Industrial designer Toby Thompson is best remembered for his joie de vivre as well as his initials, T.T., or “Big T”—which are symbolically evident in a number of his abstract artwork that almost appear like baffling puzzles to solve by viewers.
“You have to figure each piece out; my dad used fonts and lettering and designs that make you stop and think,” says his daughter Kelly Thompson Waldt. “He was very creative and would often work on several canvases at the same time.”
Now on view at RIT’s University Gallery, “Memories, Observations, Experiences, Obsessions” highlights Thompson’s most recent work before he died in 2012 at the age of 79.
According to Waldt, her father was born in Norway, emigrated to the U.S. in 1934 and began his teaching career at RIT in 1968. He received his Master of Fine Arts degree from RIT in 1975, was later appointed chair of industrial, interior and packaging design, and held that position until his retirement in 1996.
During the height of his industrial design career, Thompson’s clients included Xerox, General Motors, Honeywell and many others.
“The London BBC even did a segment on his 1988 Olympic poster designs for Eastman Kodak Co.,” Waldt says. “But my dad was best known for mentoring students at RIT, and that was truly his life’s work for 28 years. That’s why we wanted to bring his work home in this memorial exhibition at RIT’s University Gallery.”
Stephanie Howard, who graduated from RIT with a degree in industrial design in 1994 and owns her own design firm in Boston, says she attended the opening reception of the RIT exhibition and had reconnected briefly with Thompson through Facebook before he died.
“I learned so many things from Toby, but it’s the intangible, the unquantifiable, that resonates most,” Howard says. “He has a joie de vivre so rare and so special, and had such joy he found in creating an idea.
“As time seems to increase in speed each year, where I often struggle to be just in the moment, it’s people like Toby whom I hold as aspiration for not just living the moment, but squeezing the moment. Lucky us for knowing him.”
Marcus Conge ’02 (industrial design) is the owner, lead artist and director of Digital Manipulation. He says he views Thompson as a true artist, a man who had the super power to light up a room with a smile and loved what he did without worrying what others thought or said.
“When you have that balance, you have the capacity to achieve your goals without being distracted by your critics,” Conge says. “His smile and happiness were proof of that. What made him truly amazing is that he shared this with everyone. It wasn’t about being special, unique, important, or the center of attention. It was always about trusting and believing in oneself.
“I think of him often, as I’m sure many others do, and I hear his comforting and reassuring voice in my thoughts. If it wasn’t for Toby, I wouldn’t have been able to lose myself in my work and my love for what I do. I’m grateful to have known him as a friend and mentor.”
Waldt says her father never lost his sense of spirit, even in the face of living with cancer. A few pieces in the show, Forget Me Not and Anxious, deal with his journey through two craniectomies followed by radiation.
As Thompson explained his work in 2010, “Thornton Wilder searched for ‘solitude without loneliness.’ I did the same. We both found it in different places. He became a novelist and wrote a best-selling book. I’m doing the most satisfying art I have ever done.
“I still love and miss my family, but they have made lives for themselves. My solitude is precious, but my new friends, memories and imagination are wondrous companions.”