Marc Harrison was born on July 1, 1936 in New York City. When he was eleven years old, Harrison suffered a severe brain injury due to a sledding accident in the Bronx, New York. As a result of the accident, he had to relearn basic functions such as walking and talking. It was because of this event and the years of rehabilitation that Harrison gained insight and inspiration for his future work as an industrial designer.
Harrison earned his BFA in industrial design at Pratt Institute in 1958, and his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1959. After a brief stint of freelance designing in New York City, Harrison took a position teaching at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he became instrumental in establishing the Division of Architecture and Design. He believed in the importance of organic thought and the inclusion of liberal arts courses to enhance students’ education, making them better designers.
The design philosophy of the time was that products should be designed for those of average shape, size, and ability. Though the intention was that these products would work for as many people as possible, the elderly and disabled found products designed by this method to be difficult to use. Harrison turned this philosophy on its head by deciding that products should be designed for people of all abilities. This was the pioneering of a philosophy that came to be known as Universal Design. Harrison incorporated this design philosophy into projects both at RISD and with his private consulting firm, Marc Harrison Associates.
Perhaps Harrison’s most famous design, which incorporated this philosophy, was the Cuisinart food processor. Taking the previous food processor, Harrison redesigned it with large and easily pressed buttons, large and easily grasped handles, and bold easily readable typeface. The new design was a success. By designing a food processor toward consumers with arthritis and/or poor eyesight, Harrison had created a product that was accessible to people of all abilities. For Cuisinart, that meant a food processor that was extremely popular with the general public.
Towards the end of his life, Harrison became involved with a RISD project, the “Universal Kitchen” based on concepts of Universal Design. The design study, undertaken by RISD students, analyzed every aspect of the kitchen in order to restructure it to meet the needs of varying abilities. Students documented each step in the process of cooking a meal in a conventional kitchen in order to develop a more efficient, time saving, and user-friendly model. Based on their findings, the students built a prototype “Universal Kitchen.” Harrison, who was one of the pioneers of the philosophy of Universal Design, was not able to see the final outcome of the project. On September 22, 1998 Marc Harrison died due to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The final version of the “Universal Kitchen” was placed on exhibit in October 1998 at the Cooper-Hewitt design museum in New York City.