Harold L. Cohen (American, 1925-2021) visual artist, sculptor, educator, social reformer and health activist. Known for paintings, sculptures, woodcuts & wood engravings, plastic & metal drypoint etchings, linocuts, limited edition collographs and serigraphs, as well as furniture design. Harold L. Cohen was born on May 24, 1925 in Brooklyn, NY to Eastern European immigrant parents and was raised in a socially conscious Orthodox Jewish household. He started drawing at the age of nine and took drawing lessons from WPA “Ashcan School” artists during the Depression years at his local Jewish Community Center. His early education was both in public and religious schools where he was Valedictorian in 1940 of his Yeshiva school in Brooklyn and received the Brooklyn High School of the Arts Award upon graduation. Following high school, he took night classes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and worked simultaneously as a photo-engraving assistant and color-separator in the comic book industry for DC Publications (DC Comics) before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1943 during WWII.
After serving a three-year tour of duty in the Atlantic, South pacific and European theatres as a radar operator on a Destroyer escort and as the ship’s newspaper editor, Cohen returned home and resumed his job at DC Publications as assistant to the art director. He was encouraged by Jack Levine, a color-separator at DC to apply to art school, who said, “Schmuck, use the GI Bill to go to school.” With that advice, Cohen applied and was accepted at the Chicago Institute of Design in 1946 (ID, now the ITT [Illinois Institute of Technology] Institute of Design) after intending to apply to the Art Institute of Chicago, which was the “best mistake” of his life, he once stated. Cohen was trained in the Bauhaus tradition of art and design under architect, designer and writer, Serge Ivan Chermayeff (Russian-born British, 1900-1996) and painter and photographer, László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946). Cohen also studied humanities at Northwestern University in Chicago. He graduated from the ID in 1949 with a BA in product design and was invited back to work as an instructor, a post he held until 1955.
In 1949, Cohen had his first solo exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture at the 750 Studio in Chicago. The 750 Studio which was a commercial art gallery and workshop organized by the faculty and students of the Institute of Design. The Studio was credited as, “the first contemporary arts and crafts gallery in America to show abstract art,” and exhibited works by well-known artists like; László Moholy-Nagy, Henry Miller, Harry Callahan, Margaret De Patta and Doris Hall.
In 1950, Cohen and fellow ID instructor, Davis Pratt (American, 1918-1987) co-founded Designers in Production, which was established to produce, market and sell their integrated group of home furnishings for contemporary living. Their production models allowed them to explore new materials like flexible nylon mesh, steel, and rubber for chairs, tables and other home furniture at their firm. Some of the company’s designs were included in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) during that period and won awards (1950 & 1951), and one of their nylon and steel chairs (c1950-51) is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Designers in Production operated until 1957.
On November 11, 1951, Cohen married researcher, teacher & entomologist, Mary Della (née Kohn) Cohen (1929-2020) in a small ceremony at Northwestern University’s John Evans Religious Center library in Chicago, IL, and the couple had three children to include two daughters, Lore Devra Cohen-Levin, Jano Cohen and a son, David Cohen.
From 1955-1963, Cohen built and then chaired the design department at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, IL where he invited his friend, R. Buckminster Fuller (American, 1895-1983) to teach in the department. After stepping down from his position at SIU, he assumed a leadership role as Educational Director and Executive Director at the Institute for Behavioral Research (IBR) in Silver Spring, MD from 1963-1974, where his investigations focused on the benefits of better learning environments for prisoners and troubled youth. Later, he founded and served as president of the Experimental College at IBR from 1966-1974, based on principles similar to those of the Experimental Freshman Year (EFY), a program Cohen pioneered while at SIU based on his conviction that the least academically talented students could thrive under the right circumstances. From 1970-1973, Cohen served as Project Director in the Phipps Clinic, Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD before moving to Buffalo, NY in 1974 to accept the position of Dean at the UB School of Architecture and Environmental Design (UB AE&D, now the UB School of Architecture and Planning, SAP) succeeding John Eberhard, the first dean of the School (from 1968-1974). Though Cohen was neither a licensed architect nor specifically trained as an urban planner, he continued the innovations started by Eberhard, including the School’s move to Hayes Hall at the University at Buffalo (UB). He also played a pivotal role in carrying forward the school’s founding ethos, which viewed architecture and design in relation to its social, environmental, technological and cultural contexts.
In 1982, Cohen founded and served as director of the Health in Housing Center at Buffalo, a position he held until 1995. In 1984, he stepped down as Dean at UB AE&D, but continued to teach there until 1991. That same year, Cohen along with his wife Mary, who worked on the staff of the Buffalo Museum of Science, designed and produced “The Insect World” exhibit hall and traveling exhibits which were made available for loan to public and private schools. In 1985, Cohen established the UB Health in Housing Institute (HIH) which was a collaboration of the School of Architecture and Planning and UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, which he and his wife Mary, co-directed until their retirement from UB in 1991. From 1990-2009, Cohen worked as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Social & Preventative Medicine Research at the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNYAB), Buffalo, NY.
In 1998, Cohen was appointed director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Research on Health in Housing. Cohen also volunteered for about one month per year, for many years, in Bolivia, South America where he worked with women and children regarding health in housing issues.
After his retirement from full-time teaching in 2000, Cohen designed and opened his own art studio in downtown Buffalo, where he was able to devote most of his free time to his love of art and printmaking. From that time on, he produced hundreds of paintings in acrylic and oil, as well as sculptures and over 500 prints on his old Vandercook proof press which he adapted to for printing woodcuts, engravings and etchings. He stated about the printing process:
“I bought my first burins with my good friend, Misch Kohn, printmaker (1916~2003), when we both were teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Misch taught me how to hold the tools, how to mix the ink, how to ink a block, and to choose the types of ink depending upon the type of wood and the kinds of papers. That initiation to wood engraving was in 1949. Doing my artwork now is one of the most satisfying experiences in my life. I waited until I was 75 years old to do something I’ve held in check for most of my adult life. I do it because I love it. My work is the outside reality of the inside of me. What was in the past unusable and hiding is now open and visible.” [1, Harold L. Cohen quote, haroldlcohen.com, “Business Wire Press Release”]
Cohen found joy in solving the technical and practical challenges of printmaking, the science behind the art, or as he called it, “the marriage of art and science.” His drawings were premeditated, but sometimes he allowed the serendipity of the technique express itself as well. For Cohen, the choice of technique was a crucial part of his printmaking process, selecting a technique based upon his intended expression, whether it be etching, collotype, woodcut or some other form of intaglio print-process. He believed that design could change the world, and once said:
“We can remake our cities into environments, which will discourage the bestial qualities of men and women and reinforce the humane and decent characteristics we expect from a civilized society. We can support the necessary behaviors required to train our next generation so that they will come to see the whole problem and not merely the economic factors.” 
As with the Declaration of Independence, Cohen also held the ‘truths’ of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” as self-evident and he believed that those truths of life can be taught, and that art education is particularly important because art embodies the beliefs of a society. Over the course of his life, during WWII and within his career, Cohen faced anti-Semitism and bigotry, and often discussed how racial hatred and genocide from around the world shaped his life and directly impacted his art. He once stated:
“My own struggles as a victim of Anti-Semitism and bigotry left a permanent impression and a desire to help humanity. I spent my life as a professor and administrator helping today’s youth grow beyond their isolation and personal struggles to help others.”[3.1, findagrave.com, quote from obituary, Buffalo News, 2021]
“Printmaking offered a summation of many of his [Cohen's] interests, particularly its dichotomous characteristics: processes demanding both scientific and artistic thinking and the mastery of traditional techniques coupled with innovation. Printmaking became the perfect sanctuary for Cohen's energy, passion for lifelong learning, love of design, and his search for expressing the human condition. The prints selected by guest curator and artist, Hyeyoung Shin, alumnus and Research Scholar of UB's Department of Visual Studies, demonstrate Cohen's constant experimentation with process and expression.”[4, UB Anderson Gallery, on the occasion of the 2012 3-person exhibition, “Print Review”, University of Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery, Buffalo, NY]
Cohen exhibited his artwork locally, around the country and abroad, and continued to produce his paintings and prints until only a few months before his passing on November 2, 2021 at the age of 96, at his residence at City Centre in Buffalo, NY. His artwork can be found in numerous public and private collections, as well as museums to include the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY who house a major collection of Cohen’s prints, paintings and sculptures and the Brooklyn Museum of Art that has one of his and partner, Davis Pratt’s nylon & steel chair designs (co-founders of Designers in Production). After Cohen’s passing, Robert G. Shibley, the current Dean and SUNY Distinguished professor of the UB School of Architecture and Planning, respectfully stated:
“Harold Cohen helped build a culture of place-based work in the school that continues to be a central part of our approach to teaching, research, and service. Each dean since has benefitted from and built on this culture. The work is intensely local and increasingly celebrated globally, achieving impacts at multiple scales and on a wide range of subject areas.” [5, UB’s online obituary] Shibley went onto state in the Buffalo News obituary, “Even without those bonafides, his contributions to helping preserve Shea’s Performing Arts Center and the Theatre District that surrounds it have left a bold imprint on downtown Buffalo and its subsequent development. Harold lived large and wasn’t overly impressed with those kinds of credentials anyway, I mean, he built the faculty that was maverick in that same respect.” [6, buffalonews.com, obituary and article, Nov. 9, 2021]
Other present and past faculty & alumnus tributes from the UB School of Architecture and Planning followed, including:
“Harold was a big force with big visions. When he took something on, he was all in. He was involved in the world at all scales, and, regardless of the issue--designing single-person temporary shelters or preventing bug infestations in South American housing--Harold gave intense focus to the task. Students and faculty members alike remember his laser beam look and direct questions. He has had and will continue to have great staying power within all of us.” [7, Beth Tauke, associate professor of architecture at UB School of Architecture and Planning]
“Harold’s contributions to the School are almost incalculable: he had the foresight to recruit to Buffalo a couple of stars as department chairs— George Anselevicius from Harvard, and Peter Reyner Banham come to mind. And they were followed by other younger stars who advanced that excellent start: Bob Shibley in Architecture, David Perry in Planning, and Don Glickman in Design. It was a great thrill for me to have Harold select me as his only Associate Dean to help him build our School into the respected institution it has now become.” [8, Professor Emeritus Alfred Price, UB School of Architecture and Planning]
“From Harold, I learned that design is a process, a purposeful act, and not an object or artifact. He taught us all that others were the recipients of our work, and therefore, what we design must be responsive to human needs and be culturally appropriate.” [9, Donald Glickman, former faculty member in the Department of Architecture, UB School of Architecture and Planning]
“I learned so much under Dean Cohen. He opened my mind to a broad range of topics: the design principles of the Bauhaus, global health issues and the concept that, "architecture is the space between the walls". His design lectures were mind-opening. Dean Cohen's cross-disciplinary approach to design education was ahead of its time and enabled me to work in design fields that did not even exist when I was a student at UB.” [10, Alumnus 1984, Andrew Proehl, senior director of user experience for Meltwater, a media insights platform)
1925- May 24, 1925, born in Brooklyn, NY.
1940- Graduated as Valedictorian of his Yeshiva.
Circa 1943- Graduated from Brooklyn High School where he received the Art Award at graduation. Cohen took night classes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Briefly worked as a photo-engraving assistant in the comic book industry.
1943- Enlisted in the U.S. Navy during WWII and served in a three-year tour of duty in the Atlantic, South Pacific and European theatres aboard a Destroyer escort as a radar operator and served as the ship’s newspaper editor.
1946- After returning from the war, Cohen studied at the Chicago Institute of Design (ID, now the Illinois Institute of technology, Institute of Design) under the G.I. Bill, where he was trained in the Bauhaus tradition of art and design. During that same time, he studied humanities at Northwestern University in Chicago.
1949- Graduated from the Chicago Institute of Design with a B.A. in product design, Chicago, IL. Participated in the traveling lighting exhibit, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC. Exhibited, first solo exhibition, paintings, drawings and sculpture, 750 Studio, 750 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL.
From 1949-1955- After his graduation from the Chicago Institute of Design, Cohen was invited back and worked as an instructor, Chicago, IL.
1950-1951- Exhibited, group exhibits (“Good Design Awards”, 1950 & 1951), for nylon and steel chairs, twisted paper and steel chairs, wood and metal tables by Designers in Production (Cohen & Davis), Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
From 1950-1957- Cohen worked with fellow ID instructor Davis Pratt (1918-1987) designing chairs and other furniture at their firm, Designers in Production, whose furniture designs were included in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art during that period. One of their nylon and steel chairs is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY.
1951- November 11, Cohen married researcher, teacher & entomologist, Mary Della (née Kohn) Cohen (1929-2020) in a small ceremony at Northwestern University’s John Evans Religious Center library in Chicago, IL, and the couple had three children to include two daughters, Lore Devra Cohen-Levin, Jano Cohen and a son, David Cohen.
From 1955-1963- He built and then chaired the design department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL.
From 1963-1974- After stepping down from his position at SIU, he assumed a leadership role as an Educational Director and Executive Director at the Institute for Behavioral Research (IBR) in Silver Spring, MD where his investigations focused on the benefit better learning environments could provide for prisoners and troubled youth. He also taught as professor as well as served as an administrator at several other universities before moving to Buffalo, NY in 1974.
1966-1974- Cohen founded and served as president of the Experimental College at IBR in Silver Spring, MD, based on principles similar to those of the Experimental Freshman Year (EFY), a program he pioneered while at Carbondale based on his conviction that the least academically talented students could thrive under the right circumstances.
1970-1973- Cohen served as Project Director in the Phipps Clinic, Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.
From 1974-1984- Cohen served as Dean of the School of Architecture and Environmental Design, Buffalo, University at Buffalo, NY.
1982- Cohen created the Design Studies program at UB’s School of Architecture and Environmental Design, true to his Bauhaus philosophy, where he believed that design as a kind of meta-discipline of socially-conscious problem-solving and world-making was the necessary foundation of any academic unit that also aspired to teach architecture, planning, and any other species of design practice, Buffalo, NY.
From 1982-1995- Cohen founded and was the director of the Health in Housing Center at Buffalo, NY.
1984- Cohen stepped down as Dean of the School of Architecture and Environmental Design, Buffalo, University at Buffalo, NY, but continued to teach there until 1991. Exhibited, Cohen and his wife Mary Cohen, “Insect Hall”, Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, NY, which became traveling exhibits and were made available for loan to public and private schools.
From 1984-1991- After stepping down as Dean, Cohen continued to teach at UB’s School of Architecture and Environmental Design, Buffalo, NY.
1985- Cohen established the UB Health in Housing Institute (HIH), a collaboration of the School of Architecture and Planning and UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, which he and his wife, Mary D. Cohen co-directed until their retirement in 1991.
1989- Cohen had a retrospective exhibition titled, “Harold L. Cohen, Designer: A 40-Year Profile” at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center where many of his early paintings, engravings and sculptures were exhibited.
From 1990-2009- Cohen served as Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Social & Preventative Medicine, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNYAB), Buffalo, NY.
1998- Cohen was appointed as director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Research on Health in Housing.
2000- Retired from full-time teaching. Cohen designed and opened his art studio on Chippewa Street in downtown Buffalo where he continued his love of art and printmaking, producing hundreds of paintings in acrylic and oil, as well as sculptures and over 500 prints on his old Vandercook proof press which he adapted to for printing woodcuts, engravings and etchings.
2004- October 5-November 1, exhibited, solo exhibition, Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo, engravings, woodcuts, etchings and paintings, Bunis Family Gallery, Getzville, NY. November 5-December 1, exhibited, solo exhibition, Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo, engravings, woodcuts, etchings and paintings, Holland Family Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
2009- Exhibited, solo exhibition, “The Human Drama”, 23 prints by Harold L. Cohen, The Ascension Episcopal Church, Buffalo, NY.
2010- February 11-27, exhibited, solo exhibition of prints, Visual Image Fine Arts Publishing, Dallas, TX. Exhibited, solo exhibition, “The Art of Harold L. Cohen”, Jewish Community Center, Buffalo, NY. March, exhibited, group exhibition, “Springtime Art Show”, Visual Image Fine Arts Publishing, Dallas, TX. April, exhibited, group exhibition, “Print Show”, Visual Image Fine Arts Publishing, Dallas, TX. October, exhibited, solo exhibition, “The Art of Harold L. Cohen,” 56 prints exhibited, The Amster Gallery, The Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, MI.
2012- March 3-May 27, exhibited, three-person exhibition, “Print Review” (“The Passion of Printmaking: Harold L. Cohen”), Cohen exhibited 64 of his prints with a special exhibit of drawings, printing plates and blocks, University of Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery, Buffalo, NY. September, exhibited, solo exhibition, “Our Shared Humanity: Embracing Responsibility”, 29 prints, paintings and drawings by Cohen on display during the Anne Frank Project 2012, held at Buffalo State, State University of New York.
2013- August 9-September 29, exhibited, group exhibition, “Harold L. Cohen: Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy”, Chicago, IL.
2015- May-June, exhibited solo exhibition, "Space" exhibition of paintings, prints and sculpture, Manuel Barreto Art Gallery, Atelier & Showroom, Buffalo, NY. June, exhibited, group international exhibition, “Art Olympia 2015 International Competition”, Tokyo, Japan. September-October, exhibited, group exhibition, “Artist-Printmaker Harold L. Cohen Remembers Microbiologist Dr. Myron (Mike) Levine”, an exhibition of 53 prints at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, MI. November, exhibited, group exhibition, “Fall Into Art”, Cohen exhibited 9 prints with a focus on Talmudic studies, the celebration of Jewish life, persecution and The Holocaust, Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, NY.
2019- August 9-October 31, exhibited solo exhibition, “The Past is Present: Paintings and Prints by Harold L. Cohen”, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY.
2019-2020- November 23, 2019–April 26, 2020 (Extended until fall 2020), exhibited, group exhibition, “Bauhaus Chicago: Design in the City”, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
2020- June 16, Cohen’s wife Mary passed away at the age of 91, Buffalo, NY.
2021- November 2, Cohen passed away at the age of 96 in his residence at City Centre, Buffalo, NY and is buried in the Western New York National Cemetery (Section 10, Grace 478), Corfu, NY.
2022- April 28, “Memorial Program for Harold L. Cohen”, the program was followed by a reception on the Burchfield Terrace, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY. April 29, Cohen was honored with a Bronze Star which was set at the ‘Plaza of Stars’ at the entrance to the theatre district at the corner of Main & Tupper streets in Buffalo, NY, and was followed that afternoon by an Memorial Honor’s Ceremony for Cohen by the U.S. Navy for the internment of Cohen and his wife Mary’s ashes at the Western New York National Military Cemetery, 1254 Indian Falls Rd., Corfu, NY.
Also Exhibited: Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA) who presented a large group exhibition covering the Chicago Institute of Design (ID), Chicago, IL.
Awards: “Good Design Awards” (1950 & 1951), for nylon and steel chairs, twisted paper and steel chairs, wood and metal tables by Designers in Production (Cohen & Davis), at the 1950 & 1951 exhibitions held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC.
Public and Museum Collections: Burchfield Penney Art Center, prints, paintings and sculptures, Buffalo, NY; Nylon & steel chair design by Harold L. Cohen and Davis Pratt, co-founders of Designers in Production, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and included in the 1950-51 “Decorative Arts” exhibit at the Museum, Brooklyn, NY;
(Written & compiled by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc., East Aurora, NY, meibohmfinearts.com, sources: Too long to list here and are furnished upon request.)