Three times a week, the 87-year-old designer Lucia DeRespinis leaves her Manhattan apartment—a sixth-floor enclave in a 1965 glass-and-concrete complex designed by I.M. Pei—and treks to the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. There she teaches a trifecta of courses each semester at the arts and design university where, in 1952, she was among the first students to complete a newly inaugurated bachelor’s degree in industrial design.
DeRespinis stresses how important the foundation of her Pratt education has been to her wide-ranging career. “It made me aware of what three-dimensional design is about: the various axes and how they juxtapose each other and how you can use that as a language when you design. That was Rowena Reed Kostellow’s basis for her 3-D courses at Pratt,” she says, referencing the legendary design educator and cofounder of the school’s I.D. department. “It’s the one thing we teach that no other industrial design course teaches in the country.” In addition to picking up Reed Kostellow’s mantle, DeRespinis teaches furniture design and graduate tabletop design—a trail blazed by Eva Zeisel, who shifted Pratt’s ceramics program from craft to industrial design in the early 1940s.
After finishing school as one of six women in a class of 106 men, including Charles Pollock and Louis DeRespinis, whom she’d later marry, DeRespinis began working on small appliances at Emerson Radio for fellow Pratt alum Monte Levin. Later, she spent eight years designing “everything from rugs and tableware to trade shows, graphics, and interiors” at George Nelson Associates, including an Abbott Laboratories exhibition on nerve growth factor at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and the Glass Pavilion apartment in the landmark American National Exhibition in Moscow. As was customary in this era, credit for individual furniture pieces produced by the Nelson office was given solely to George Nelson—a practice that’s been reconsidered by license holders in recent years. Vitra now credits DeRespinis for the Eye and Spindle clocks, two recognizable designs originally produced by the Howard Miller Clock Company under Nelson’s and Irving Harper’s names.
Later, DeRespinis expanded her port-folio by freelancing with the advertising agency Sandgren & Murtha, where, in 1975, she created the now iconic orange-and-pink Dunkin’ Donuts branding. She also served as a designer for companies producing ceramics and tableware, including flatware for the airline industry. DeRespinis’s ahead-of-its-time, verging-on-postmodern lighting for Nessen Lighting (1960), raised-relief tile for Pomona Tile Manufacturing Company (1961), and MLLE Award for Mademoiselle magazine (1973) further testify to her range. “I developed a way of analyzing and mapping the problem,” she says about ping-ponging between disciplines. “I take a familiar figure, then use abstraction to develop a way of looking at the
figure other than how you’re used to.”
Standing in her living room—which is furnished with her own Nessen lighting, an Edward Wormley tile-topped table of her husband’s design, a 3-D model from her Pratt days, and a lifetime of artifacts collected on travels around the world—DeRespinis is indefatigable, vowing to keep teaching until the last possible moment. “I think it’s important to train the muscles of your eye and your brain to understand nonobjective vocabulary,” she says of her course syllabi. “How do you understand what is good and what isn’t? How are you then able to create your own work? Because you studied this vocabulary, and now you have a way of understanding.”