Remembering Strother MacMinn

by Tom Semple. Published by permission.

Although I didn’t realize it when I was in school, Strother MacMinn had more impact on my life as a designer than any other person. Even though I had great respect for him as his student, we never really saw eye to eye on much of anything. My callow self-absorption with the infallibility of my point of view blocked me from seeing the wisdom of his. The things he preached, subtlety of form, exactitude of line, proportion and finesse, were lost on me at the time. It was only later, during my own slow development that I realized that some of the precepts I value most originated with Mac.

I look back at the work I did over 50 years ago at Art Center. Poor Mac, what must he have thought? Most of the “designs and sketches” were so contorted they looked like they’d already been in an accident. Of course, at the time, I thought they were pretty good, ”wild” as we used to say. I can’t imagine Mac ever using the word “wild.” He espoused beauty. The quality of the design seemed more important than raw originality. I didn’t agree. We didn’t get along.

There was one wonderful moment, however, when we did connect, if only briefly. I was sitting at a long table in King’s color class in 4th semester—wasting Windsor Newton gauche, trying intently but futilely to match a color. I looked up to see Mac walking in my direction. He stopped next to where I was sitting and very calmly, without a word or eye contact, upended my green metal supply box, spilling the contents on the table. For the next twenty minutes, he cleaned and used wet paper towels to scour the soiled box and its contents before putting everything back in an orderly, proper fashion. When he returned the last items, pennies that had been there since I began school, to the tray and closed the lid, he simply left. No word passed between us and no mention of the incident was ever raised. To do so would have violated the purity of its oddness and its kindness. It epitomizes Mac to me. He was fussy and precise, but he possessed a great wit. He searched out that box that day. The messiness of it may have vexed him. He may have been trying to teach me something of the value of neatness and the respect for one’s tools. Maybe he sensed that I could appreciate the sheer bizzareness of it. I’ll never be sure, but I do know that I loved him for it, and I’ll never forget him. We kept in touch occasionally over the years, and I’m quite thankful I got to talk to him on his last birthday. He was a very special man.—Tom Semple 

More posts on Dean’s Garage about Strother MacMinn.

  1. Tom,
    Thanks for sharing your remembrances of Mac with us. He was a ‘one of a kind’ who I first came to know when he visited GM Styling the summer of 1969. Fellow designer Bob White introduced me to Mac, and during the course of his summer visit we became fast friends, remaining so till his passing. Your descriptive is endearing of his character and while not having been a design student of his, he none the less contributed to my design sensitivities across many years. Todays designers could have benefited from his wisdom…
    Thanks Gary for sharing Tom’s story…
    John M. Mellberg

  2. TOM,
    It is hard to imagine that you would draw anything that looked like it already had been in an accident. Strother inspired you but you also were an inspiration to many.

    I did not know Strother but first met him when we honored him with a lifetime achievement award at the second Eyes On Design. That was about twenty nine years ago. I remember that he was very polite and seemed a very happy person.

    I first saw his name, probably in the late fifties, in an article in Road & Track that he wrote about the BLAC. A boundry layer air control wing that was positioned just above the top of the backlite on a fastback sports car sketch that was quite neat. I never thought in a million years that I would ever have the chance to meet a designer of such high regard.


  3. Dennis F. Otto

    Mac was simply a one of a kind, OUTSTANDING instructor. His sensitivity to design combined with his superb knowledge of surface development, were unsurpassed.

    Every time, over the decades, I got back to CA and ACCD I’d make sure to look him up……and take him to dinner. He was completely dedicated to the students, and would always help if they needed something!

    A honor to have had him as an Instructor plus a friend. DFO ACCD Jan., 74

  4. Jan Matthias

    Mac, looking at one of my line drawings in his surface development classes: “Matthias, remember you’re German, your pencil should always be sharpened!”

    And while he said that, he grabbed a red Verithin out of my toolbox tray, running it along one of the sweeps he had asked us to make by hand, while slowly rotating the pencil to wear the point as evenly as possible. Point well taken and never forgotten! (the sweeps came from his time at Calty Design in Orange County)

    Jan Matthias
    Prod of ’75

  5. Tony Miller

    Wonderful guy, gone too soon.

  6. Walter Gomez

    Strother MacMinn was one of the reasons I went to Art Center in the Mid-Seventies. I had Mac as an instructor in several classes and to this day regret not picking his brain more. He had such a broad knowledge of automobiles and design. My favorite Mac moment was in his Trans 1 class. He was teaching us about slipped perspectives when he stopped by my work area. Without saying anything he picked up the blue Verithin pencils and markers that I was working with and re-drew/re-designed the car that I was working on at the time into a cohesive design. I was in awe and before I could ask him to sign his name to the drawing he signed my name and told me it was my design.

    And to what Dick Ruzzin wrote above, yes Tom Semple, you inspired me that winter day in 1977 when you came down to ACCD wearing that slick 3-piece silver suit, and spent two days rendering the Aerovette. Looking over your shoulder I learned more in those two days about car design/rendering than I had learned in previous semesters! I dropped out of Art Center later that spring, went home and redrew/redesigned everything that I had done while at school. With that new portfolio inspired by you Tom Semple, I applied and got a design position at Pininfarina in 1980. Thank you!

    Walter Gomez

  7. Early 1950…Art Center School, Third Street, Los Angeles. Mr. MacMinn insisted we learn precise pencil control…using an air brush to write script. Nothing to do with car design…or so I thought. I’d look “at” the surfaces of a car to “see” them. Wrong! Shiny surfaces, like cars, reflect the surrounding environment. When warped, a car has no real design. When the surroundings gracefully reach your eye, that’s real design. Mac knew the difference and never let us forget it. Try looking at any late Lexus CUV…you see the difference. Of course, good design today can be hidden…just make it matte gray. Mac’s lessons are for all design for all time.

  8. Stan Mott

    Strother MacMinn was a brilliant instructor. He taught us to think about what we were drawing. Then later, when you looked at what he’d taught you to notice, ah, clarity! He was also one fine individual–with great character.

    It was 1953 in one of the design studios in the old Art Center School on 3rd street. Harley Earl was there with his entourage, as were all we industrial design students and instructors. Earl was holding forth how to be a car designer in Detroit.

    Unfortunately, along with his commercial genius, Earl was personally vindictive. He apparently had a run-in with MacMinn in GM Styling, before Mac left and became an instructor at Art Center. At the end of Earl’s spiel, he looked pointedly at Mac and loudly exclaimed “Of course, some fellahs just can’t make it as car designers. All they can do is go back to school and teach.”

    Mac was our beloved instructor, and we students were enraged by the attack. After Earl left the room, we gathered around Mac and told him what we thought of Earl. “Don’t say that” Mac said. “Earl created mass automobile styling, and if it weren’t for him you guys wouldn’t have jobs in Detroit.”

    Of course, he was right. But his cool and objective response was an epiphany to me; greatness is a manifestation of individual character, and can be found sometimes more often in a school room than in an executive suite. I’ll not forget you, Mac.

  9. Mike Lee

    I was one of four world-scholarship winners of the Motor Trend magazine design contest, the prize being a fully paid scholarship to Art Center (1965). I did not complete the education, but instead joined the Air Force as an illustrator and served on the Command Staff of the 5th Bomb Wing (SAC) for four years. However, I too remember Mac. Personally, I found him ‘cold’ and difficult to engage. He was, on several occasions, complimentary towards me – even expressing his liking how I transformed a design from a coupe to a roadster, a messy exercise that everyone in the class were given a copy of the same drawing to “…see what (we) can do with it” and Mac’s only word to me, pausing behind me as I transformed the shape, was, “Nice” and then he walked on. Like many in my class, we were aware of the black Corvair Monza he drove and several of us really liked the car which was always pristine and polished. A few of the instructors at Art Center during those years are memorable to me, and Mac certainly leads the list.

  10. Russell Flinchum

    I first met Mac around 1989 when I was doing research on Henry Dreyfuss, whom MacMinn worked for in the mid-1940s (*and this work qualified him for membership in what was then the Society of Industrial Designers, now the IDSA*). While he was a little chary of my desire to record our conversation and my lack of knowledge at first, by mid-day he had taken me to lunch (driving us in his XK-120) and then waited patiently for me while I took a tour of Gamble House, which he didn’t want me to miss. He was unfailingly generous to me and we carried on a written and telephone friendship for years afterwards.
    Dreyfuss wanted to groom Mac to take on greater duties, even sending him to New York for a summer (ugh!) to get a feel for how the NYC office operated. He didn’t like it, but he did see Billie Holliday sing, and she spent the evening singing pretty much directly to this handsome young Californian.
    I miss him more than ever. The man was a natural teacher (well, he WAS the son of a professor!), but he was much more than that. He deserves a book, and a good one.

  11. First semester at Art Center, 3rd. st., on a Wed. had Mac and he started talking about all this mathematical stuff and I thought I had made a hugh mistake quitting my teaching job back in Ohio and coming to Ca. While teaching I had designed and built a sports car with a V-6 Buick engine and I thought I could do anything but arithmetic. So I’m scared not sure as my career direction was the right one. I showed pictures of my sports car to this kid sitting next to me and he said “see mine.” It was the American Motors AMX something and I asked if he knew Dick Teague, yea-that’s my dad and, turn out to be Jeff and to is right was Mark Jordan. I knew for sure I had made a great mistake and talked to my X about going back to Ohio and teach, I didn’t and went on to graduate. Jeff and I were friends thru his whole career and Mark and I stay in touch.

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