Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime,
And departing leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
How do you define greatness? For me, a great person is one who passes through this world and leaves it better than s/he found it. Old Town’s Dick Latham was such a person: a great man, a great artist, and one of the most brilliant industrial designers of his time, arguably, of all time. Dick was not only a formidable talent, he was an exemplary human being. Attention must be paid to such a man.
What he did for a living
“What does your father do for a living?” Classmates are always asking that. When they put the question to second grader Mande Latham, she was stumped for an answer. She went home and asked him. “You go back to school tomorrow and tell them to walk around their houses. Have them look in the drawers, open the cabinets, pass by the refrigerator, and check the shelves. I designed something in every one of them.”
Indeed he did. He ran the household design gamut: refrigerators, cabinetry, and every conceivable kitchen utensil for the Ecco company: spatulas, spoons, egg beaters, knives…you name it. And everything he designed is still being used today.
A little this-a and a little that-a about Dick Latham
Let’s start with biography. A little biography is always useful in getting to know a person. Dick Latham was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and studied engineering at the Kansas City Engineering School. When the big city called, he left Kansas City to study design at Chicago’s Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) under Mies van der Rohe (well, of course, one great man learning from another) from 1940 to 1942. He worked briefly as a designer for Montgomery Ward before joining the armed forces to fight in WWII. When the war ended, he returned to Chicago and joined the firm of Richard Loewy where his career really took off. Among his considerable accomplishments:
- He joined forces with GM to produce the Greyhound “Scenicruiser” two-level bus (anyone remember those?)
- He designed Hallicrafters SX Radon Receiver (1945)
- He worked on Borg Erickson’s Model 1500 Flight Bathroom Scale (selected by Fortune Magazine as one of the top 500 designs of all time)
- He designed the red, white, and blue logo for the old Standard Oil Company
- He designed the smokestack for the Queen Mary Ocean Liner
- He established Rosenthal Porcelain Company’s Studio Line that won a Grand Prize at the 1958 Brussels World Fair
I think it’s fair to say, among industrial designers, Dick Latham was a giant, and he was one of Old Town’s own. His Crilly Court row house is also a Latham original. There is an interesting story about how he bought the house in the 1960s. He went to the bank to get a mortgage loan, and the bank turned him down. The loan officer told him he would be wasting his money because the neighborhood was a ghetto. Incensed, Dick closed his account at that bank, walked across the street to a rival institution, and got the loan. I’m guessing that bank manager would love to live in the Old Town ghetto today.
Once the house was his, Dick decided he didn’t want it to be like all the others in the row—we are talking about Dick Latham here—so he took out the stairs leading to the main floor and created an entry on the lower level. (He couldn’t have done that fifteen years later after the neighborhood was landmarked and façade changes were forbidden.) Of all the Crilly houses, only two have the lower level entry, I think they disrupt the symmetry of the row, but then, I’m neither an artist nor a designer. And, it worked for him.
Music made his world go round
Dick loved music and designed the interior of his house around the giant stereo systems he installed in the living room. He gutted the inside and opened up the space from front to back for the sole purpose of enjoying the music more and giving one the feeling of sitting in a symphony hall. The room would be in complete darkness except for the dim light from the consoles and the tip of his burning cigarette. Because he wanted nothing to interfere with the music, he put the kitchen, dining, and laundry rooms on the lower level and the bedrooms on the upper floor. If you were to walk in the house today, you would find it exactly as Dick designed it.
(Dick’s were even taller than the ones in the photograph. They went floor to ceiling.)
Dick and his wife Mary Ann spent their nights listening to music: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Glen Gould…all playing at full volume. It was a miracle the two-story back windows never blew out. Mande said that her parents were probably the only ones in Old Town who played music louder than their children. Needless to say, they were considered “very cool!”
People from all over the world came to listen to music at the Latham’s house. Jazz musicians popped in after their gigs. Music critics came to let their hair down and enjoy. Friends came to mingle and get caught up in the glorious sound. Sometimes, when the festivities got too loud, neighbors would call to complain. Of course, no one answered the phone (how could they, the music was so loud they couldn’t hear it). The police were called. When they arrived, they pounded on the door and an officer would issue a warning. The Lathams would just invite them in, and the music played on. Neighbors who couldn’t go with the beat moved away.
Dick Latham executed his last design and listened to his last home concert in 1991. Old Town neighbors and all of the design world mourned his passing. It’s true, they really don’t make them like that anymore. Crilly Court is a lonelier place without the Lathams. But I like to think Dick isn’t really gone. I know his designs live on and are immortal, and I believe that Dick and Mary Ann still hover inside. Mande has kept it for them exactly as it was. The living room is empty except for the gigantic stereos that dominate the space. I wouldn’t be surprised to walk past some summer night and hear the ghostly rumbling of Tommy Dorsey’s trombone. I wouldn’t be alarmed to hear the Duke playing “Satin Doll”, or Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” I certainly wouldn’t call the police. I would just think ,”How wonderful! The music-loving Lathams are having another great party. I might even be tempted to walk down the steps and knock on the door.
What isn’t rumor is Kogan’s legacy–a significant body of Chicago history, criticism of high quality, reporting of value, and the nurturing of young writing talent. As Studs Terkel put it during a radio tribute to him, Herman Kogan “knew the book and the street. He understood the street, and he knew the book, and he
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times