HLC: In 1955, I resigned from the ID because Serge
Chermayeff had left, and I disagreed with their new
direction. They hired a designer from Raymond Loewy,
and the ID was combined with the Illinois Institute of
Technology, where Mies van der Rohe crammed design
into the basement. A mentor and special friend, John
Walley, had left the ID and joined the new University of
Illinois campus at Navy Pier. His WPA art project buddy,
Burnett Shryock, offered him a teaching job downstate.
Walley turned it down, but suggested I call Shryock. I
did, and soon found myself on the Illinois Central railroad
barreling toward Carbondale. Shryock met me and said,
“This town and university have no understanding of
design.” I got a warm reception from art faculty members
Robert McMillan, Len Kitts, who had studied at the ID,
and Harold Schwarm, who was teaching advertising art.
I found an old house in north Carbondale, a real fixer-
upper, for $7,600. Then Shryock and President Morris
agreed to my one condition: we would start a design
department within two years. The local
newspaper wrote up my appointment like it
was a big deal.
My studio/classroom was in the basement
of the Allyn Building and my office was in
the women’s restroom, which had broken
plumbing. But unlike the other classrooms
in Allyn, my students could stay there all day,
and that fit my teaching style. By the spring
quarter of 1956, I began to form the design
department, beginning with Schwarm and
Kitts. Shryock didn’t have much money but
he gave me a small fund for visiting artists,
the same amount the music department
had received before. Mary and I housed them while they
were here.
I began to invite special people that I knew would help
foster our new department. We made sure the University
News Service knew about these prominent visitors. Some
of the early ones were visual designers Leo Lionni and
Will Burtin; designer Charles Eames; an architect from
Mexico, Felix Candela; planner and architect Hans
Friedman; architect and city planner, director of the State
Museum of Holland, Willem J.H.B. Sandberg; and twice,
Bucky Fuller, who was not yet famous. Each time we made
the local papers, and even sometimes the papers in St.
Louis and Chicago.