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James J. Pirkl Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: [Summit record]
Date: 25 Oct 1995

Biographical History

James J. Pirkl (1930- ) is an award-winning American industrial designer and educator, known particularly for his work in transgenerational design.

Born in Nyack, New York, Pirkl graduated from Pratt Institute’s Advertising Design program (1951) and went on to earn his BID cum laude in industrial design (1958). He joined the General Motors Design Staff as a junior designer, rising to senior project designer responsible for the design of the "Avenue of Progress" section of the General Motors Futurama pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Subsequently promoted to assistant chief designer of Frigidaire's Advanced Product Research Studio, he was recruited by Syracuse University and appointed assistant professor of industrial design in 1965. Promoted to associate professor in 1970 and full professor in 1974, he was named professor-in-charge of industrial design in 1978 and served as department chair from 1985 until his retirement as Professor Emeritus in 1993.

In addition to his academic responsibilities he served as an industrial design consultant to a wide range of organizations both in the United States and overseas, including Age Wave, Inc., the Arthritis Foundation, Asahikasei Homes Co. (Japan), The Boeing Company, Design Age (London), Ford Motor Design Center, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, McNeil Consumer Products, the National Association of Home Builders, and Xerox Corporation. He also collaborated on design projects with such notable industrial designers as George A. Beck, Arthur Crapsey, Mark Harrison, Arthur J. Pulos, and Robert G. Smith. In 1976, under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department, he was one of five American industrial design educators invited to conduct seminars on industrial design education at the All (Soviet) Union Research Institute of Industrial Design (VNITTE) in Moscow, USSR, and again in 1978 at The Bauhaus in Dessau, East Germany.

Pirkl is the founding director of Transgenerational Design Matters, a design consultancy for the 50+ market, and has been described as a "key figure in universal design" by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. He is widely acknowledged as the father of "transgenerational design," a term he coined and defined in 1984 as "the practice of making products and environments compatible with those physical and sensory impairments associated with human aging and which limit major activities of daily living." In 2003, AARP's The Magazine featured his Transgenerational House project's pioneering design concepts.

He is a frequent lecturer and presenter in the U.S. and abroad, and his articles appear in numerous international journals and periodicals. He is the co-author of Guidelines and Strategies for Designing Transgenerational Products (1988), and his Transgenerational Design: Products for an Aging Population, received a 1994 Gold Industrial Design Excellence Award.

A member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) since 1972, Pirkl served as a board member, regional vice president, and chairman of its Central New York Chapter. He also chaired IDSA's Education Committee, its first Universal Design Committee, and the Accreditation Council, which, in 1984, established the first school evaluation and accreditation agreement between IDSA and NASAD (the National Association of Schools of Art and Design). IDSA named him a Fellow in 1985 and in 2001 presented him with the Society's esteemed Education Award. He is a life member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the Authors Guild, and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Presently (2009) James J. Pirkl lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife, Sarah, and their three children.

[Biographical sketch provided by James J. Pirkl, 2009.]

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The James J. Pirkl Papers consists of personal files, project files, scholarly works, subject files, Syracuse University Department of Design files, writing and speaking materials, and a small amount of miscellaneous. Folder titles are given as received from the donor.

Personal files includes biographical sketches and resumes, citations of Pirkl's work, a diary from a trip to France in 1967, photographs, and magazine articles. There are also sketches, blueprints and printed material relating to Pirkl's designs for General Motors, and material relating to the World Design Foundation.

Projects consists primarily of files relating to Pirkl's Transgenerational House project, including plans, sketches, photographs, and letterhead. Also in this series are three years' of judges' manuals for the Tylenol Arthritis Foundation's Industrial Design Student Innovation Excellence Awards (1994, 1995, 1996), and some material relating to the Universal Design Summit in 2006.

Scholarly works includes correspondence, presentations, proposals, press releases and other formats. The bulk of this series consists of working files for Pirkl's book, Transgenerational Design: Products for an Aging Population (1997), for which he won a Gold Industrial Design Excellence Award (IDEA) award.

Subject files cover a wide range of organizations, projects, activities, and topics related to transgenerational design. Folders contain a mixture of formats, including agendas, clippings, correspondence, itineraries, notes, programs, publications and reports, as well as in some cases drafts or final copies of addresses, lectures, presentations, papers and workshops by Pirkl. Scattered throughout are a few papers by others, including Armand Winfield and Arthur Pulos.

Syracuse University Department of Design materials date from Pirkl's tenure as chair of the department, and contains correspondence, meeting notes, course notes, samples of student work, and other items.

Writing and speaking contains notes, drafts and final version of speeches, addresses, papers, and other presentations from conferences, meetings, seminars, and other venues, both in the United States and international.

Three folders of catalogs, filed under Miscellaneous, complete the collection.

There is also a substantial amount of as-yet-unprocessed material. This material is not yet open for research.

Arrangement of the Collection

Series and folder titles and contents were retained as received from the donor; as a result, material relating to a given topic (e.g. the Tylenol Arthritis Foundation) may be found in several different locations. Writing and speaking files are arranged chronologically, as received from the donor. The remainder of the series have been arranged alphabetically.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

Special Collections Research Center has the papers of a number of important industrial designers and companies. Please refer to the SCRC Subject Index for a complete listing.

Subject Headings


Pirkl, James J. (James Joseph), 1930-

Corporate Bodies

Transgenerational Design Matters (Organization)


Aging -- United States.
Consumers with disabilities -- United States.
Design, Industrial.
Educators -- United States.
Industrial designers -- United States.
Older consumers -- United States.
People with disabilities -- United States.


Industrial designers.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

James J. Pirkl Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Table of Contents



Scholarly works

Subject files

Syracuse University Department of Design

Writing and speaking