A Woman to Know: Sara Little Turnbull

To design is to create order and to function according to a plan. — Sara Little Turnbull

To design is to create order and to function according to a plan. — Sara Little Turnbull

(image courtesy of Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute)

Sara loved design. She loved studying garden layouts, ancient artworks, studio furniture and the green veins of a forest leaf. All inspired her myriad patents: ranging from innovative cosmetic containers, collapsible furniture, and a bra cup that ultimately became the N95 mask saving lives today.

She first worked as a decor editor at House Beautiful, but by 1958, major companies sought her insight. They hired her to improve upon CorningWare cookware, Nissan car cupholders and more.

She traveled across the world, convinced that seeing new cultures and places could help expand her design mind. A cheetah sighting in Kenya led to her fine-tuning a fitted oven pot lid; when another company asked her to perfect its lock design, she visited with professional burglars to ask how they broke previous versions; a fascination with geisha history prompted her to create a matte makeup line.

Today’s ubiquitous N95 masks are drawn from Sara’s molded bra cup design. She’d originally drawn it up for 3M but then considered the flat string-tie masks she saw on medical professionals’ faces. The bra cup, she thought, could allow them some more breathing room; from there, the “dust” respirator mask was born.

By the time Sara passed in 2015, she’d worked at hundreds of companies and influenced thousands of product designs. The Corporate Design Foundation dubbed her “corporate America’s secret weapon.”

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