Born in Chicago as Harold Livingston Van Doren, he finished high school in New Jersey and graduated from Williams College in 1917. He served in the Army during World War I, then studied at the Art Students League in New York (1920-21) and went to Paris (1922-24) with a fellowship in art history. He worked as a lecturer at the Louvre, as an artist for theChicago Tribune’s Paris edition, as an actor in a Jean Renoir film and as a translator of books. He became assistant director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (1927-30) while continuing to write articles.
Van Doren opened a design office in 1931 in partnership with John Gordon Rideout (1898-1951) in Toledo, OH. They designed a colorful, art deco skyscraper public health scale for their first client, the Toledo Scale Company, and in 1933 a green plastic skyscraper style radio for Air King Products. In 1934 they designed a trend-setting sheet metal gasoline pump for the Wayne Pump Company.
That same year, Van Doren was among a number of pioneering industrial designers featured in a 1934 Fortune magazine article. His office designed a range of streamlined children’s bicycles, tricycles, scooters, and wagons in 1935 for the American National Company, and for Toledo Scale, a lightweight, modern "Sentinel Duplex" retail scale, using the largest plastic molding of the time.
In 1935, Rideout left to open his own office in Cleveland, OH, and Van Doren , now Harold Van Doren & Associates, was joined in 1936 by J.M. Little (1906-1996) and in 1937 by Donald Dailey (1914-1997). In 1939, they designed Maytag’s "Master Washer", the first to use white instead of the speckled gray and green finish of the period.
Van Doren in 1940 wrote and had published Industrial Design: A Practical Guide. In 1941 he relocated to Philadelphia with his Philco account, establishing a second office with Dailey, and leaving the Toledo office under Little. Dailey soon designed a two-tone electric iron for Westinghouse.
In 1944 Van Doren became one of the 15 co-founders of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID), later becoming its president in 1948. At a 1944 meeting of the Associated Industries of New York State, Van Doren declared: " The modern industrial designer is concerned with 3-dimensional products, equipment and machines made only by production methods, as distinguished from traditional handcraft methods. His aim is to enhance the desirability of these products by (1) Increasing convenience and improving adaptability of form to function; (2) attracting buyers by applying a shrewd knowledge of consumer psychology; and (3) employing to the fullest the esthetic appeal of form, color and texture."
Van Doren expanded his firm in 1944 to include a New York office, known as Van Doren, Nowland & Schladermundt (Roger Nowland and Peter Schadermundt), but in 1950, they separated into Nowland & Schladermundt of New York, while Van Doren retained his own office in Philadelphia. In 1954, Philco introduced Van Doren’s design for the first refrigerator with a two-way opening door, with a "V" handle in the center that pulled either left or right. Upon his death in 1957, the firm was taken over by Harper Landell (1918-1997), his employee of ten years, and became known as Harper Landell & Associates until 1975.