In the 1950s, very few industrial designers were women. Lucia DeRespinis was one of them. “I was the only industrial designer who was a woman. I was always the only industrial designer who was a woman,” DeRespinis recalls.
In the minority from the start at Pratt Institute, she was one of just three women among 63 men in her class. She graduated in 1952 after studying under notables Rowena Reed Kostellow and Eva Zeisel, then went to work two years later at the Nelson office, where she was thrown into a wide range of work. “I did everything,” she recalls. “I designed everything from rugs to tableware to exhibits and trade shows to graphics to restaurants to interiors. Everything.”
She soon began working on clocks with Irving Harper, George Nelson’s versatile wunderkind and design director. “I’d been at George’s about a year and a half, and I started doing the clock thing,” DeRespinis recalls. “That was really Irving’s territory. But he really felt comfortable with me doing some. Nobody else ever did clocks when I was there.”
Vitra Design Museum credits DeRespinis with three clocks in its 2008 book George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher, but she also designed a fourth clock, the Turbine, mistakenly credited to Harper. Her most widely recognizable model is the Eye Clock, which resembles a large stylized eye, 28 inches across. She intended it to hang horizontally, but Vitra offers it with an option to hang vertically, in which case it’s sometimes called the “Lyre Clock.”
Not the retiring type, DeRespinis continued to plunge into high-profile design challenges that would extend the reputation of Nelson Associates around the world, working with greats such as graphic artist Tomoko Miho and interior designer Delores Engle, Charles and Ray Eames, Bill Renwick, John Pile, Bill Katavolos, Don Ervin and Charles Pollock, who was a classmate at Pratt and remained a friend of DeRespinis until his death in 2013. Among the most celebrated large-scale projects during her Nelson years were the American National Exhibition in Moscow and the New York World’s Fair.
While expecting a daughter, she worked in the Nelson office until early 1963, finally leaving when she was “too pregnant to lean over the drawing board.” Later she returned to industrial design, working mostly as a freelancer for the likes of Sandgren & Murtha, Minners & Co., Delco Tableware and others, designing lighting fixtures, glassware, ceramics, ceramic tile, restaurant interiors, cookware and tableware.
Among her most recognizable work is the distinctive pink and orange logo of Dunkin’ Donuts, set in a typeface she calls “hot dog” lettering, in colors that were favorites of her daughter.
DeRespinis remains active in design to this very day, continuing a 30-plus-year teaching career at Pratt. Among her former students is Brad Ascalon, designer of the Ascalon Menorah and Atlas Table for DWR.