A Life Timeline

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“Design to Live” – the Life and Times of Nathan H. Shapira”

by Ricardo Gomes, IDSA

Prof. Shapira was studying at the Politechnico de Milano, where Gio Ponti was one of his instructors and clearly his mentor who took a liking to him. Ponti befriended Nathan not only as his professor, scholar and mentor, but as a close friend. Later on in life, Prof. Shapira honored Gio Ponti with a retrospective on the life and works of Gio Ponti, “Expressions of Gio Ponti,” in 1966. This occured 12 years after his graduation from the Politechnico.

1955 – 1956
Prof. Shapira’s first comings to the US which was in 1955 by the invitation of a Commonwealth Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard so that was his first beginnings in the US and I believe part of that venture was that Nathan did a cross-country tour, in which I recall seeing photographs of Nathan and I believe he may have went into the South as well as across to the West. He has some very good documentation images from that, which I will try to find out where those may be because I’d like to certainly be able to reflect upon those because I think it really was the beginnings of Nathan’s ethnographic and anthropological approach to life in Design, which I think really epitomizes the whole notion of us entitling this sabbatical research, study, memoir and archive, “Design to Live.” Prof. Shapira approached life as a design. I think he did design to live and live to design. And I think he always tried to look at how design really framed, recorded, even defined the way in which design really took place in society.

1958 – 1960
Prof. Shapira conceived and designed a major traveling exhibit, Forms from Israel for the American Federation of Art in 1958 and 1960 and . This may have been the first exhibit that he did, which was to be the first of many exhibits to come that Prof. Shapira would create in his illustrious lifetime. As a Commonwealth Fellow, Prof. Shapira utilized his keenly inquisitive exploratory ethnographic journey across the vast American Landscape as a creative “packaging” if you will, which was Nathan’s whole life was a “package.”

1st ICSID Congress, Stockholm, Sweden (Selby Mvbusi). In the late 50’s early 60’s, Prof. Shapira was a significant and influential member of ICSID, which is the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design where they had held conferences back in the late 50’s, early 60’s. The theme of the 1st ICSID Congress in was based upon Design for Low-Income Economies, in respect to how industrial design could best address issues of developing countries. This conference was where Prof. Shapira met and befriended Selby Mvusi who was a South African designer/artist in exile.

Nathan Shapira was involved in hallmark early years of the International Council Society of Industrial Designers (ICSID) which covered work and issues addressed by Prof. Shapira and his contemporaries in the early years of ICSID, like Josine des Cressonnières and Tomas Maldonado, 1957 – 1977) There was some hallmark events that Nathan Shapira was involved with ICSID, the International Council Society of Industrial Designers. ICSID is one of Prof. Shapira’s significant contributions to Design Education and Design Development in Low-Income Economy Countries.

1959 – 1960
Nathan Shapira established himself well in the Northeast in New England and in upstate New York with noteworthy academic accolades from being a MIT Commonwealth Fellow to being a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University, along with his work at RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.).

Nathan Shapira’s permanence and lifetime affinity with California – “Los Angeles,” was established in 1963 upon his arrival as an Industrial Design Professor at UCLA. Los Angeles and UCLA was to be Nathan’s “destiny” despite the efforts of one of the iconic pioneers of Industrial Design in America, Raymond Lowey’s solicitation for Nathan to work in his New York office. As Nathan had shared with me, he had already set his sights to being in California. I believe Nathan preferred the boundless visionary outreach and intellectual prestige of academia. In addition, I believe looked at himself as being a Design Pioneer, seeking to establish design beyond its conventional commercial boundaries and esoteric constituency. He certainly he established by the end of his life, his legacy as a Design Ambassador and advocate. In fact the name he coined his design consultancy firm was “Design Advocacy.”

Nathan Shapira took design in a explorative manner, that was not so much about just creating objects but seeing how design could become a mainstay in sustaining global needs in our society. As a design ambassador he did not see himself being centered in one place, nor creating design for his own self-satisfaction, never seeking to establishing himself as a center of attraction. Nathan believed design had to be outreaching, whether it was his initial architectural design studies in Milano, going to Israel, coming to America. For Nathan Shapira coming to America had all of the pioneering intrigue and adventure from his landing New England to his Commonwealth Fellow ventures through America’s urban concrete jungles across its southern landscape and vast western expanse. It was Prof. Shapira’s inquisitive, curios, exploratory mindset that inspired his provocateur, exploratory, “don’t know “No” persistence.

1963 – 1998
UCLA, Department of Design, Design and Art History, Assoiciate Professor Nathan Shapira established himself as a professor at UCLA in 1963 up until 1998 for a 35-year period. As a Professor Emeritus, Shapira was still very active at UCLA up until his death in May of 2009. In 1963, Nathan Shapira was hired as a UCLA when Henry Dreyfuss was the Department Chair. Henry Dreyfuss, very much like his NewYork contemporary Raymond Lowey, was another hallmark iconic American designer. Henry Dreyfuss, also had a very successful practice in New York, Henry Dreyfuss and Associates.

ICSID Education Commission, Brussels Belgium.

Prof. Nathan Shapira was one of the early design forerunners of Design Education in Africa and Nairobi, like Selby Mvusi (South African), who laid the foundation and establishment of the first Design department in sub-­‐Saharan Africa in the late-­‐1960’s and early 1970’s. Both of these quintessential design educators were presenters and participants in the First ICSID Congress in Stockholm, Sweden in 1959 and subsequent seminars and workshops in Bruges(1965) and Ibiza/Barcelona in 1971. Selby Mvusi as an exiled Black South African artist, designer and educator, gave significance and meaning to the term “Design to Live.”

ICSID/UNESCO Seminar “The Education of the Industrial Design,” Bruges, Belgium.

Selby Mvusi contributed a major keynote address and paper at this significant collaborative convention between ICSID, UNESCO and UNIDO.

ICSID Seminar on the Teaching of Design, Ulm Germany, Quintessential seminal design seminar addressing the Teaching of Design by some of the renowned design educators of that day such as, Dr. Tomas Maldonado, Rector of the infamous Hofteschule der Gestaltung Ulm, Prof. Misha Black, Director of the Design Research Unit at the Royal College of Art and Josine des Cressonnières, Brussels, Belgium.

ICSID 4th Congress, Design and the Community, Vienna Austria

1965 – 1968
In 1965 and 1968 Nathan was a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s U.S. Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped. The period of the 1960’s was a period that coincided with the civil rights movement and clearly President Lyndon Johnson was also a prominent and key person involved with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act. It is quite significant that Nathan Shapira was also involved in the early days of what would later become the civil rights amendment for persons with disabilities as the American Disabilities Act (ADA). We find Nathan Shapira again at the forefront of design and society having addressing issues of disability utilizing design as an equalizer and agent of change.

1966 – 1968
The Expression of Gio Ponti (major traveling exhibition).

In 1966 – 1968 Nathan Shapira conceived and designed a major traveling exhibition on The Expression of Gio Ponti. Many of the exhibits that Prof. Shapira conceived and curated were traveling exhibits. Prof. Shapira had this vision of disseminating design knowledge, facts and history of many well known designers and people in society such as the traveling exhibit he did of Gio Ponti’s work, and other exhibits.

This Gio Ponti exhibit which traveled across the United States and again was probably was one of Prof. Shapira’s signature exhibits. The exhibition was initially presented at the UCLA art Gallery and later shown at a number of prestigious museums in the United States and Canada, such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The Expression of Gio Ponti was first begun at UCLA. Gio Ponti, a world-renowned architect, professor at the Politechnico di Milano and editor of Domus design magazine. Ponti befriended NathanShapira as a mentor and professor. They worked very closely together and relied on Prof. Shapira to coordinate and curate a retrospective of his work in the United States. As a result the exhibit planning, development and implementation is documented by a valuable collection of letters, sketches and documents between the great Milanese architect -­‐ designer Gio Ponti and the late Nathan Shapira, Ponti’s student and professor emeritus at UCLA.

The Gio Ponti exhibition was initially presented at the UCLA art Gallery and later shown at a number of prestigious museums in the United States and Canada, such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Head of the Department of Design at the University of Nairobi and Director of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program in Kenya. Prof. Shapira’s work at the University of Nairobi was really quite a momentous occasion, it was an inflection point in his career, particularly in respect to design for developing countries and low-income economies.

Prof. Shapira was one of the key figures in establishing and implementing the design program at the University of Nairobi back in 1969 to 1972 where he was the Head of the Department of Design and also the Director of the University of California’s system’s education abroad program in Kenya. The formation of the Department of Design at the University of Nairobi, established a bonafide program of design education and instruction in sub-Saharan Africa where design really did not have a formal presence.

The objective of the design mission and pedagogy was not to replicate design as was formulated at the Bauhaus, or other European, American, or western schools of thought, but rather to establish a design program and philosophy relevant to the material culture, value and resources in Africa; Kenya; and at the University of Nairobi. Many of the first generation of African designers in Nairobi were students of Prof. Shapira. These design cohorts became the first indigenous African designers in Kenya and also led the design profession in Kenya, which was previously, led by expatriate Danish, English or other Europeans.

Prof. Shapira assisted in giving an indigenous voice, face, image, and identity to design in Africa and Kenya through his leadership as the head of the Design Department at the university. Prof. Shapira established a unique and genuine empathy for design in the Kenyan and African society in terms of trying to make design a very inclusive and responsible tool for development. Prof. Shapira instructed and positioned design education to be a socially responsible discipline, profession and viable practice for the Kenyan designers.

One of Nathan Shapira’s greatest attributes that was as a “Design Ambassador.” He probably did more for the design profession and practice by exposing, informing and bringing value to design to many people who were not designers. Prof. Shapira’s approach to design was to make it a very interdisciplinary, inclusive and participatory process. He was not only trying to educate the designers, but make everyone knowledgeable patrons of design and advocates of design.

Prof. Shapira did a tremendous amount of documentation of the material culture and vernacular of Kenya. He approached design education, value and practice through an anthropological, ethnographic lens they could also take on a very innovative, sustainable and responsible methodology for design. Although the use of the term “sustainable design” was not used at that time in 1969/1970, an equivalent term of that time would have been “appropriate technology” or “intermediate technology” as brought forward by such design visionaries as E.F. Schumacher in “Small is Beautiful,” Victor Papanek in “Design for the Real World,” or Hassan Fathay in “Architecture for the Poor.” These were these archetype visionaries that Prof. Shapira personified. He was very much one in the same with these individuals who were really trying to bring a voice, a vision, a presence for design in society.

ICSID 7th Congress, Ibiza/Barcelona Spain.

In 1971 Nathan Shapira addressed a major international conference in Ibiza, the International Council Society of Industrial Design (ICSID). Prof. Shapira’s involvement and activity with ICSID began in 1957 with the formation of ICSID and its 1st Congress in 1959 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Design in Low-Income Economies (exhibition).

In 1972 Nathan conceived and moderated Design in Low-Income Economies papers and exhibit which he presented at international arenas. These papers and exhibit became part of the cornerstone of the graduate design program curriculum at UCLA, that addressed the issue of design for low-income economies and developing countries.

“Industrial Design Education for Developing Countries.” Nathan Shapira also addressed the Third World Congress of Engineers and Architects, Dialogue in Development, Natural and Human Resources, Tel Aviv, Israel, December 17-21, 1973.

From Flat to Form (major traveling exhibition).

In 1977 Nathan addressed a major international conference in Copenhagen, along with the design of a major traveling exhibit, From Flat to Form.

Egypt, Then and Now: Nasr Salem, Art and Design (major traveling exhibition).

A major traveling exhibition that was conducted with Nasr Salem and Egyptian artist and textile designer on art and design in Egypt. Nasr Salem was a former student of Prof. Shapira at UCLA, who was inspired to revive the significance of Egyptian arts and culture through the re-establishment of silk art tapestry in Egypt. Nasar Salem was inspired by the design philosophy and works Hassan Fathy, the well-known Egyptian architect and author of “Architecture For the Poor.”

Fantasy and Reality in Italian Design, UCLA.

In 1978 Nathan Shapira conceived and moderated Fantasy and Reality in Italian Design. This exhibition corroborates with some of the work in which Prof. Shapira had done relative to contemporary art, architecture and design in Italy. Prof. Shapira was considered to be one of the worldwide authorities on Italian Design. He had a unique opportunity to befriend many of the top Italian design luminaries such as Mario Bellini, Ettore Sottsass and Lila and Massimo Vignelli. Prof. Shapira’s in-depth knowledge and perspectives of Italian designers positioned him to curate, coordinate and present exhibits and panel discussions on Italian design from Compasso D’Oro to Pininfarina which later follow this exhibit in 1979 at UCLA.

1979 – 1983
Design Process: Olivetti 1908-1978 (major traveling exhibition).

1979 and 1983 in which Nathan Shapira conceived and designed a major traveling exhibition, Design Process: Olivetti 1908 – 1978. This exhibit has been recognized as a hallmark celebration of the uniqueness of Italian craftsmanship, expression and vision in marketing, brand identity, commerce and industry. This exhibit looked at Olivetti as a renaissance contemporary company in historical perspective. This exhibition recognized that Italian industry really carried on the legacy, history and tradition of the Italian arts, sciences and production. This creative legacy personified and distinguished Italian design ingenuity and manufacturing a unique manner. In this manner, Italian art and design personified a harmonious linkage between visual expression, creativity and utility. This was personified in through a poetic romanticism between art, form and function. The Olivetti exhibit curated by Prof. Shapira, clearly defined an interdisciplinary design process inherently highlighted in the works of Olivetti, not only from the industrial machinery, but also in the graphic imagery that helped to promote the uniqueness of this holistic design form.

Big Prints from Rome (major traveling exhibition).

Following that exhibit in the 1980’s and again, this exhibit traveled the world internationally also in Canada as well as throughout the United States, in the 1980’s Prof. Shapira continued with this work of traveling exhibitions. The Big Prints from Rome exhibition was an acknowledgement of the graphic identity and expression in the prints and art of Rome. These landmark prints not only looked at the visual expression, but also in a unique creative manner that celebrated the fusion between visual expression, promotion and identity in Rome.

1982 – 1985
In 1982 to 1985 Nathan was the President of the Center of Contemporary Culture. Prof. Shapira had identified Los Angeles as a center of contemporary culture and design. He celebrated and reveled in the creativity both in terms of the lifestyle in Los Angeles as well as the architecture and the furniture design and some of the unique architects that came out of Los Angeles. Such creative works were exemplified through the designs of Frank Geary’s work; the Morphosis Group; Charles Moore the great landscape architect and historian; Ray and Shelly Kappe; and Richard Meier. Many of these iconic Los Angeles designers established the identity and contemporary design vernacular of Los Angeles. This iconic design work that spans from as early as the 1930’s and 40’s into the 50’s and early 60’s personifies with the modernism movement and international style that was prevalent throughout Los Angeles.

1983 – 1984
Posters from Yugoslavia (major traveling exhibition).

Prof. Shapira conceived and designed another major traveling exhibit on Posters from Yugoslavia. He wanted to bring a lot of exposure and identity to other aspects of design that existed beyond the established design mainstreams in Italy, France, UK and Germany, such as in Romania and in Yugoslavia. Prof. Shapira’s presentation of the graphic poster works from Yugoslavia in 1983 and 1984, brought to the forefront to many designers and patrons, the quality and the identity of design in Yugoslavia.

The Quest for Continuity: Forms from Friuli for the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (major traveling exhibition).

In 1987 Prof. Shapira conceived and designed another major traveling exhibit that celebrated design in Italy called the Quest for Continuity – Forms from Friuli for the Folk and Crafts Art Museum in Los Angeles. Friuli is the North East region of Italy, which was world-renowned historically for its furniture design and production.

1989 – 1993
Served on the Editorial Board of Design West and R&D Strategist, a journal for developing and protecting new commercial ideas and was a senior liaison director with the Design Center for Global Needs, San Francisco.

In 1989 to 1993, Prof. Shapira served with the editorial board of Design West a research and design strategist strategists in a journal for developing and protecting new commercial ideas, which plenty of ideas were certainly coming out of Los Angeles area. He was also a senior liaison director with the Design Center for Global Needs at San Francisco State University, which began its formal foundation in January of 1992.

Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA).

Nathan Shapira was a long-standing member of the IDSA but he also was a member of the original, I want to say there was another ASID – the American Society of Industrial Designers and there was a very similar ASID that was interior designers but then eventually the ASID in the IDSA merged to one, but Nathan was even an earlier member of that organization. He also was a member of the Associazione Disegno Industriale (ADI), which is an Italian design organization, industrial design organization, and the Society of Architectural Historians, and the Italian Register of Licensed Architects. IDSA Design Educators Conference, Oakland, CA In 1992 Nathan addressed the IDSA Design Educators conference at the California College of Art Oakland campus, the California College of Arts and Craft, which is now CCA. This conference was held in conjunction with the World Congress IDSA conference at San Francisco.

Art and Design: Identities in Transition, Los Angeles Civic Center.

In 1992 Nathan conceived and moderated Art and Design: Identities in Transition. Panel discussion of Art and Design relative to the evolution of art and design in diverse contemporary cultures from Africa, to Europe to Latin America.

Nathan Shapira’s contributions to cultural exchanges between Italy and the United States, was recognized with him being awarded the title of Cavaliere della Repubblica ltaliana by the President of Italy, the Italian equivalent of a knighthood.

2nd International Conference of Professional Design Educationalist on Design Education for Developing Countries, “Design Education for Socio-economic Development,” Peninsula Technikon, Cape Town, South Africa, Design Education and Small Business Development, in conjunction w/ ICSID Board Members, Feb 23-25 1995.

“Los Angeles, End of the Century,” Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology, Milan and School of Architecture, University of Rome – La Sapienza.

In 1996 Nathan conceived and moderated Los Angeles, End of the Century – Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology in Milan and also the School of Architecture, University of Rome in La Sapienza.

New Blood 101: onehundredone, an exhibition for the new millenium, WestWeek, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, March/April 1998 (major exhibition).

In 1998 Nathan conceived and moderated New Blood 101: onehundredone an exhibition for the new millennium, which was done at WestWeek – part of the WestWeek design events at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, this was in March/April 1998. 101 signified the recognition of the juried contemporary works of101 architects in the Los Angeles region.

1998 – 2009
UCLA Professor Emeritus. From 1998 to 2009 Nathan was a UCLA professor and eventually professor emeritus. I believe Nathan Shapira began his professor emeritus status at UCLA in 1998 until his death in 2009.

Trendless and Timelessness in Design and Architecture, Florida International University, Miami Beach (major exhibition).

In 1999 Nathan conceived and moderated Trendless and Timelessness in Design and Architecture. This was done at the Florida International University in Miami Beach. This was an exhibition the featured some of the legends of Italian Design, such as Castiologini, Ettore Sotsasse, Mario Bellini and Lila and Massimo Vignelli, which culminated in a panel discussion at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, FLA.

The Role of Creativity in the Future of Los Angeles, co-moderator Dr. Elizabeth McMillian, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles – featuring Frank Gehry.

In 2002 Nathan conceived and moderated The Role of Creativity in the Future of Los Angeles with co-moderator Dr. Elizabeth McMillan at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles – featuring Frank Gehry and his “…Hopeless..” statement regarding the Future of LA posed by Prof. Shapira.

Italian Design: What’s Next? for the Italian Institute of Culture, Pacific Design Center (conceived and moderated).

In 2003 Nathan conceived and moderated Italian Design: What’s Next? for the Italian Institute of Culture in Los Angeles that was held at the Pacific Design Center. Panel presentation on Italian design that featured a number of Italian designers, manufacturers and critics associated with Italian design. One of the panelists was Aldo Colonetti who was one of the founders of Ottagono magazine.

Visionary Architecture of Celestino Soddu at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles (major exhibition).

In 2003 Nathan curated and designed the exhibition Visionary Architecture of Celestino Soddu at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. Celestino Soddu is an architect and Professor at the Politecnico di Milano and co-founder of the Generative Design Lab.

In 2005 Nathan was as Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study of the University of Bologna.

DH1 Disaster House with Gregg Fleishman, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles. This design exhibition and promotion of the works of renowned architect and furniture designer, Greg Fleischman, was Nathan Shapira’s last design consultancy project before his passing.

On May 16th 2009 in Santa Monica, Nathan Shapira passed away after a long illness, where his ashes are is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica. Prof. Shapira spent the last 8 years of his life as a resident of Santa Monica although he is largely associated with West Los Angeles during his 46 years associated with UCLA as an Associate Professor and Professor Emeritus in Design.


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