July 22, 2024


Amazing design, nonpareil

Tour Seattle’s Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute


Hundreds of body coverings and accessories, dining implements, textiles, fine and folk art are on display at the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute.

SEATTLE, Wash. — Along busy 4th Avenue in downtown Seattle is a one-of-a-kind collection linked to many inventions and the evolution of numerous consumer products. You just have to look up to find it, 19 stories up.

The Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute is now welcoming tour groups.

A world traveler, Little landed in the Pacific Northwest first in 1971 in Tacoma.

Little established the Sara Little Center for Design Research at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington to archive and display her collection of more than 3,500 artifacts gathered during her travels.  

Currently, the collection along with a replicated workspace and living space are on display in downtown Seattle.

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.

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“We’ve had lots of visitors from around the world. Some scholars are just shocked to finally see her collection that they’ve heard about throughout their careers,” said Paula Rees, president of the Center for Design Institute. 

Little’s colleagues often commented on how her name could be used to describe her. She stood at just 4 feet 11 inches, but her presence was anything but little.

Working alongside Little in the ’70s as the former Tacoma Art Museum assistant curator was Lori Tsugawa Whaley, who said Little’s presence was huge. 

“Just working with Sara changed my life,” Whaley said. “Now, all my choices, she influenced the way I think and what I have around me.”

Because of Little’s love of world travel, Whaley said her friend and mentor was always encouraging her to learn more about her Japanese heritage.

The inspiration worked. Because of Little, Whaley finally visited Japan and even published a book inspired by her newfound knowledge of her heritage, “Let the Samurai Be Your Guide.”

“She always wanted to know and take everything to the next level,” Whaley said about Little, who took that advice. 

Whaley is not only a published author, but she is also a life coach, public speaker and artist.

Little’s inspiring way of thinking beyond the surface is expected to turn some heads, according to Paula Rees, president of the Center for Design Institute.

Rees said people may be surprised to learn how much influence she had on products we all use, including one that became part of our everyday lives during the pandemic.

“One of the stories I remember her talking about was the mask,” Rees said. “She saw the form she was working on in the bra and realized  that this molded shape would work really well with a metal clip and then elastic band and that would be a better mask in the flap masks.”

Finding the beauty and function in everything was what inspired Little’s collection.

Her understanding of design is being celebrated in a new children’s book by the Center for Design Books. It’s launching a children’s book series called Sara Little Trouble Maker, which is based on Little and her design work. The first book, Lettuce Get in Trouble, is available on May 17. Pre-orders of the book are available now.


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