The McCoys at Cranbrook: Two Decades of the Academy of Art Design Department

Tuesday, April 18th 7:00pm - 8:15pm
Cranbrook Center Virtual Lecture
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304


$20 per Viewer (includes a $10 tax-deductible donation to the Cranbrook Archives Endowment Fund)

Free for Cranbrook Academy of Art and Cranbrook Schools Students (Cranbrook students must register by sending an email from their Cranbrook email address to

Lecture will be Password-Protected
Advance Registration is Required

Presented by Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Guest Speaker Colin Fanning, Assistant Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Moderated by Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

The history of the Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art plays a significant role in understanding the evolution of American design. It began in 1932 with Pipsan Saarinen Swanson, the subject of our last Uncovering the Archives program, as its Head. In the next four decades, the department would be led by well-known artists Charles Eames and Ken Isaacs, among others. But with the leadership of Katherine and Michael McCoy during the department’s last two decades, from 1971 through 1995, before the department split into separate 2-D and 3-D departments, the focus shifted to a decidedly post-modernist approach. 

Partners Katherine McCoy, an award-winning graphic designer, and Michael McCoy, an award-winning industrial designer, simultaneously directed the Academy department and McCoy & McCoy Associates, whose clientele included Cranbrook Educational Community and Knoll International.

The Center’s latest Uncovering the Archives program will once again take a closer look at how new scholarship emerges directly from research of primary resources in Cranbrook Archives. The Katherine and Michael McCoy Papers, which the McCoys donated to the Archives in 1995, is an excellent example of how the historical record can lead to contemporary interpretations—in this case Academy pedagogy and its impact on the design world. Join us as our speaker, Colin Fanning, delves into this transformative legacy of Academy Designers-in-Residence Katherine and Michael McCoy.

Fanning, who has presented several times over the past three years on the McCoys and the Academy of Art Design Department, will draw from research conducted at Cranbrook Archives over the course of three weeks in Fall 2019 for his dissertation, Good Partners: Katherine McCoy, Michael McCoy, and the Discourse of Design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1971–1995. Reprising a well-received talk given at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in early 2022, Fanning will add fresh nuance for the Center audience by illuminating specific sources that have led to his evolving conclusions. 
Under the tenure of Katherine and Michael McCoy, Cranbrook’s small but influential design program became a key nexus for an approach to industrial design termed “product semantics.” Looking to linguistic and critical theory as tools for creating more communicative and meaningful mass-produced goods, product semantics represented a defense of industrial designers’ continued relevance in a rapidly shifting technological landscape. Documenting a moment when the emerging notion of ubiquitous computing teetered between optimism and anxiety, Cranbrook’s playful-yet-serious speculations for consumer technology pursued formal and functional expressions for an information age still in the process of dawning. Highlighting items he found during his research, Fanning will explore how the McCoys and their students, along with an international network of other educators and corporate design departments, helped shape debates on form and meaning in the design world of the 1980s. 

Following Fanning’s presentation, Head Archivist Deborah Rice will moderate a discussion centered around a few archival items in the McCoy’s papers, allowing the audience to explore how scholarly research leads to both personal interpretation and verification of perceived truths while unraveling the past and its relevance to today.

Colin Fanning
is Assistant Curator in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), where his primary focus is on modern and contemporary design. His research and curatorial interests cover a broad range of design, craft, and architecture from the mid-1800s to the present, with some narrower emphases on the history of design education, the material culture of childhood, and the visual and material cultures of spaceflight. Colin has held prior roles at the Denver Art Museum, and both the Museum of Arts and Design and the American Federation of Arts in New York. At the PMA, he was previously a curatorial fellow from 2014 to 2017 and a consulting curator from 2017 to 2019. He received a BFA in interior design from Syracuse University and an MA from Bard Graduate Center, where he is also currently a PhD Candidate completing his dissertation on the Cranbrook’s graduate design program under the joint tenure of Michael and Katherine McCoy (1971–1995).

On the Friday prior to the program date, registered participants will receive an email with instructions on how to join this virtual experience; a reminder will be sent on the day of the program. As this program benefits the operation of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, including Cranbrook Archives, we ask that you do not share the login link with others. Registrations are non-refundable. The program will begin promptly at 7:00pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
For additional information in advance of the program, please email or call the Center at 248.645.3307. The Center’s Administrative Office is open Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 4:30pm.

Banner: Design Michigan: How Can a Design be Compatible? Poster, 1977. Katherine and Michael McCoy, designers, Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Design Department Brochure, 1986. Katherine and Michael McCoy Papers (1995-01), Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Michael and Katherine McCoy at Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1990; Photograph by Nina Hauser, Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Materials related to Colin Fanning’s research in Cranbrook Archives; Photograph by Deborah Rice. Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Colin Fanning, 2023. Courtesy of Colin Fanning.

Registration for this event has closed.