The John T. Houlihan Papers

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

One of the Hagley Library’s collecting strengths is in industrial design materials. Industrial designers such as Irv Koons, John Gordon Rideout, Lyman W. Cleveland, Marc Harrison, Raymond Loewy, Richard Hollerith, Robert Olodort, and Thomas Lamb are all represented in our collections. Hagley recently added the John T. Houlihan papers (Acc. 2766).

John T. Houlihan is an industrial designer who worked for General Motors, SCM Corporation, General Electric, South Bend Toy (a Milton Bradley company), and Timex. His papers include nearly forty years of sketches, drawings, and renderings from those companies. Each of these terms are specific and are not interchangeable. A sketch refers to a (usually) quick, empathic hand-drawn communication to quickly communicate an idea, a look, a detail, or some other aspect of design. A drawing refers to a deliberate, in-scale line drawing (drafting) used to communicate the dimensions of the sketched or rendered idea to make it into a three-dimensional piece. A rendering is carefully drawn and detailed with color and shading to communicate the idea and create an emotional appeal to the viewer.

Throughout the collection, you can see the evolution of design processes and the impact of technology. From the traditional method and technique of hand drawing using colored pencils, pastels, and markers on vellum to the use of digital processes by the late 1980s as technology advanced and became widely available.

After graduating from college, Houlihan was hired by General Motors in design and development and then later in the advanced studios and future concept vehicles department. In five years at GM, Houlihan was involved with designing the Buick Riviera Boattail and the Chevy Vega.

Years later, Houlihan went to work for Timex and found it to be the closest thing to automotive design in all his experiences. One of his greatest successes at Timex was the Ironman Triathlon watch. It was developed using a new, top-mounted, push-button design that activated a lap memory system for runners to use in training. Two years after its debut, the Ironman watches became the largest-selling single style in watch history.

The John T. Houlihan papers (Acc. 2766) are available for researchers. To schedule a research appointment, check out our research services page or email

Ashley Williams Clawson is the Processing & Digital Archivist at Hagley Museum and Library