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Joie de vivre was Toby Thompson’s ‘art’ of living

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A. Sue Weisler

Industrial designer Toby Thompson, pictured here in 1988, enjoyed mentoring students during his 28-year RIT career.

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.”


A. Sue Weisler

Industrial designer Toby Thompson, pictured here in 1988, enjoyed mentoring students during his 28-year RIT career.


A. Sue Weisler


Supplied photo

Toby Thompson’s industrial design work is on display at RIT’s University Gallery.