Each week, we like to take a day to feature women who have perhaps not been adequately recognized by the wider world for their contributions – sometimes, we feature a scientist, or a doctor, or a writer, or oftentimes – a woman who we feel should be more known than she is. Someone who has advanced our world in one way or another, but not seen much spotlight or recognition.
We hope you enjoy these features – it’s fun for us to research and learn more about the people who have helped to shape our world – and we hope that someday women’s contributions will be more widely recognized.
Sara Little Turnbull is the woman we have to thank for two of the most coveted items for our modern world: the moulded bra cup and the N95 Mask. Born Sara Finkelstein in 1917 in New York City, she grew up in Brooklyn during the ‘Roaring 20’s’, a time of cultural change that jump-started Sara’s own initiation into the world of creation. She received a scholarship for The Parsons School of Design and graduated in 1939. After graduation Sara worked at Marshall Field’s as a furniture designer and an assistant art director, as art director at Blaker Advertising Agency, and a reporter and art director with her own column for House Beautiful, and interior decorating magazine.
Being born into simple means and living in urban New York where expansive living space is a rare commodity, Sara herself lived in a 400-square foot hotel room while working at Home Beautiful, which all fueled her ability to approach design putting simplicity, organization, and versatility at the forefront which spoke directly to a post World-War II American culture. In 1958 Sara founded Sara Little Design Consultant and continued consulting for over 60 years. Sara addressed a missing component to design up until that point, her main question was, “why aren’t you considering the needs of the housewife, the main user of household products?” -which at that time was the American housewife.
This caught the attention of 3M, and at a presentation of hundreds of designs, hers was selected, and the moulded bra cup was born! Believe it or not, this moulded bra cup idea led to the next design idea Sara had, a medical mask. Sara’s eye for design and function realized the need for such a mask after spending a lot of time with ailing family members in and out of hospitals and medical facilities. She noticed how often medical professionals would have to re-adjust flimsier flat masks and knew there could be a better option. The first version of this molded cup mask wasn’t an outright success in function, as pathogens were still able to pass through. This was ultimately addressed with a later model, the N95 respirator. But what did stand the test of time was Sara’s design, the moulding of the cup, the elastic band, nose clip and disposability – all designed for ease of use.
Later in life Sara’s motivation expanded to educating a new generation of designers, stressing the importance of the ‘why’ of a design before the ‘how’. In 1988 she founded and ran the Process of Change: Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for the next 18 years. In 2018, three years after her death, the Sara Little Turnbull Foundation was created to “further the advancement of underrepresented youth in design education and women in professional communities of design practice and leadership. The Foundation also promotes public awareness of design at the intersection of business, culture, and education.”
Sara Little Turnbull made her mark on the way we dress – both in our foundations and now, in protective equipment that we are seeing as more and more mainstream. With Virginia’s recent mandate that masks be worn at all times in indoor settings – we’ll surely be seeing more of the creativity of women in finding solutions to protect themselves and their families. Who knows, maybe the next great PPE invention is waiting in the brain of a woman.
This feature was written by Olivia Rivard Hill and edited by Megan Giltner. More details about Sara Little Turnbull can be found at NPR.org and at the Center for Design.