Image by “The Rev” Deborah Windham from Pixabay

If you ever found yourself noticing that the N95 mask looks like one-half of a bra, that doesn’t necessarily mean you possess the emotional maturity of a 12-year old boy. (Although it might.) Nor is it a sign that your time in self-isolation has finally robbed you of your last remaining marble. It means that you’re onto something. Ever since our current president transformed what was once an ordinary but essential piece of medical gear into a national crisis, stories have been cropping up in the media about the N95 medical mask. Except for one published in the Design Museum Foundation magazine and another in Fast Company, most of the early
articles missed the story of Sara Little Turnbull.

Sara Little Turnbull (© Center for Design Institute)

Sara Little had a long association with the Pacific Northwest and played an instrumental role in designing 3M’s first molded medical mask that evolved into that we all now recognize as the N95. An international designer, she remained relatively obscure, except to decision-makers in the Fortune 100 corporations who hired her as a consultant. As one of America’s early industrial designers, Sara was also a pioneer in a field where there were few women.

She worked for a range of clients from General Mills, where she developed products like the Bugles snack, to NASA for whom she explored ideas such as edible lightweight insulation for space suits. Over the course of a career that spanned seven decades, Sara imagined, invented and helped develop hundreds of ideas for her prestigious list of corporate clients that included Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Neiman Marcus, Marks & Spencer, Macy’s, American Can, DuPont, Scott Paper, Ford, Nissan, Volvo, Pfizer, Elizabeth Arden, Lever Brothers, and Motorola.

In an era when women were not taken seriously by the men in the corporate suites where Sara wanted to do her work, she mastered the art of breaking through the glass ceiling, at least as an out-sourced consultant whose accomplishments included helping Corning develop the glass cook-top. A naturally gregarious and engaging personality, she won over clients by leading with her charm and humor, then dazzling them with a powerful follow-up of brainpower, strategic insight and money-making innovations. Once inside the door, she wasn’t afraid to take on a
wider range of projects, expanding her thinking to areas that were not traditionally assigned to women.

The youngest child in a Russian immigrant family, Sara Finkelstein was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn. Rather than rail against the “Little Sara” nickname that she was tagged with thanks to her 4’11” stature, she embraced it, reversed it and turned it into Sara Little, which became her professional identity. That was an early example of the creative problem-solving style that informed her approach to everything she did.

A few years after graduating from Parsons School of Design in 1939, Sara was hired at House Beautiful magazine where she quickly rose to become the décor editor, a job she held for nearly 20 years. In 1958, she left the magazine world and formed her company, Sara Little Design Consultant. One of her many clients was 3M, for whom she worked from the late 1950s until the 1980s. Her strikingly original and innovative thinking there made her a valuable resource in many divisions of the company. While working with their Gift Wrap and Ribbons division, Sara became convinced that their non-woven ribbon material had a much wider range of applications.

Image: © Center for Design Institute

In a seminal presentation titled “Why?” she shared 100 ideas about the ways that 3M could expand their line of non-woven products. Since she was connected to many of the fashion designers in New York, Sara began experimenting with ideas for using 3M’s non-woven materials for shoulder pads and bras. At the time, she was also dealing with the physical decline and subsequent deaths of three immediate family members, and she found herself spending a lot of time in and out of hospitals.

Since she was a tireless observer of the world around her, approaching everything she saw with the anthropological zeal of a visitor from another planet, Sara began thinking about and analyzing the tools and objects that medical professionals used in their work. And that’s when she got the idea of a molded medical mask made out of the same non-woven material that was being considered for her bra assignment.

She had already made a name for herself in the world of houseware design—an area that, as a woman, she was constantly relegated to—by redesigning and improving the everyday tools and accessories that women used in their homes and kitchens. So it wasn’t surprising that she decided the traditional surgical mask needed an update. And, given her penchant for recognizing patterns and making connections between seemingly unrelated objects, it’s not surprising that the bra cup and the medical mask are very similar in form. According to corporate lore at 3M, someone, probably Sara, dipped the molded form into chicken soup and
discovered it separated the chicken fat from the broth, leading to the development of 3M’s oil-spill removal materials.

She worked with 3M’s brilliant material scientists and in 1961, the “bubble” medical mask was born. Further research revealed that the original non-woven material it was made from did not have the ability to block airborne pathogens. But it was repurposed as the ubiquitous dust mask that became a standard piece of safety equipment for home projects and in commercial manufacturing warehouses ever since. In 1981, it gained widespread recognition for its use following the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s, and again after 9/11.

The medical mask continued to evolve, and Sara continued to consult on its subsequent improvements and revisions. Sixty-years later her original design work can still be seen in the current N95 surgical respirator, including the idea to replace fabric with molded non-woven material, the addition of the metal nose clips, and the replacement of cloth ties with elastic straps. To put it simply, Sara’s original idea jumped a 50-year gap from the flat, tied-on medical mask of the early 1900’s to the one that’s used in hospitals today.

When asked about her role in the mask design, Sara said, “I did a number of things. I asked questions in the laboratory, questions colored by my own experience. I acted as a catalyst bringing together the most current technology on non-woven fabrics. I took direction, gave direction, expressed concerns.”

Sara’s connection to the Pacific Northwest began in 1965, when she married Vashon Island native James R. Turnbull who was then executive vice president of the Douglas Fir Plywood Association. At 48 years old, and a born and bred New Yorker, she left her life in Manhattan to move to Tacoma for him, a true test of love if there ever was one. At first, she assumed the transition would be easy, but it wasn’t. In her words, “I couldn’t imagine…that I would come to Tacoma and not feel very much at home. Well, I have news for you; I didn’t.”

After a short period of adjustment, she assimilated and became actively involved in the civic and cultural life throughout Washington State and the Northwest, presenting workshops, talks and lecture series at universities, museums and civic organizations in Tacoma, Bellevue, Federal Way, Seattle, Ellensburg, Portland, Ashland, and Moscow, Idaho.

When Jim became vice president of the National Forest Products Association in 1969, they relocated to Washington, DC, where they were living in the Watergate apartment complex when the White House plumbers made their infamous house call. They moved back to Tacoma in 1973 and built a second home near Vantage where they spent their time off until it was damaged by the fallout of ash from Mount St. Helen’s.

In 1971, she established the Sara Little Center for Design Research at the Tacoma Art Museum to share her collection of over 3,500 artifacts gathered during her travels around the world. 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. When the Tacoma Art Museum moved to its current building, they de-accessioned many collections, including the Center for Design, in 2003. A few years later, Sara moved back to
Seattle from California where she had been teaching design at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business for 18 years.

Upon returning to the Pacific Northwest—a place she considered the center of innovation even after her time in the Silicon Valley—she re-established the Center for Design as a study retreat and reassembled it here, along with her Process of Change Lab, an astonishing and fascinating compendium of notes, observations, presentations and materials collected over the entire course of her career. Since her death in 2015, the Center for Design has continued to serve as a resource for students, the general public, design professionals, corporate teams, and has been visited by scholars from around the world.

A quick-witted and valued mentor, Sara Little had many things to say about the world and her place in it. But one of the most appropriate for the time we find ourselves living through right now seems to be this: “I was born with a respect for what ordinary people are and what they do and what they’re capable of. There are wonderful characteristics in almost everyone to bring out if you give it enough time…The designer accomplishes this as an observer, a catalyst, and above all, a survivor.”

The complete story of Sara Little’s career and her many inventions and innovative designs is documented at the Center for Design Institute, now located in Seattle. It houses Sara’s intellectual property, including the correspondence with her global clientele, her presentations, and a portfolio of research, prototypes, and samples. It is open by appointment and has a speaker’s bureau that presents to schools and organizations. With the permission of its board members and research fellow, Paula Rees, I have drawn on some its materials for details about her life and work for this story. You will find much more information about Sara’s amazing life and work at their website: https://centerfordesign.net

2 COMMENTS

  1. Kathy, this is a wonderful essay in relevant biography. If it’s not already on HistoryLink, it should be. I have you to thank that my workday was interrupted by half an hour for on-line education.

  2. Aw! I love Sara Little with all my heart! What a doll. What a story. What a woman! I have a lot of bras I could burn but more I would love to donate if anyone does need a mask. Great article!

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