Michael McCoy: Bridging Theory and Practice in Industrial Design

Door Chair by MIchael Mcoy
Door Chair by Michael Mcoy | Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art

Michael McCoy is a distinguished name in the American industrial design landscape, marked by a dual commitment to practical product design and academia. As a prolific designer and an influential educator, McCoy has left a lasting imprint on industrial design, extending from furniture to semantics.

A Life in Design and Academia

Born in Eaton Rapids, Michigan, Michael McCoy began his academic journey at Michigan State University, graduating in 1966 with a B.A. He later obtained an M.A. from Wayne State University in 1968. McCoy soon found a lifelong collaborator in his wife, Katherine McCoy, an equally accomplished designer. Together they established McCoy & McCoy in Detroit in 1971, merging their design aspirations and academic pursuits.

Career Milestones

  • Co-chair, Cranbrook Academy of Art: This was a significant chapter where Michael and Katherine jointly led the Department of Design from 1971 to 1995.
  • Faculty at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology: Post-Cranbrook, McCoy continued his academic journey, contributing to the rich blend of science and design at IIT from 1995 onwards.
  • Member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA): A significant acknowledgement of his contributions to the field.

Bulldog Office Chair

Designed in 1991 for Knoll International with partner Dale Fahnstrom, the Bulldog chair is perhaps McCoyโ€™s most commercially successful work. This chair wasnโ€™t just ergonomic; it embodied a sensual and suggestive aesthetic that appealed to the corporate mainstream.

Phonebook Answering Machine

Though not designed by McCoy, this work by his student, Lisa Krohn, bears mentioning. It introduced the world to “product semantics,” showing that objects could be “read” like text through visual metaphors. McCoyโ€™s mentorship at Cranbrook clearly influenced a new design language.

The Cranbrook Philosophy

Michael McCoy and Katherine McCoy used their tenure at Cranbrook to foster an entirely new discourse on design semantics. Drawing from French post-structuralist philosophy, they prompted students to explore the linguistic meanings of objects, steering away from the rigidity of Modernist functionalism.

Pair of QUADRIO 960 lounge chairs by Michael McCoy for Artifort
Pair of QUADRIO 960 lounge chairs by Michael McCoy for Artifort

Impact on Industry

Companies like Apple, Sony, and Philips partnered with Cranbrook to infuse their product lines with a new layer of meaning, leading to more expressive and emotionally resonant products.

A Philosophy of Questions, Not Answers

McCoy has always emphasized the importance of asking questions rather than providing solutions. He believes that after deconstructing the ideals of early Modernism, the next step isn’t to build another utopian vision but to assess each deconstructed part for its intrinsic value.

The Continuing Journey

McCoy’s work, both in the academy and the professional sphere, represents a dynamic tension between theory and practice. He continues to push boundaries, dividing his time between teaching in Chicago and running a studio in Colorado, constantly oscillating between the roles of an educator and designer.


Michael McCoy is not just a designer but a thought leader who has significantly impacted how we understand and interact with designed objects today. His career is a testament to the interplay between theoretical inquiry and practical application in design, making him a luminary in the field.

Michael McCoy’s work remains relevant, provoking designers and academics alike to keep questioning and keep creating.

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