Pratt Did That?! 10 Unexpected Cultural Icons From the School's 125-Year History

U.S. Department of Transportation Symbols, designed by Pratt graduate Roger Cook
(Courtesy of AIGA)

Exactly 125 years ago yesterday, the doors of the Pratt Institute opened, welcoming 12 students to its first drawing classes for a steep tuition of $4 a semester. On the occasion of this very special anniversary — celebrated officially Monday night, under the crystal chandelier of the Waldorf=Astoria’s Grand Ballroom — the school unveiled its top 125 list of icons created by alumni and faculty, as voted on by current students, faculty, and the public.

Predictably, many of the results were works we’ve grown to worship — the tapering illuminated spire of William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building, Betsey Johnson’s dynamically off-kilter fashion line, and the colorful minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings — but the most surprising results were the works we encounter on a daily basis, things we’ve grown so familiar with we hardly appreciate the fact that someone had to design them.

Take, for example Alfred Mosher Butts. The Pratt alum who found himself a jobless architect in 1948 developed a little boardgame called Scrabble, which he sold to Macy’s department store in 1952. Since, 150 million sets of the family game-night staple have been sold worldwide. Another example: Fine arts alum and faculty member Kermit Love (no doubt driven by fate) became the master puppet builder who brought Jim Henson’s concept for a certain endangered eight-foot-tall yellow bird to life.

The quotidian masterpieces made possible by the art and design institution are as diverse as the after-school science favorite “The Magic School Bus,” the rounded stick figures that differentiate the men’s room from the women’s, Washington, D.C.’s metro map, and the sculptural charging lineback we’ve grown to recognize as the Heisman Trophy. The wide range of these icons is a reflection of the cultural impact Pratt has made in just little over a century, and it shows no sign of stopping.  

To see the most surprising works that made Pratt’s list, click the slideshow. The complete lineup will go on exhibition at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery on November 30.