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Thinking inside the box

Rock me gently

Most creative types strive to “think outside the box.” But industrial designer and retired U-M faculty member Allen Samuels is flipping that equation on its head as he mentors a new generation of entrepreneurs to use design for the public good.

One of his latest designs is akin to a box, literally. It’s a low-cost, sturdy cardboard cradle meant to enhance infant safety during sleep time and make safe sleeping choices accessible to all families.

The idea grew from a collaboration with Lindsay “Charlie” Brink, MSW ’17. Brink is a former Peace Corps participant who founded the social enterprise DreamNest Beds, LLC, after she learned about the high rate of infant sleep-related deaths experienced by African-American, low-income mothers in Detroit. Infants sleeping in adult beds are at risk of falling, being smothered, or becoming trapped against a wall or headboard. So Brink wanted to create a socially conscious and simple solution for low-income parents and caretakers who needed safe beds for their newborns.

Samuels, professor emeritus and dean emeritus in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, turned out to be Brink’s ideal partner. An inventor at heart, he has worked as an industrial designer at Westinghouse, Corning Glass Works, and Black and Decker. He joined the faculty in 1975, and though retired from U-M since 2008, he continues to help students develop designs and launch businesses that tackle social issues and empower others.

“Our discipline is about the culture,” he says. “It’s about designing objects that enable humans to enrich the culture.”

Keep it simple

Brink, who’s spent time conducting research in Africa, says hospitals and clinics could use the low-cost, portable cradles. The disposable product can be produced for pennies and is designed for babies up to four months old.

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

A decade after retiring from U-M, Samuels still enjoys “teaching” in his Ann Arbor studio with partners like Brink. The space is crammed to the ceiling with prototypes of all colors, shapes, and sizes. His products often focus on issues of aging, disability, and disaster relief.

“My goal is to live out my life feeling like I’m whole,” he says. “If I didn’t decide to retire and try other things, I could have taught till I died.”

This story is reprinted courtesy of The University Record.


  1. Robert Thompson - 1967, 1970

    You could have at least mentioned Finland’s baby box program that goes back decades instead of claiming some degree of credit for what is an old idea.


    • Deborah Holdship

      Good point. Such a great concept: “The Baby Box program has helped Finland achieve one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates. The initiative, which enables every expecting woman in the country to claim a free Baby Box once she receives prenatal care and parenting information from a healthcare professional, is credited with helping to decrease Finland’s infant mortality rate from 65 deaths for each 1,000 children born in 1938 to 3 deaths per 1,000 births in 2013.” — — Ed.


  2. mary cooper nelson - 1964

    a perfect solution! loved the u tube presentation


  3. Pamela Bernstein - 1980, BFA

    It does not surprise me that Allan Samuels is involved with such a wonderful project. He taught me how to think, “outside the box”. He taught a ‘design process” that would always guarantee arriving at a great solution. He had such a major influence in how I attacked a design problem. That was oer 40 years ago and I still think about it. Thank you.


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