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Life as a Professional in New York

After Jim and I settled down in New York, we found a one-room office in the famous Flat Iron Building to start our practice.  We picked that building because it had a Fifth Avenue address (175 Fifth Avenue) although it is away from the more fashionable center for creative business – Madison Avenue.

We started by sending out hundreds of letters to solicit business.  My cousin Deson asked me if I could find a summer job for his daughter Marjorie, so I put her to work on typing those letters.  The very first positive response was from the only staff industry designer at American Airline.  He wasn’t good at rendering so he sought after somebody to help him out.  I took the job at $9 per hour fee.  Another response came from a lawyer Edward Connors who was looking for somebody to design a packaging for a powder fire distinguisher called “Swish”, a business he was to use as a tax shelter.  Ed and I developed a friendship, which lasted more than half a century and still kept in touch today although he is 104 years old in 2008.

Design and Politics

After our intensive mail campaign and followed by personal calls, I finally got the Grey Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Conn maker of Dictaphone machines as my first client to facelift its existing line of machines.  I proposed a retainer arrangement, which they accepted.  A few days before I was to sign the agreement, I received a call from that Company Chairman Walter Ditimar.  I was surprised and happy that my proposal had caught the eyes of the top man.  When I picked up the phone, Mr Ditimar said he was glad I approached them and he said he just had one question before he signed the agreement.  He asked me without any preemptive: “Are you a Communist?”  I was really taken back, I told him I am NOT.  He replied “Good. This cleared the way for you to be our consultant” Then he told me that he was a very good friend of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and many times he had let Madame to use his house when she visited the US.  That was the first time I ran into political consideration in the role of a designer.

During 50’s, there were two professional organizations in Industry Design.  One was Institute of Industry Designers Institute (IDI) the other was Society of Industry Designers (SID).  The former consisted of more interior designers and decorators and later was considered more of a true society to represent the profession.  The founders included almost all the pioneers of Industry Design like Lowey, Teague, Dreyfuss, McCobb, Bel Geddes etc.  IDI was more active and had more members in Detroit, so I decided to join that organization and actually help to recruit a few others including Wally Ford.  Later I help to form a local Chapter.

When I joined Wally, I also became eligible to become a member of SID, so with the sponsorship of Sanders and Farra, I applied and was accepted.

As the two organizations were both small and under funded, it was inevitable that they should merge to become one.  That happened in 1965 and the new organization under the name of Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) in turn became a member of the International Council of Societies of Industrial design (ICSID).  Henry Dreyfuss was its first president.

As one of the active members in the profession, I was elected to the Board of IDSA. I remember at one of the Board Meetings, a motion was put forward to recruit a minority – meaning black -- as one of our Board Members, a symbolic move. When the chairman – Dick Latham as I remember – called for a vote, I was the only one voted against it’.    The rest of the members were all surprised by my negative vote and all eyes were on me.  That was the time I pointed out that I being a Chinese American had already fulfilled that position.  The Chairman apologized to me for overlooking this obvious fact.  The conclusion is that no designer could make a good politician.

Along with the professional organizations, I was also inducted into the Rotarian Club of New York by my good friend Tony Tseng. Thus a Rotarian I became.  The New York club probably was one of the largest clubs around with more than 600 members. The attendance record was also one of the lowest but the weekly speakers were all very prominent personalities.

My First Credit

In the meantime, I became a consultant to Columbia Record Division of CBS through the recommendation of one of its subcontractor, Roland Radio.  My assignment was to design a line of phonographs under the Columbia label to be supplied by original equipment manufacturer in US as well as in Japan.  That was the first time I got full credit along with Paul McCobb as the designer on all the publicities.  New designs were introduced annually.  When the Stereo sound were invented and used as selling point, I recalled I was asked always to put even numbers of speakers in any phonographs, instead one woofer and two tweeters, so the consumer can understand the two track system.  In many models, one speaker actually is just a dummy.  Another lesson in Design for mass market.

Another important project I got was to design the Salton Hot Tray. Lou Salton was the one who first made a tray with electrically heated glass plate for his own use during the winter.  He got so many requests from his friends to make one for them; he started small shop in his own garage.  Then he was persuaded to put the item on the market for sale.  To do that he had to turn that into a mass-produced consumer product.  Timing was just right for me to contact him, he immediately assigned me to redesign the unit into a salable item.  We made a few quick sketches of how we thought it should look and Lou Salton liked it very much, I went ahead and did the production design using readily available material and with minimum investment in tooling – an aluminum extrusion die for the frame.  I also made the assembly as simple as possible to minimize the labor cost.   The production model was not only a nice looking, useful small appliance for the household but also a profitable one to producer.   It made Salton Hot Tray a household name almost overnight. My father even bought one to give to Madame for her to use at the Presidential retreat in Yangmingshan.  Later, I learned the Salton Company was sold to Corning and then Salton bought it back after a few years.

Jim Ward left me after a little more than a year.  I took on another junior partner George Gardner from Cooper Union who was the son or nephew of one of my father’s friends.  George was good at exhibit design so that was how we started to bid on the designing of US exhibits at various international fairs as well as on exhibits at the New York World Fair of 1964 to 1965.

The following article appeared in the October, 1960 issue of INDUSTRIAL DESIGN magazine published by Whitney Publication, Inc:

Peter Quay Yang wanted to design products as early as his middle school days in Shanghai, although he did not then know that there was an industrial design profession.  After learning that there was, he came to the US in 1946, studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, then joined the GM styling section, where he worked on the Motorama, the kitchen of tomorrow—in fact, everything but automobiles.
After a year with W B Ford Design Associates, in Detroit, he came to New York and established Peter Quay Yang Associates, a three-man outfit specializing in product design, and serving such clients as CBS Electronics (phonograph and radio cabinets), Gray Manufacturing Co  (dictation machine) and the Salton Manufacturing Co.
Yang is quite articulate about why he is in New York and why he intends to stay.  “I think there is quite a difference between being a designer and being in the industrial design business,” he says. “The former is primarily concerned with using his creative talents. The latter has to be involved in planning, administrating, promoting and profiting from his services. For my part, I am in the industrial design business, and a New York practice is, in a sense, the best business suit I can find.”
“I regard the complexity of New York as a professional challenge rather than as something to escape.  I cannot afford the luxury of relaxing in the country waiting for inspiration.  And since my work and my hobby are one and the same – designing – I don’t have much cause for getting away from it all.”

Culture Difference indeed

One instance I could never forget. Before one of the trip I made from Detroit to New York, my friend at GM the Pole asked me “are there any industries on the East Coast?” I never realized how sheltered was the Polish community in Detroit!

Another instance was after I moved to New York.  My roommate at Cranbrook Alan Bushnell  who was from Wisconsin and by my introduction was teaching at Cornell University.  He decided one weekend to visit me with his wife Edith in New York where they were total strangers.  When I invited them to dinner at 7:30pm jacket required, they were totally shocked!  Their dinner hour back home was 5:30pm, dressed up meant a pair of black denim jeans and a night out meant a six-pack!  Following their visit, came one of our family friend Virginia Yaptinchay of Manila who was not only a highly regarded banker controlling foreign exchange at the Philippines but also a sophiscated young lady who likes to have cocktail before dinner, wine with and cordial after. Thinking back, not many places besides New York you could be with two such different types of people in two days.


Four-six Four-six

Wedding Date

While I was studying at RISD, I was pledged and initiated into Alpha Lambda Fraternity, one of the four Fraternities of Chinese Students.  One of my fraternity brothers, Tony Szutu introduced me to Lucy Ting whom I had met when I was at RISD and she was at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.  There were two Chinese girls at that school at that time, I dated the other one named Alice Yang so did not get a chance to know Lucy too well.  After meeting her in New York again, we began dating for about six months and decided to get married.  When I wrote to my parents about our planning and told them we had pick April 6th, 1957 as our wedding date, my father wrote back and said what a coincidence that my sister Rose, after going back from New York to Taiwan and my old classmate W K Chow 周維恭 at 協進 had also picked that same date to get married.  My father said the reason was that year was the 46th year of the founding of Republic of China, so the date reads 4646, which would be a good number to remember.  My father asked me why we picked that date and my reply was it just happened Lucy and I had that day free from our business.  Lucy was working as a travel agent with a firm called J H Lewis Travel Agent.

After Jim and I split up, I had moved to a studio apartment in place called Randall House on East Ninth Street in the Village.  To start our married life, we moved to a one-room apartment at 301 East 66th Street.

Later in 1963, when my other sister Jane got married to K Y Wong in Taiwan, they also picked the April 4th as their wedding date, so all the three of us have the same anniversary.

Our sister Victoria was once married to an oversea Chinese in Colombo, Ceylon.  The marriage was arranged by the Church with which our aunt Cordelia was associated.  It did not last and she came back to Taiwan one or two years later.

Lethal Weapon, the Magnifying Glass

In 1958, I got my youngest sister Helen the visa to come to US as a student.  She enrolled at the Parsons School of Design to study fashion design and stayed in its dormitory.  One day, Helen and I were invited to lunch by Mrs Huggins at her Club.  Halfway through the meal, an urgent call came through for me to tell me that there was a fire in our building at 301 East 66th Street.  I excused myself and rushed back.  When I reached my apartment building I asked the doorman where the fire was.  He said “ it’s your apartment!”  By that time the fire department had already came and put out the fire so when I walked inside everything was black covered with water and smell like hell.  A few firemen were still around and I asked since nobody was home, how the fire started.  I was told it was started by the make-up magnifying glass Lucy had left on the coffee table in the living room.  Because its position, the sunray coming through the window was reflected from the curved glass and its focal point just hit upon a cushion we put on the sofa.  The heat of that focal point started to burn the cushion and became a fire which damaged the whole apartment.  It was indeed a freak incident.

Creative Federalism

With my new partner, we began bidding on exhibit design projects from States and Federal Government.  The first one we won the bidding was the design of New Jersey Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.  My partner George was in charge of that project.  Then we got the assignment from the Department of Commerce to design the US Solo exhibit in Bulawayo using the Buckminser Fuller’s Geodesic Dome which was set up based on his principle of discontinue compression and continue tension.

Then one day we received another invitation to bid on as a representative from the Department of Commerce to offer assistance to the local government in celebrating the bi-centennial of Alaska becoming a US territory under the theme Creative Federalism.   At that time I was working on another project for my friend Charles Eu who had moved to Singapore and I was about to take a trip to see him there.  So, since I could absorb the cost of traveling by combining the trip to Alaska with the one to Singapore, I submitted a rather low budget.  The project was in hand.

Midnight Gun Shot

My trip to Alaska started from Vancouver.  I took the Ellis Airline to Ketchikan.  On arrival, somebody from the local government met me at the airport and checked me in what I thought was the only motel in town.  When I asked the manager of the motel where was the best place to eat, he directed me to a restaurant which he considered was the best and was Scandinavian.  I went there and had a drink at the bar and asked for their specialty.  I was then served a New York cut sirloin with soya sauce.  Nothing Scandinavian.  The owner, a true native Scandinavian told me that he thought I was Japanese.  He said there were about six or seven hundred Japanese living in that area, all engaged in the canning business, therefore he had to cater to that crowd.

The next morning I took a flight from Ketchikan to Sitka.  In Sitka I discharged my first official duty by meeting with the city officials and told them the Department of Commerce was ready to help them in the planning of their bi-Centenary celebrations.

From Sitka, I flew to Juneau.  The plane was a high wing twin engine amphibious Grumman Goose. The engine had been upgraded to Turboprop with four-blade propeller.  When I checked in I ask for the best seat so that I could take Super 8 movies.  I was told the best seat was the co-pilot seat.  I thought the man was joking but when I boarded the plane I did sit in that seat because there was no co-pilot.  The plane took off but never went over a few thousand feet, just skipping treetops and made numerous stops along the river to drop off US mails.  The best sight was when we approach Juneau, from the co-pilot seat; I had a bird’s-eye view of the glacier with bluish ice.  The Turboprop engine flew the plane over it easily.

In Juneau, I had prearranged meetings with the local government people and told them the same thing – Creative Federalism.

From Juneau, I took another flight to Fairbanks.  This time in a Catalina seaplane.  It was comfortable and the Plexiglas gun blister was excellent for taking movies shots of ground below.

In Fairbanks, my schedule was tight. I had to meet the representatives of various Federal Government agencies as well as local people like bankers etc.  The office of FAA was very impressive comparing to that of the local government.  I had a meeting with the owner of a bank and his office was right at the entrance of the building so he could buttonhole every one coming in for more deposits.  I also met with people from different tribes and saw many totem poles. 

From Fairbanks, I took the train to Anchorage with view of Mt McKinley in full view all the way.  Anchorage at that time was just recovering from the big earthquake, I could still see all the cracks on the highway.  The Most famous hotel was the Captain Cook Hotel but I was booked into the Travelodge.

After I discharged of my official duties and was invited to dinner at the Captain Cook Hotel, I went back to Travelodge and to pack for tomorrow’s flight to Japan.  Right after midnight, I was awakening by some loud voices outside of my room.  It was so disturbing that I decided to take a look what was happening.  When I opened my door, I saw a man with a pistol in hand and as soon as he saw me, he swung the gun aiming at me and fired two shots.  Luckily I slammed the door shut just in time so the two bullets hit the door just missing me by a second.  I immediately went to phone the manager to report the incident.  The manager did not seem surprised at all, in fact he very calmly told me that this man was a permanent resident at the hotel, he just happened to get back a little drunk and wanted to have a few more drinks at the hotel bar which was closed at midnight.  He got mad and drew his gun and fired at random.

He also said that most of the men in town carried some weapons with them for protection against wild animals.  He asked me did I wish to bring a charge against this man.  I thought it over and decided against it because by doing that I had to extend my stay in Anchorage.  I rather took it as a true accident and stuck to my schedule.

The next day I took a Northwest flight to Tokyo in a Boeing 707.  Another unexpected thing happened.  The nose wheel of the Boeing 707 got stuck and could not even be manually lower before landing.  So the pilot radioed ahead and we prepared for an emergency landing.  When we touched ground on the runway, all I saw was fire engines, ambulances and white foam covered runway.  All the passengers held their breath until the plane landed safely without any mishaps.
In Tokyo, holding an introduction letter I went to call on Mr Morita at the Sony Company.  Transistor radio was the main products and I was taken through their design department with hundred of design sketches pasted on the wall.  Mr Morita explained to me that in Japan at that time they did not have the funding for market research so they would just go straight ahead and produce as many designs as possible for export.  If just one design became the best seller among all transistor radio on the market, it would pay for all the development costs while in US consumer product manufacturers usually had to go through extensive market research to make sure minimum sales targets could be met in order to justify the design and development cost.  This was how Sony succeeded in breaking into the US market and transforms itself from OEM to ODM manufacturer.

Taroko Gorge

From Tokyo, I flew to Taipei to visit my parents.  I stayed at the then newly build President Hotel.  I arranged to take a trip to visit the famous Taroko Gorge by myself.  To get there, I had to take a domestic flight to Hwa Lian, where a yellow taxi ordered by the China Travel Service was waiting there to take me through the Gorge and turnaround at the Taroko Lodge owned by China Travel Services.  It was a magnificent sight going through the Gorge.

The road along the Gorge was narrow and has many sharp hairpin curves as well as one-way sections.  On the way back when the taxi was approaching a hairpin curve, my Super 8 camera was in hand shooting through the windshield.  All of a sudden I noticed there was a sharp right turn ahead but the car was not turning, instead it maintained its normal speed and was going straight ahead toward the gorge in front.  Then I was thrown up inside the car banging my head against the back of the front seat.  When everything came to a stop, I realized the car was stopped by hitting a large rock at the edge of the road.  The back door was still working, so I got out and made a survey of the damage.  The driver and I had only minor injuries; there was blood over my face coming from a cut just below my lower lip.  However, the front of the car was smashed in.   What I saw in front was something of a surprise.  A rock, which saves the car from plunging directly into the gorge, had four carved Chinese characters – Not Movable Sky Bridge – on it.  It was the anchor point for a suspending bridge across the gorge to be built.  There was no way for us to seek help, the only thing I could do was to sit at the roadside and wait for the next passing vehicle.  The one showed up was another taxi with a sightseeing couple from Hong Kong inside.  They stopped and brought me back with them to Hwa Lian then Taipei.  The driver decided to stay with the damage car and later I found out all taxi driver were working on a twelve hour shift, my driver probably was on his eleventh hour when the accident happened.  

On returning to Taipei, I had to make up a story for the bandage on my face least my parents would be worried.  I told them it was from shaving.

On one of the subsequent trips to Taipei with my sister Helen, since she had never been to Taroko, I arranged a trip to Taroko for the two of us.  On deplaning at Hwa Lian, a taxi was waiting at the tarmac for us.  When we approached the car, the driver came out opening the door for us.  He took one look at me and said, “I remember you, I was the driver of the car which rescued you from the road side”.  Small world indeed.


In 1967, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design was to hold its annual convention in Ottawa, Canada and I was appointed as one of the delegates to represent USA.  The head of the delegation was Dick Latham.  I was surprised how ill prepared we were to attend an international meeting.  No briefing was given and we had no idea how did we stand on any issue that came up.

Helen’s Wedding

Helen after graduating from Parson’s School of Design began dating Y L Yang’s Brother Y T and they got married in New York City in the 1960’s.

Some other Design Projects

Like other professionals such as medical and legal, design consultants are usually classified as specialists in certain field after their work had been known.  Few have the time and luxury of developing new products on its own for the market.  I somehow had an idea of designing an interlocking system for individual cabinet for the LP and 45 records which at that time were just introduced.  The design was based on a mechanical principle which locks one cabinet with another without screw or other fastener.  I applied and was granted U S patent No 3432216 on March 17, 1968 under SECTION CABINET.  Based on that, a U K patent No 1221535 was granted on May 20, 1968.   I did success in licensing the system to one manufacture.  I called the system UNILOCK.  Typically, it was not a commercial success and I won’t advise any other designers to spend the time and energy on their own pet projects.
Another interesting project was to develop a corporate identity for the family company SOUTH TEXTILE LIMITED of my good friend H T Liu.  Spinning and weaving were its business but H T Liu later branched out into the manufacturing of fasteners – nails, screws and nuts – mainly for the U S market.  So when H T decided to turn the private company into a public one, he asked me to design the logo for the group.  I came up with a design which was easily recognizable in any size and also would have a subtle resemblance to a Chinese seal.  It was one of the most successful graphic designs I have created and the designs are still being used after half a century.

1964 was the year for New York to hold the World’s Fair.  Although our practice was in New York, we were lucky to win the bid of designing the exhibits inside the pavilion of the State of New Jersey. The structure was designed by another architecture firm. I, at the same time also served as consultant to the Chinese Team who is working on the Chinese Pavilion.

As a new design firm trying to break into an established market, one was always tight for income, so I decided to take up a part time teaching job at the evening school of Pratt Institute.  One of my courses was Free Hand Perspective Drawing of one to three vanishing points – this was way before computer-aid-design had been developed.  My favorite project was to ask the students to draw a rotary dialed telephone.  With so many circles at different levels, the students’ best efforts turned into something unbelievable weird! 

Steve Limpe’s Wedding

Lucy has two sisters living in New York.  Rosie who is two years younger than Lucy was married to Benny Chan but later divorced after they moved to Hong Kong in the early 80s.  The other sister Emily married Antonio Limpe from the Philippines and they have one son Steve who married the oldest daughter of Oscar Tang, Tracy in 1990.  The wedding was held in New York.  Lucy and I did not attend but it was a very grand social affair.  So through marriage, the Tang family is now related to the TINGs.



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