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U-M emeritus professor finds new life of teaching in retirement

By Safiya Merchant

Samuels and Brink have developed a set of low-cost products to potentially enhance infant safety during sleep time. (Photo by Steve Culver, The University Record)

A decade after retiring from the University of Michigan, Allen Samuels still helps Wolverines reach their dreams — one design at a time.

Before joining the faculty in 1975, Samuels, professor emeritus and dean emeritus in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, worked as an industrial designer for companies like Westinghouse, Corning Glass Works, and Black and Decker.

Samuels can trace his love for creating back to his childhood. He says he took things apart, his grandfather often handing him a screwdriver and a clock or other piece of “junk” to keep him busy.

“I wanted to invent things, and that’s what product design really is,” Samuels said. “Our discipline is about the culture. It’s about designing objects that enable humans to enrich the culture.”

After serving as dean of the art school from 1993-99, he retired from the university in 2008. Nowadays, Samuels spends his time designing products without the pressures of meeting profitability or client goals. Inside his Ann Arbor studio, crammed to the ceiling with prototypes of various colors and shapes, his products often focus on issues of aging, disability and disaster relief.

But even in retirement, Samuels isn’t taking a break from teaching. He uses his spare time to help U-M students develop their own designs and launch businesses that tackle social issues and empower others. With his years of design experience, Samuels now passes the torch to a new generation of entrepreneurs to use design for the public good.

College of Engineering alumna Laura Murphy connected with Samuels through optiMize, a U-M student community developing social impact projects. Murphy, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Adapt Design, said Samuels collaborated with her startup to help it develop products for people living with disabilities.

“Allen really embraced our work because he does a lot of similar work for elderly and people with disabilities,” Murphy said. “So he began to critique our work and show his perspective on what we were doing. We just really connected and have been working together ever since.”

Samuels and Murphy co-designed a set of inexpensive foam blocks that can be used as positioning devices for people who use wheelchairs. The devices, which allow for varied ways to use a wheelchair and to support posture, are designed so that those who use wheelchairs can feel more comfortable without a hefty price tag, Murphy said.

“He’s just such a supportive mentor for us, an honest critiquer of all of our ideas,” Murphy said. “Every time I go over to his studio I’m bringing in eight other things and he’ll noodle on it for a week and then come back a week later with all these different ideas. I can’t say enough how just transformative he’s been in helping us to do what we’re doing.”

Samuels also works with School of Social Work alumna Lindsay “Charlie” Brink to develop a social enterprise through socially conscious design. Brink’s social enterprise, DreamNest Beds LLC, developed around a startling data point she discovered involving the high rate of infant sleep-related deaths experienced by African-American, low-income mothers in Detroit.

Although the safe choice for infants is to place them alone in a crib on their back to sleep, some caretakers do not have access to these resources, Brink said. Some parents instead sleep with their newborn infants in adult beds, where the risk is greater of infants falling, getting smothered by a soft mattress or blankets, becoming trapped between a wall or headboard. Parents also can accidentally roll over their children.

To address this problem, Brink wanted to develop a bed for infants, and eventually connected with Samuels.

“Every time we’ve met I’ve had something new for her to see and I think it’s great fun,” Samuels said.

Together, Samuels and Brink developed a group of low-cost products to potentially enhance infant safety during sleep time and make safe sleeping choices accessible to all families. They include a sturdy, portable cardboard cradle and a cardboard platform with raised sides so an infant can sleep unharmed.

Brink, who has participated in the Peace Corps and conducts research in Africa, said hospitals and clinics in that area have expressed interest in her creations.

“The social aspect of it is the driving force to me, knowing that we have a product that really solves a problem for people, and if I don’t push it out, no one else is going to get it out there,” Brink said.

By working with Samuels, Brink said, she feels as if she has received a master’s degree in design — or at least a piece of one — for free.

“It’s definitely changed the way I think about social solutions,” Brink said. “I’ve given a couple of talks to different classes because as social workers, typically, we think programs and system changes. … This is just another method to address social problems.”

While Samuels’ expertise has helped some students reach their goals, Samuels said continuing to work with students in retirement has offered him gifts as well.

“My goal is to live out my life feeling like I’m whole,” Samuels said, adding that in retirement he misses interactions with students the most. “If I didn’t decide to retire and try other things, I could have taught till I died.”

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