Sara Little Turnbull (née Finkelstein; September 21, 1917 – September 3, 2015) was an American product designer, design innovator, and educator. She advised corporate America on product design for more than six decades, and has been described as “corporate America’s secret weapon.” She was one of America’s first female industrial designers and one of the first women to succeed in a post-World War II design industry dominated by men. She helped to create essential products from medical masks to CorningWare, and founded and led the Process of Change: Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She approached design as a self-trained cultural anthropologist and believed that a thorough understanding of the fine-grain details of how different cultures behaved was key to successful and innovative business solutions.
Sara Finkelstein was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn.
Her mother introduced her to the use of color and form by arranging fruits and vegetables in bowls. She attended Parsons School of Design on scholarships from the School Art League of NYC and the National Council of Jewish Women, graduating in 1939.
Because she was 4’11” in height, she acquired the nickname “Little Sara,” and then began to call herself Sara Little professionally.
After college, Sara Little worked at Marshall Fields as a bench designer and assistant art director, then became art director at Blaker Advertising Agency. She was eventually hired as an editorial assistant at House Beautiful magazine, where she wrote the “Girl with a Future” column until she rose to the position of Decorating Editor, which she held for nearly two decades.
At House Beautiful, she anticipated and helped develop the American post-World War II domestic lifestyle. Sara wondered, “How can we help these people put their lives back together through ideas in our magazine?” She encouraged readers to utilize more informal space in the home (in what eventually became known as the family room), and promoted shared living space with a roommate, and showed how to organize small spaces for maximum domestic efficiency. By example, she lived for 20 years in a 400-square-foot (37 m2) hotel room from which she also ran her international consulting practice.
In 1958, Little left the magazine world and formed Sara Little Design Consultant. At the time, she wrote a trade article for Housewares Review entitled “Forgetting the Little Woman” (although she often referred to this article in subsequent interviews as “When Will The Consumer Become Your Customer?”). Her main argument was that most companies created products for retailers, instead of considering the people who were actually going to use them. The story caught the attention of a few prominent CEOs and executives, including the heads of General Mills, 3M and the Corning Glass consumer products division. All three companies eventually hired her as a product research consultant to assist in finding new applications for technologies developed for the war effort. She helped create disposable medical and antipollution masks made from non-woven fibers, nutritious soybean candy, and the ubiquitous freezer-to-oven CorningWare that was developed from a material used initially on missile cones.
Sara married James R. Turnbull (then executive vice president of Douglas Fir Plywood Assn in Tacoma, WA) in 1965, but used the
name Sara Little for her entire career. Later, when Turnbull became executive vice president of National Forest Products Assn, they moved to Washington, D.C., with an apartment at the Watergate complex. They were living there during the White House plumbers break-in.
During her 65-year design career she provided advice on strategic design, consumer awareness, and cultural change to an international slate of companies such as: Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Marks & Spencer, American Can, DuPont, Ford, Nissan, Pfizer, Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, Lever Brothers, Motorola, NASA and Volvo. She consulted on a range of domestic products including housewares, home storage systems, food, counters that cook, microwave cooking products, personal care, medication delivery systems, cosmetics, fabric processes (knit and non-wovens), space suits, furniture, toys, decoration and packaging, household cleaning products, pet care, tapes and adhesives, and
Many of her ideas arose from her intense interest in different cultures and the natural world. A self-trained cultural anthropologist, she frequently traveled to destinations such as Borneo, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, and Kenya, always on the lookout for how people and animals solved the problems of everyday living. Her design for a pot lid was inspired by observing cheetahs grasping their prey in the wild. “It always starts with a fundamental curiosity,” she said of her quest for innovative product design. “When I can't find the answer in a book, I go out and search for it. The excitement of my life is that I have always jumped into the unknown to find what I needed to know.” In another case, she began the design process for a burglar-proof lock by interviewing thieves in jail.
In 1971, she established the Sara Little Center for Design Research at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State to archive and display her collection of over 3,500 artifacts gathered during her travels.
The collection includes body coverings and accessories, food preparation and dining implements, textiles, fine and folk art, much
of which had influenced her concepts for domestic product design. The collection has been re-established in Seattle, WA for the Institute to use in its purpose to educate and enhance the public's knowledge in the area of design.