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Ralph Caplan, design critic big on sit-ins but not chairs, dies at 95
Ralph Caplan with Jane Thompson (formerly Jane Mitarachi), left, and Deborah Allen, the founding editors of I.D. magazine, at the Half King in Manhattan in 2010. They were attending what was billed as a wake for the magazine, which ceased publication that year, and where Caplan was editor from 1959 to 1963. Caplan, an essayist, professor, lecturer and consultant on design, died on June 4, 2020, in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 95. His wife, Judith Ramquist, said the cause was heart failure. Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Ralph Caplan was the E.B. White of design writing. He disliked windy sentences and pompous clichés and was always ready to poke fun at orthodoxies. He said he wasn’t sure he saw the point of a chair, since human beings could sit on pretty much anything except a cactus.

To Caplan, design wasn’t really about objects anyway, but about making things right, which is why to him the most emblematic and successful design of the 20th century was the sit-in — civil disobedience as perfected by the young civil rights activists at lunch counters in Montgomery, Alabama, and elsewhere in the South.

Caplan, an essayist, professor, lecturer and consultant on design, died June 4 at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 95.

His wife, Judith Ramquist, said the cause was heart failure.

In 1957, Caplan was an out-of-work poetry major from a Pennsylvania steel town who had lost his job in New York when Bounty, the humor magazine he had worked for, folded (because, he said, it wasn’t very funny). On a tip from a friend, he interviewed for a writing position at a magazine called Industrial Design, also known as I.D.

He knew nothing about design, industrial or otherwise, but he had recently read a newspaper article about an ice cream container that could be turned into a purse. So when Jane Mitarachi, the magazine’s editor, asked him what he would like to see more of in the magazine, he suggested more stories about reusable packaging. And so it was that he became, for a time, the packaging editor.

With illustrations by Andy Warhol (on tractor design), essays by George Nelson and editors like John Gregory Dunne and Deborah Allen, who wrote a skeptical column about automobiles, I.D. presided over the heyday of American industrial design and was a touchstone to generations of designers and design buffs.

When Mitarachi left in 1959 to start her own design firm, Caplan became the magazine’s editor.

He said his most daring editorial innovation was to send his out-of-work actor friends to design events as a cost-saving measure. Paid in snacks and cocktails, they brought back press kits for the magazine’s tiny staff to review.

Though he quit four years later to write a novel, “Say Yes!,” which he described as a parody of a self-help book, he remained at I.D. as a columnist and consultant for decades. The topics he wrote about included the best way to install a roll of toilet paper. (He was eloquent on both sides of the issue.)

“He was observant and hilarious,” said Chee Pearlman, arts and design curator at the TED conferences, who had been a longtime editor of I.D., “and his observations of design, seen through his impish, wry lens, gave a lot of stature to what designers were doing but also took them down a notch.”

For a time his business card read, “Director, Center for Peripheral Studies.”

Caplan was born Jan. 4, 1925, in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Ambridge, a steel town. (He often said that Richard Serra sculptures made him homesick.) His father, Louis, owned a butcher shop and later a wholesale grocery business. His mother, Ruth (Hirsch) Caplan, was a homemaker and a bookkeeper for her husband.

When Ralph was suspended from high school for cutting class, his father sent him to the Kiski School, a character-building boarding school for boys. He attended Earlham College, a Quaker liberal arts school in Indiana, for one semester and then joined the wartime Marines, where he performed stand-up comedy for his shipmates on the Pacific crossing.

After World War II, he returned to Earlham on the G.I. Bill and earned a B.A. in English there and then an M.F.A. in poetry at Indiana University. By his own estimation, his poetry was forgettable.

Caplan was the author of “The Design of Herman Miller” (1976), “By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons” (1982, revised in 2004) and “Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects” (2005).

In 1968, as editorial director, he was part of a team that produced “Rights in Conflict,” also known as the Walker Report, which investigated the violent clash between the police and anti-war protesters in Chicago that summer during the Democratic National Convention there.

Caplan worked as a consultant to Herman Miller (which hired him when his book about the company was published), IBM, CBS, the Smithsonian Institution and UNESCO, among other companies and organizations.

He taught design criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 2009 to 2013 and was on the board of the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. In 2010, he won the Design Mind Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan, one of the design world’s Oscars.

His marriage to Deborah Frank, a physical therapist and a founder of the American Center for the Alexander Technique, ended in divorce. They had two children. He married Ramquist in 1982; they had met at Herman Miller, where she was a design manager at its corporate headquarters.

Besides his wife, Caplan is survived by his daughter, Leah Caplan, a design consultant, and three stepchildren, Stacy Pearson, Stephen Ramquist and Michael Ramquist. His son, Aaron, died in 2005; his sister, Louise Slater, died last year.

In his introduction to “Cracking the Whip,” the celebrated graphic designer Milton Glaser wrote that Caplan, an old friend, was at heart a moralist, “who understands that the subject of ‘design’ permits him to write about anything from an ethical point of view.” Caplan, he added, “writes as though he believes that there is no such thing as popular culture, only culture itself.”

In 1984, Caplan took his daughter, Leah, then 16, coat shopping at a department store. Leah, waited on by a salesperson named Kim, chose an inscrutable garment embellished with holes, with an odd number of sleeves and wrapped in a torn black cotton rag — or at least that’s how her father described it in an essay for The New York Times Magazine. Here is what transpired, in Caplan’s words:

“But, baby, it’s cold outside,” I protested. “This thing has no buttons, no snaps, no belts or sashes or drawstrings. No zippers. Not even Velcro.”

“I can use a safety pin,” Leah said.

“We have some fierce ones on the street floor,” Kim said. “In ‘Uncommon Notions.’ ”

Beaten, I reached for a credit card. In these postmodern times, when the practical is indiscriminately married to the practical joke in everything from office buildings to novels, why should couture be any different? And who will ever point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any closure?

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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