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Ralph Caplan ©

“Thinking about design is hard, but not thinking about it can be disastrous,” and “Nothing is more to the point than a good digression.”, says Ralph Caplan.


One of the most prominent design writers of his time, Ralph Caplan died on June 4 at his home on the Upper West Side, Manhattan. He was 95 years old at that time. Caplan has been the winner of one of the highest honors, the medal from AIGA, and several other notable awards and recognitions. He has had a long and substantial career in design over the years.

Caplan was also an inspirational personality, he hated clichéd and windy sentences. With his writings, he intended to poke fun at many orthodoxies on which the design industry works. He even had a strong opinion on the existence of chairs as a design product, he believed that a person could sit on anything but a cactus, then why a chair?

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Ralph Caplan, right, and Glen Fleck, a designer at Eames Office, in 1963 working on plans for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York ©

His thought was never centric to a certain object or product but the meaning for which they are made and his urges to make it right. He has a unique way of looking and analyzing things, which reflects in his writings. His articles and stories about reusable packaging got him into the limelight.

Ralph Caplan was born on January 4, 1925, in Sewickley PA, and grew up in Ambridge. His father Louis Caplan owned a butcher shop which later was converted into a wholesale grocery store. His mother Ruth Caplan was a bookkeeper for the same. Ralph in his high school days had got himself suspended for cutting class and was later shifted to Kiski School by his father. Kiski was a character-building school for boys. He also served as a Marine corps in the entertainment troupe during World War II. He performed stand-up comedy events for his shipmates during the war. After the war, he returned and earned a degree in English and then a master’s in fine arts in poetry from Indiana University.

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An article in the magazine Industrial Design in 1960 ©

After his studies, he started working in a New York Humour magazine. Later, he went on to become the editor-in-chief of the I.D magazine also known as ‘International Design’ in its earlier days. I.D with the collaboration of Ralph Caplan’s words, essays by George Nelson, and editors like John Gregory Dunne and Deborah Allen. They became the face of American Industrial Design. He quit four years later as the editor to write his novel ‘Say Yes!’ and became the consultant and columnist for the magazine. ‘Say Yes!’ was the only novel he ever wrote, he described it as the parody of all the self-help books. He later started writing about design and published several books related to it. Some of his notable works are by Design: Why there are no locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons (1982), Cracking the Whip: Essay on Design and its Side effects (2005), The Design of Herman Miller (1976).

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Caption- by Design: Why there are no locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons (1982) ©

He was also part of the team that produced “Rights in Conflict” which investigated the clash between anti-war protestors and the police in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention that happened there. He also taught design criticism to the students from 2009 to 2013 in the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

Caplan was also the director emeritus of the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. He is also an honorary member of the Industrial Designers Society of America. He has even won the Design Mind National Award in 2010 from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan.

“He was observant and hilarious, 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,” said Chee Pearlman, arts and design curator at the TED conferences and editor of I.D.

Mr. Caplan with Jane Thompson and Deborah Allen, the founding editors of I.D. magazine ©


Caplan was a unique personality who had an intriguing take on design. He is considered one of the gems in the design fraternity. Besides his wife, Caplan is survived by his daughter Lean Caplan and his three stepchildren Stacy Pearson, Stephen Ramquist, and Michael Ramquist.

Designer Milton Glaser, an old friend of Caplan says, “one who understands that the subject of ‘design’ permits him to write about anything from an ethical point of view. He writes as though he believes that there is no such thing as popular culture, only culture itself.”



Saili Sawantt is a 22-year-old Architect (well, almost!), apart from architecture and interior designing being her profession, Writing is what she treats as her passion. She has been running her blog for almost four years and is a voracious reader. Along with this, she has a deep interest in pursuing Architectural Journalism as a profession.