Originally published in Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000, edited by Pat Kirkham. Published for The Bard Graduate Center for the studies in the Decorative Arts, New York. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. 269–290.

From the exhibition: Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference.

Women are mentioned only infrequently in histories of twentieth-century industrial design.1 They have played an important role in that history, however, whether as principles of their own firms, members of collaborative teams, or staff designers at major corporations. This essay traces the history of women’s participation in furniture, glass, and product design throughout the century, with emphasis on the education, training, and entry of women to the field. While their backgrounds and education vary widely, they are united by their status as a distinct minority in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Early in the century, women such as Lucia Kleinhaus Mathews and Madeline Yale Wynne came to the design and making of furniture through their involvement in the Arts and Crafts movement (see chaps. 2 and 12). Anna Wagner Keichline, however, was an architect who also designed products. As a child in Bellafonte, Pennsylvania, Keichline developed an interest in carpentry, winning a prize at the state fair in 1903 for her furniture design and construction at the age of fourteen. She studied architecture at Cornell University, graduating in 1911, and was the first woman listed as an architect in Pennsylvania. During a career in which she designed a number of public and private buildings and a new type of clay brick for hollow wall construction, Keichline also patented solutions to design problems in the home. Her innovative “Bed for Apartments” design (1929) proposed beds that folded up into a wall cabinet to save space during the day, and Keichline’s “Kitchen Construction” patent (1924) aimed “to provide a kitchen, the parts of which are designed as to involve the minimum amount of labor on the part of the housekeeper and to reduce the operative cost.”2 Keichline proposed glass-doored cabinets, easily accessible shelving, ample surfaces for food preparation, and the side-by-side arrangement of four stove burners (either gas or electric) for greater ease of use.

Design patents remain a largely untapped resource of information on women’s design activities. Over the course of the century, such patents granted to women increased from 3.2 to 13.1 percent.3 Those issued early in the century included designs for a meat or vegetable chopper, kitchen bin, linoleum, oil cloth or floor covering, and telephone, and an intriguing patent for an ornamental pedestal, which was granted to Charlotte Kohler, wife of plumbing manufacturer Walter J. Kohler in 1904 and was assigned to his firm.4 Educated at the University of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Art Institute, and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the newlywed Charlotte Kohler had brought her interest in design to her husband’s family business.5

Ilonka Karasz was one of the most important figures to answer the call for modern American design in the 1920s. Born in Budapest, where she attended the Royal School of Arts and Crafts, Karasz immigrated to the United States in 1913, settling in New York and quickly establishing a reputation as a designer, painter, and teacher.6 By the late 1920s, she was designing furniture, ceramics, and silver, often in a cubist, geometric style and was a key member of several organizations of influential artists and designers who sought to foster the development of modern decorative arts. The American Designers Gallery, formed to promote works exclusively by modern American designers, had its premier exhibition in 1928, consisting of ten furnished rooms, two of which were by Karasz.7 She was also a key member of the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (AUDAC), which featured Karasz’s work in each of its two exhibitions (1930 and 1931).

By 1930 Karasz’s reputation was such that when art critic C. Adolf Glassgold listed the nine American modern furniture designers he believed most worthy of recognition, Karasz was the only woman included.8 Even by the increasingly adventurous standards of the late 1920s, her work appeared innovative: her furniture for a show of “art in industry” at Macy’s, New York, in 1928 was described as “easily the most extreme” and “the most iconoclastic of any in the exhibition.”9 Some of Karasz’s inventive designs were for the nursery. Using primary colors and geometric shapes—in keeping with both Bauhaus-style modernism and current educational theory—she devised small-scale convertible furniture, including a tubular metal bassinet that converted to a perambulator, for Saks Fifth Avenue in 1935.10 That same year she expressed her philosophy of design: “not every problem in furniture design … is merely a practical one of employing the shortest and simplest means to a given end, as many modern designers seem to think. Functional design can satisfy one’s intellect and meet all the practical requirements, but it has no appeal for the emotions…. I believe that form and color should be so related in a useful object that besides serving its purpose it also arouses some feeling which results in a definite pleasure.”11

The late 1920s saw the emergence of industrial design as a distinct profession in the United States. The intense competition between companies created by the Depression led to an increased emphasis on visual form as an instrument to increase sales, and, as a result, the consulting or in-house industrial designer came to be regarded as playing an essential role in industrial production.12 In the early years of the profession, while men such as Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Norman Bel Geddes became famous by heading their own firms, working across media, and exploiting publicity, the pioneering Belle Kogan was the only woman to employ similar methods and achieve significant results. Kogan emigrated from Russia at the age of four. From an early age, she demonstrated an interest in art, and in her last year of high school in 1920, “An unexplained inspiration on the part of my high school art teacher induced her to have me study Mechanical Drawing.”13 Kogan was the only girl in the class. She credits this early training as “one of the factors of my ability to provide my clients with exact working drawings.”14 After graduation, Kogan taught the first-year mechanical drawing class at the school, while saving money to enter Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Forced to leave Pratt after her first semester to manage her father’s jewelry store and look after her seven siblings, for the next eight years she designed jewelry settings while attending the Art Students League in Manhattan, gaining experience in both business and design.15

Kogan’s independent design career began with a fortuitous chance meeting with the head of the Quaker Silver Company of Attleboro, Massachusetts, who hired her on a freelance basis to design pewter and silver items. Quaker paid for her to take a course at New York University in the summer of 1929 that “opened my eyes to the fact that design didn’t just happen. It had to be developed. I felt that it was wonderful, like a puzzle, all the parts fitted in: the business training, painting, color study, and my interest in mechanics, machinery and production problems.” Kogan’s father was eager for her to marry, but she had a different plan: “I said to my father, ‘Well, I’m going to have a career, goodbye …. I am never going to get married, and I’m never going to have children. I had a family all my life I helped raise. I helped you in business. I want a life of my own.’”16 In 1931 Kogan opened her first studio in New York City. She was one of the first industrial designers in America to experiment with plastics, and her early designs included celluloid toilet sets and clocks, a chrome-plated toaster with a plastic base, and Bakelite jewelry.17

Kogan faced strong opposition from a field unaccustomed to women designers. In a 1939 interview she admitted that “manufacturers were quite antagonistic when a woman came around proposing new ideas—they didn’t think a woman knew enough about the mechanical aspects of the situation. I had to prove I have a practical mind.”18 In one memorable episode, “[a] large company that manufactured large electrical appliances, such as washing machines, etc., wrote in answer to a letter of mine that I should come out to see them on my next trip to Ohio. They ignored the fact that my name was ‘Belle’ and addressed their letter to Mr. Bell Kogan. When I arrived, the shock was unbelievable; the engineers decided they couldn’t work with a woman. So I collected my fee of $200 plus expenses and left!”19

Kogan also had to deal with male clients who did not respect her personal boundaries: “I found the combination of living and working in the same place was very hard when you had a male client. I had to make a law for myself: no dinners with clients, and do not see them after six o’clock. I had a battle every time I went out with somebody.”20

Kogan’s firm, after several “cruelly discouraging years” in the early 1930s, grew steadily; by 1939 she had a staff of three women designers.21 “I believe that good design should keep the consumer happy and the manufacturer in the black,” proclaimed her promotional materials, and her designs, which ranged from historicizing to modern in their aesthetic, often proved exceedingly popular with both.22 By the time she closed her office in 1970, Kogan had designed for a wide range of clients, including Reed and Barton, Red Wing Pottery, Bausch and Lomb, Boonton Molding (for whom she designed popular lines of plastic dinnerware in the 1950s), Libbey Glass, and Dow Chemical. Throughout her career, Kogan made excellent use of publicity, speaking on television and radio, giving lectures and interviews, exhibiting her work frequently, and writing for both trade and consumer magazines on market trends, design, and the role of the industrial designer. Kogan was also an active participant in emerging professional organizations. She was a founding member of the New York chapter of the American Designers Institute (ADI) in the late 1930s, the first industrial design organization in the country, which evolved into the Industrial Designers Institute (IDI) in 1951. In 1994 the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) awarded her its Personal Recognition Award.23

In the first half of the century, women influenced industrial design not only as consultant designers, but also as staff designers with major manufacturers and retailers. When industrial giant Montgomery Ward decided to redesign and modernize their products they hired Anne Swainson.24 Born in Sweden, she had studied fine and applied arts at Columbia University, New York, and taught textile design and applied arts at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1920s (where her pupils included textile designer Dorothy Liebes). Swainson then worked as director of design for Chase Brass and Copper, where her department included a number of women designers.25 She relocated to Chicago in 1931 to establish the bureau of design at Montgomery Ward, initially supervising a staff of fifteen to twenty designers, which increased to thirty-two by 1935 (eighteen product designers and fourteen packaging designers). Swainson’s staff redesigned products ranging from tires, arc welders, and radios, to toasters, flatware, and other housewares. In addition to these duties, they also overhauled the company’s mail-order catalogue, simplifying its layout, typography, and logos. Few designs can be traced to Swainson’s own hand, but Sheldon and Martha Cheney acknowledged the importance of her work to the field in their influential 1936 book, Art and the Machine.26

Ellen Manderfield was one of the designers employed by Swainson at Montgomery Ward. A Chicago native, Manderfield joined her father in woodworking projects as a child, but when she announced her interest in designing furniture, “My father advised me that that was not a profession for a woman.”27 Directed toward commercial art instead, Manderfield earned a BFA at Mundelein College of Loyola University, then received a scholarship to a commercial art school. Completing her studies in 1939, she worked for the next six years as a graphic and packaging designer. Determined to move into industrial design work, she obtained a job at the Colonial Radio Corporation (later Sylvania), where she supervised a staff of seven and designed televisions, record players, and radios, including early experimental prototypes for pocket and portable radios. From 1947 to 1951 she worked under Swainson on sewing machines, accordions, bathroom fixtures, lawn mowers, and various appliances. Five years in the industrial design department at General Electric in Syracuse followed, designing cabinets for electronic equipment and televisions, and commuting to Chicago to visit her husband. Her work from these years ran the full range of postwar American taste, from “early American” to Scandinavian Modern. In 1956 she was offered a position with the prestigious Donald Deskey firm in New York City, but instead chose to work at Oneida Silversmiths, where, until her retirement in 1986, she designed silver and stainless steel flatware, hollowware, and plastic dishware; ultimately more than two hundred of her flatware patterns were put into production. Her “Omni” design for simple contemporary stainless steel flatware was placed in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1979.28 Like Kogan, Manderfield was active in the new professional organizations. An early member of IDI, she founded the Syracuse chapter in 1953 and was the first woman member accepted to the newly formed American Society of Industrial Designers (ASID) in 1957.29 Almost forty years later, she was also the first woman to receive the IDSA Personal Recognition Award (in 1992).30

In the early years of the industrial design field, women (like their male colleagues) tended to obtain art and design training from a wide variety of sources, some more directly related to the developing field than others. By the 1930s, however, educational institutions began to address the need for more formal programs, and access to such programs facilitated some women’s entry into the field. In 1936, the first graduating class of five students at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, the first school in the United States to offer a bachelor’s degree in industrial design, included three women: Marylou Henkison, Jane Thompson, and Maud Bowers (Rice).31 Students took courses in industrial design, production methods, industrial processes, model making, and drawing, and female students excelled within the program. Bowers, for example, won prizes in design competitions for a cigarette holder for Kensingtonware, an Alcoa subsidiary, and a water heater for the Pittsburgh Water Heater Company.32 Some female graduates went on to design careers, like Irene Pasinski, who began a consulting office, and Marion Costa, who designed for J. C. Penney. Many, however, like Bowers, took on familial responsibilities, and did not practice as professional designers.

The Cranbrook Academy of Art, founded in 1932 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, did not at first attract many design students. But in the years just before World II—in what would come to be known as Cranbrook’s “golden moment”—it attracted a circle of students and faculty that would have a major impact on American product design. Several of these influential figures were women. Eva Lisa (Pipsan) Saarinen was the daughter of Eliel Saarinen (Cranbrook’s director) and Loja Saarinen (director of the weaving and textile sign department). Pipsan had studied design at the University of Helsinki before the family’s move to Michigan in 1923. Her first important projects were interiors for her father’s architectural commissions,33 and she taught Cranbrook’s first formal class on contemporary furniture design. In 1926 she married J. Robert F. Swanson, an architect, and opened a contemporary interior design department in her husband’s firm. After years of producing custom furniture for their clients, she and her husband convinced the Johnson Furniture Company to introduce their F.H.A. (Flexible Home Arrangement) line of functional and flexible furniture in 1939. After the war, they developed coordinated products to complement their furniture, enlisting sixteen manufacturers to produce the new designs. Pipsan Swanson supervised the color and design coordination of the project. She also designed printed textiles, lamps for Mutual Sunset Lamp Company, metalware for Cray of Boston, and glassware for the U.S. Glass Company of Ohio. The latter firm, in 1948, commissioned her to prepare all their major designs.34 In the mid-1940s the Swansons formed the firm of Swanson Associates, and in 1957, Pipsan was awarded the Louise Bolender Woman of the Year award for “outstanding contribution to the Home Furnishings Industry.”35

Another “Cranbrook woman” was Florence Schust (Knoll), who was orphaned at an early age and sent to the Kingswood School for girls, which was part of the Cranbrook educational community (and featured interiors by Pipsan Swanson).36 Schust enrolled at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1934 and attended intermittently until the end of the decade, leaving for periods of study at the Columbia University School of Architecture and the Architectural Association in London. During these years, she was informally adopted by Eliel and Loja Saarinen. In 1940 she worked at the architectural firm of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before studying architecture under Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute (later the Illinois Institute of Technology). In 1941 she relocated to New York, where she met Hans Knoll, a German immigrant who had recently founded a furniture company. Schust began to moonlight for the struggling firm, and in 1946, Hans and Florence were married and Knoll Associates was founded, with Hans as president and Florence as vice president of what would rapidly become one of the most important modern design companies in the United States.37

Florence Knoll created and directed Knoll’s design program, becoming best known for her work as an interior designer, but also developing a wide range of furniture. However, she consistently downplayed the latter aspect of her career: “People ask me if I am a furniture designer. I am not. I never really sat down and designed furniture, I designed the fill-in pieces no one else was doing. I designed sofas because no one was designing sofas.”38 She created, she insisted, merely “the background pieces that make a room quiet and peaceful.” Nevertheless, by the early 1960s, her furniture accounted for more than half of the pieces in the Knoll catalogue,39 and today those “background pieces” are highly sought-after products of mid-century modernism.

Knoll’s designs from the 1940s included wooden stacking tables and stools intended for domestic interiors40; by the early 1950s the company’s involvement in corporate interiors focused her attention on design of desks, conference tables, and storage cabinets, all of which were consistent favorites at the Good Design exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.41 In 1955 Knoll introduced her Parallel Bar System, which included a lounge chair, sofa, settee, and occasional tables, supported by frames of intersecting metal supports.42 Like all of her work, the line was distinguished by Bauhaus-influenced functionalism and rigid geometry, rigorous attention to detail, and careful articulation of component parts. Although Florence Knoll sold the company in 1959 and resigned as president soon afterwards, she remained a consultant and continued to contribute furniture designs until her retirement in 1965.43

Ray and Charles Eames have been called “the most influential American furniture designers of this century.”44 Ray Kaiser was born in Sacramento and moved to New York in 1931, where she studied with Hans Hofmann (from 1933 to 1939) and became a founding member of American Abstract Artists, a progressive group of artists with whom she exhibited her paintings and sculptures.45 In 1940 she began classes as Cranbrook, where she met Charles Eames, an architect and designer who had come to the school in 1938 on a fellowship and been made an instructor of industrial design.46 Ray’s collaboration with Charles began almost immediately and only ended with his death in 1978; in their first project together she assisted Charles and Eero Saarinen with the submission of their entry for a MoMA-sponsored competition in 1940 for low-cost furniture (their bent plywood designs eventually won first prize in two catagories).47

The Eameses married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles, where they continued to work with molded compound-curved plywood, producing leg splints for the U.S. Navy, and prototypes for furniture and sculptures. A commercial breakthrough came in 1946, when MoMA featured their chairs, tables, screens, and storage units in an exhibition; that same year, the Herman Miller Furniture Company, initiating an enduring association with the Eameses, began to mass-produce several of the designs. Their molded plywood lounge chair, the “LCW,” with its graceful curves and sense of floating planes, quickly became an icon of twentieth-century modernism as did other plywood items produced at this time.48 Ensuing designs were equally innovative, from both an aesthetic and technological perspective. A series of chairs begun in 1948–50 pioneered the use of molded fiberglass and were ultimately produced in vast numbers and widely imitated. Other notable designs of the 1950s included wire-mesh chairs, a plywood-shell lounge and ottoman, and aluminum furniture. The Eameses’s mass-produced designs became ubiquitous in domestic settings as well as institutional and public spaces.

Although the central roles played by both of the Eameses in the development of their designs is now generally accepted, during their years together Charles was the “public face of the partnership,” and the one who overwhelmingly received credit for the designs of the firm.49 Design commentators frequently denied Ray the credit she was due (even when Charles himself emphasized that Ray was “equally responsible with me for everything”), partly because of contemporary gender bias around creativity and aesthetics.50

While Florence Knoll and Ray Eames were more innovative as designers, Freda Diamond had a greater impact on the postwar American home. In 1954 Life stated that Diamond had “probably done more to get simple, well-styled furnishings into every room of the average U.S. home than any other designer,” while the New York Times claimed that she “exerts more influence on the taste of the average home furnishings consumer than any other individual in the United States.”51 The daughter of a New York City costume designer, Diamond studied decorative design at the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union and then worked for William Baumgarten, a top furniture store in New York, where her first assignment was to design a house for Barbara Hutton’s dog.52 Finding the atmosphere “‘too rarified,’” and hoping “to do something real,” she moved to the furnishings department of Stern Brothers department store, and six years later, in the late 1930s, she set up her own design consultancy.53 Diamond described her entry to the profession as a struggle: “It was an uphill battle all the way …. The business was predominantly male at that time.”54

In the late 1930s Diamond designed furniture in primarily traditional styles for Herman Miller.55 Her most important professional affiliation, however, was with Libbey Glass. In 1942 she and Virginia Hamill were hired as consultants, and in an approach that was extremely innovative at the time, Diamond undertook a year-long nationwide survey to determine consumer preference in glassware. Conducting interviews in twenty-five cities, she determined the price level, style, and packaging methods that would appeal to the largest market.56 Her first glass designs went into production after World War II, and before long her low-priced glasses, which ranged from cut crystal wineglasses to plain tumblers decorated with whimsical circus scenes, were selling in the millions.57 She remained a consultant to Libbey until 1987. The success of her Libbey designs, and the use of her name and image in publicity and advertisements relating to them, rapidly established her as an internationally known arbiter of American style. In 1945 she visited Italy under the auspices of Handicraft Development, a nonprofit organization set up by Italian Americans to help rehabilitate postwar Italy by supplying tools, equipment, and direction to Italian designers and craftsmen.58 In 1957 she visited Japan as a technical advisor to the Japanese government, which hoped to adapt Japanese designs for the American market.39

Diamond never abandoned her faith in the ability of market research to determine consumer preferences; as a result, her designs remained relatively conservative. She concluded early on that “period decoration has ingratiated itself into the mind of the public too deeply to be discarded lightly by designers,” and so sough to combine “the best features … of the traditional and modern” in “liveable pieces” that she felt suited any home.60 Although a few of her designs were sufficiently minimal to receive the stamp of approval of the pro-modernist Museum of Modern Art (such as her “Classic” shape of 1949, which was featured in the Good Design exhibition of 1950), most of her pieces were more decorative. Diamond consistently positioned herself, however, as a “crusader for good taste in low-priced accessories and furniture,” creating designs that were an alternative to both gaudy inexpensive items and high-style designer goods.61

While other designers, such as Diamond, might include lamps among their various design projects, Swedish-born Greta von Nessen specialized in lighting alone.62 A graduate of the School for Industrial Arts in Stockholm, she came to America with her designer husband, Walter, in 1925 and established Nessen Studio in New York in 1927 for the design and manufacture of modern lamps and lighting fixtures.63 With Walter’s death in 1943, von Nessen closed the studio until 1945, when she began to introduce lamps of her own design, including several that were featured in Good Design exhibitions at MoMA. Her most ingenious and versatile creation, the “Anywhere” lamp (1952), could be hung, mounted on a wall, or used as a table lamp.64

Von Nessen’s counterpart on the West Coast was Greta Magnusson Grossman, another Swedish immigrant, who had moved to California with her husband in 1941.65 Grossman had studies industrial design in Stockholm, specializing in furniture, textiles, and metalwork, and had apprenticed for a year to a cabinetmaker before opening her own firm in Stockholm in 1933. From the beginning, she viewed her training in craft as central to her work as a designer; in 1951 she defended her technical skills: “The old idea that women are not good at mechanical work is stuff and nonsense. The only advantage a man has in furniture design is his greater physical strength.”66

After settling in Los Angeles, Grossman was hired as an interior design consultant by Barker Brothers’ department store, a “wonderfully alive and progressive organization,” which provided her with an opportunity to create her own custom-designed furniture and, by the late 1940s, mounted exhibitions of her furniture, textiles, and lighting.67 Such exposure provided her with a national reputation, and contributed to the success of her own firm, which was headquartered in her Beverly Hills studio/home. By the early 1950s she was designing for mass production by various California manufacturers, creating lines of light, functional furniture, made of wood, metal, and plastic laminate. Her lamps, which relied on the reflection of light and often incorporated shallow domelike shades on flexible arms, were among her most successful designs.68

Despite the postwar prominence of a small number of woman designers, there were still few women, in the industrial design field at midcentury. In the early 1950s, the society of Industrial Designers (whose membership included such prominent designers as Donald Deskey, Henry Dreyfuss, and Russel Wright), had only one female member, Peggy Ann Rohde, who had continued the firm of her husband, Gilbert Rohde, after his death.69 In 1964 the dearth of women prompted I.D., the chief journal of the industrial design field, to inquire into the state of women in the profession: “What happens to girls who graduate from industrial design courses? They marry designers and withdraw from the profession says one designer; and although many of them do … many do not.”70 The article singled out Belle Kogan, Freda Diamond, and Florence Knoll as proof that women could make “outstanding designers,” but speculated that, while men and women might have the same innate ability to design, “girls may not be encouraged to develop the technical skills and tenacity necessary to a successful design career.”71 The article went on to note that women designers suffered the same discrimination as women in other fields, citing the report of the Commission on the Status of Women, which identified employers’ fears that female employees would move in and out of the workplace more often than their male counterparts and create problems for male employees unaccustomed to a female supervisor. Despite such impediments, however, I.D. concluded that “more women are finding their way into design than ever before, and many believe firmly that this trend is right and good.”

The same article cited Goertz Industrial Design, a firm employing no women designers, but who hoped that a woman designer’s “distinctly feminine approach” would “bring a fresh look to the consumer products Goertz designs.” Another design professional expressed disappointment that the work of women designers emerging from design schools was not noticeably “feminine” but rather had acquired a “masculine stamp.” The persistent notion that women would bring a unique perspective to design was expressed by several midcentury women designers as well. Ellen Manderfield felt that women industrial designers benefited the “feminine consumer.”72 And both Freda Diamond and Belle Kogan obtained contracts by, in Kogan’s words, “persuading manufacturers that a woman designer … knew what women wanted.”73 When companies did hire women designers largely for their “feminine” sensibilities, their work was simultaneously encouraged and circumscribed by a contemporary understanding of gender’s influence on aesthetics.

During the 1940s and 1950s General Motors’ vice-president of styling, Harley Earl, actively recruited women designers, although women had been involved in auto design earlier in the century. Helen Dryden, a graphic, set, and packaging designer, for example, designed the interior of the 1937 Studebaker.74 Thanks to Earl’s hiring initiatives, significant numbers of women designers entered the industry, and at GM they became known as the “Damsels of Design,” often participating in company promotions, such as television appearances, photo opportunities, and public lectures. Earl described the women as “tuned specifically to the woman driver’s problems … strong advocates of the six-way seat for greater comfort and visibility … always on the lookout for anything in cars that might snag their nylons.”75 Suzanne Vanderbilt, one of the “Damsels,” later recalled her frustration: “We had terrific exposure—I’m sure for GM it was good exposure too … [but] what distressed most of us was that we could never be identified as just designers. We were always ‘les femmes’ or we were ‘the female designers’ … [even though] as designers we designed the same as the men did.”76

A student of interior design at Pratt Institute during Alexander and Rowena Kostellow’s tenure there, Vanderbilt was encouraged by Rowena Kostellow to work for GM, rather than pursue a traditional apprenticeship: “[she] did talk to about four of us, four women, and she really convinced us. She said why get caught up in a little town in Massachusetts, polishing someone else’s silverware and their design for many years until you are able to get onto the design end of something.”77 In 1955 Vanderbilt relocated to Michigan to work in the automotive interior design area of the GM Tech Center with fellow graduates Jan Krebbs and Ruth Glennie. The same year Jayne Van Alstyne, a 1945 Pratt graduate, also joined GM, where she worked on automotive, appliance, and kitchen design.78 Another Pratt graduate, Dagmar Arnold, joined them shortly after, also working on appliance and kitchen design.79 Arnold later worked for IBM, from 1968 until her retirement in 1993, designing computer products such as keyboards and scanners.

Vanderbilt spent twenty-three years at GM, working in several automotive divisions, including Chevrolet, Cadillac, and the advanced automotive studio. She also pursued an MFA in metalsmithing at Cranbrook in 1963–65, with the hope of working on automotive exteriors, but persistent gender bias kept her out of this area. Despite such setbacks, she rose through the company’s ranks, ultimately being appointed chief designer of Chevrolet Interior II, supervising interior design of the smaller car lines, including Nova and Camaro. In the early 1970s, Vanderbilt also coordinated interiors for commercial vehicles, including semis and tractors. She recalled, “there were some resentments …. You just were again in a man’s world. Now, here we are—we were bad enough in cars, now we’re in trucks!”80 Throughout her career, Vanderbilt tried to expand the range of automotive interior fabrics, frequently drawing inspiration from developments in other, more “feminine” industries.81

I.D., in their 1964 look at women designers, cited Lucia DeRespinis as an example of the new generation of women designers who countered stereotypes by remaining active in the field after marriage. Trained at Pratt (1950–52), where she had Eva Zeisel and Rowena Kostellow as instructors and was one of only three women students in the industrial design program (as opposed to sixty-five men), she first worked designing appliances, such as televisions, radios, and air conditioners. Like Belle Kogan earlier, DeRespinis encountered reactions of surprise to her sex: “I would always have to go to the factory … and because I was … probably the only woman that they’d practically ever seen that came in at this level—someone looked at me and said, ‘I thought your name as Lucio or Lucien.’ But I really got to understand how to work with groups of men.”82 From 1956 to 1963, she was a designer for George Nelson Associates, the only woman industrial designer in the office. There she worked on a wide variety of projects, from glassware and metalware to interiors, including the American display at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. DeRespinis’s contributions to Nelson’s line of modern clocks for the Howard Miller Clock Company were distinguished by their inventiveness and elegance. From the 1960s through the 1980s, she worked on a freelance basis for a number of companies, designing china, interiors for fast food restaurants, trade shows, and packaging.

Elsie Crawford was born in New York City, where she attended the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (later Parsons Schools of Design) in the 1920s before moving into a career as an exhibit and window display designer.83 In the late 1930s she and her future husband, architect Victor Gruenbaum, founded a firm in New York that focused on the design of store fronts and interiors; in 1941 they relocated to California where a burgeoning market was developing. Crawford moved into freelance product design in the 1950s and in 1962 attracted attention with a line of massive but movable sculptural planters for the beautification of urban area such as malls and parking lots, which were followed by a series of award-winning combined seating units/planters in fiberglass.84 Her large hanging “Zipper” lamps of 1965 combined a playful modern aesthetic with structural innovation, qualities typical of her work.85 Crawford’s “Zoo Collection” of wooden children’s furniture/play equipment from the late 1960s and her line of known-down furniture from the mid-1970s used small numbers of basic components to create a variety of combinations. “I think seeking out the most from the least has always been my biggest challenge and my most satisfying experience,” she explained.86

Frances and Michael Higgins, a husband-wife team, were pioneers of both American studio glass and mass-production pieces. Frances attended the Georgia State College for Women and then taught art until she was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to the Chicago Institute of Design, where she met Michael Higgins who was head of visual design. Married in 1948, they left the Institute and began to experiment with glass techniques first developed by Frances m 1942.87 As Higgins Handcrafted Glass, they produced a line of more than one hundred different trays, plates, bowls, and accessories in their Illinois studio, and by 1950 their creations were selling through major department stores. From 1957 to 1965, Dearborn Glass Company produced several of the Higgins’ line. For the most of their joint career, they signed their work simply “higgins.” “Frances and I work as a joint design-personality,” explained Michael. “Our ideas have so blended that we can’t always tell which pieces are hers and which are mine.”88

Lella Valle (Vignelli) exhibited an early interest in design, encouraged by her architect father, with whom she attended an urban planning convention in 1951, where she met her future husband, Massimo Vignelli. She and Massimo studied architecture at the University of Venice, married, and opened their first design studio in Milan in 1960. They moved to the United States in 1965 and established Vignelli Associates in 1971, a consulting firm that has designed corporate identities, furniture, glassware, and showrooms for clients ranging from Bloomingdale’s to American Airlines to the New York City Transit Authority, which runs the subway system. Their dramatic plastic tableware, best known as “Hellerware” (and previously marketed as “Compact” and “Max I”), was designed in white and a rainbow of colors and stacked cleverly for storage and presentation. Their partnership has evolved over forty years. The interchange of ideas has always been intense, but in the early years there was more of a competitive edge between them than there is now. As Lella explained, “It came late—it has been in the last ten to fifteen years that we have really established a way of working easily with each other, in which we require each other’s best qualities. We are complementary and we are lucky because we push in the same direction.”89 She also noted, “I have always been more involved with three-dimensional design … furniture, tableware, objects, and jewelry—product design without getting into mechanical things.”

Lisa Krohn, who explored narrative design as part of Cranbrook Academy’s graduate program in three-dimensional design in the 1980s, won wide acclaim with her first project, a telephone with answering machine. Krohn describes the telephone as “in some ways one of the most conservative things I’ve ever done—it was trafficking in the tradition of product design as it had developed through the rationalism of the 1970s, with metaphorical reference to a book.”90 Krohn’s approach to design involves two dominant concepts: “prosthesis” and “icon,” both of which address form and function.

During the 1970s, women continued to shape the design field from within evolving corporate design structures. An industrial design consultant at Sears Roebuck from 1977 to 1988, Nancy Perkins appreciated the benefits of working in a large-scale retail environment: “You see the entire process, from the manufacture to the selling floor. Often we would observe focus groups from behind the glass to hear feedback on our designs. I developed a deeper understanding of consumer preferences and behavior.”91 While at Sears, Perkins designed a wide variety of products, from lawn sprinklers to automotive batteries. Her work cut across traditional gender divides: “At the same time that I was designing automotive testing equipment, I was designing vacuum cleaners. The whole question of gender came into play—timing lights weren’t something I was familiar with, but a vacuum cleaner was something many people would assume I was used to.”92 Now a principal in a California design firm, Perkins and Gard, Perkins maintains diversity in the projects she takes on, which range from housewares to air-conditioning and heating equipment to transportation design.

The field of industrial design demonstrates an appalling lack of ethnic diversity. In 1963, in response to the racist bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, I.D. magazine posed the question, “Is Industrial Design Color Blind?”93 Only one African American woman was discussed, Brooklyn-born Madeline Ward, then a student at Parsons School of Design, New York. Ironically, the authors concluded there were too few African American designers in the field to evaluate whether or not employers maintained discriminatory practices.

Carole Bilson, an African American designer for the Eastman Kodak Company with twenty years of experience in the industry, remembered meeting only a handful of minority women designers.94 A University of Michigan graduate with majors in industrial and graphic design, Bilson demonstrated an interest in design from a young age. As a child she knew a local carpenter and “used to love to draw and design things and take them to him and ask him to make them for me.” Since joining Eastman Kodak in 1980 she has designed a wide range of products, including copier products, consumer products, medical products, and health-imaging devices. As a program manager of eight camera lines with revenues of $120 million and as holder of several patents, Bilson is committed to fostering opportunities for junior staff: “I mentor women, men, groups of diverse people. Because I remember when I was young, first out of college, I had a lot of questions and I didn’t have anyone I could ask.” Bilson’s participation in the founding of two of the first employee networks at Kodak—Network North Star for African American employees and the Women’s Forum of Eastman Kodak employees—reflects her multifaceted identity as an African American woman designer. “I think that whenever you are the first or the only one, you’re noticeable,” she stated. “You can’t help but stand out. That can be an opportunity or a detriment. It’s an opportunity in that it’s a chance to get noticed, if you do a good job, but the flipside is that there’s a lot of pressure on you to always be at your best. Lurking in the back of my mind I realize that like it or not, I’m a role model. I’m paving the road for others who follow.”95

In the 1980s and 1990s, even though more women designers moved into corporate America, many still faced a male-dominated arena. Jill Shurtleff, a designer with Gillette since 1984, recalled: “When I first came to Gillette, never mind being the only woman designer, I was the only female professional on my floor for years—and that included designers, engineers, and business people.”96 A specialist in personal care products, Shurtleff has redesigned several razor lines for Gillette, including Trac II, Agility, and most importantly, the “Sensor for Women,” which debuted in 1992. Seeking a razor form that addressed women’s shaving needs, Shurtleff developed a flat, wide handle for the Sensor model that allowed one’s fingers to change positions during use. The striking design, which has accounted for an estimated $1.5 billion in sales for Gillette, has also attracted many women who previously purchased disposable razors, making it environmentally friendly as well.97 The Sensor for Women recently won a prestigious Gold Design of the Decade Award, and at the awards ceremony, Shurtleff was “struck by how few women stood on stage to accept awards. Out of the thirty-six awards, maybe three went to women; and I was the only woman who spoke.”98

Although the women’s sports gear market has been thriving since the fitness-conscious 1980s, the Timex Rush line of sports watches by industrial designer Judy Reichel Riley was the first to be designed both inside and out with the female consumer in mind.99 In order to address the specific needs of women sports enthusiasts and athletes, Timex formed a unique project development team that included Riley and two members of the marketing staff, Kirsti Karpawich (the project leader) and Susie Watson (a former triathlete). Drawing on the input of focus groups comprised of potential female consumers, the team avoided scaling down the typical men’s sports watch, with its myriad functions, and focused on those that most women actually used. Ultimately, two watches were produced, the streamlined Timex Rush geared to the fitness enthusiast, and the more complex Timex Rush VO2 for the competitive athlete or team sport participant.

Ayse Birsel’s most recent project, the Resolve system for Herman Miller, has captured the attention of the industry and the media.100 Herman Miller wanted an elegant, contemporary office system that would cost less than Bob Propst’ s iconic Action Office II cubicle system, which debuted in 1968. Seeking to improve the flow of air, light, and data communication through the workplace, Birsel developed a pole and panel system designed for optimum flexibility. Birsel counters stereotypical visions of women’s roles in her native Turkey, suggesting that it is women in the American business world who have a long road ahead: “I have found many more female CEOs running industrial companies in Turkey than I have encountered elsewhere.”101

Throughout the twentieth century, women remained a small minority of industrial designers in the United States. Despite their number, however, they had a considerable impact on design, creating many of the products of everyday American life as well as designs that have become international classics. In the twenty-first century, their achievements are certain to increase as the percentage of women industrial designers climbs. Trends in recent decades indicate that the historical gender imbalance in the field is finally beginning to shift. While women represented only about one percent in 1974, this increased to seven percent in 1986, and jumped again to nineteen percent by 1999.102 In addition the 1990s saw the formation of the Association of Women Industrial Designers (AWID), which was established with the goal of “facilitating access to design talent, networking and social interaction” for its members, as well as “enriching the growing public awareness of women industrial designers—past, present and on the horizon.”103 “There is much to be said for the industrial design profession,” wrote Ellen Manderfield, looking back on her long career in 1978, “and there is room for the feminine touch—with a sincere approach and the right attitude, one can go far.”104 The women who today follow in the footsteps of Manderfield and her colleagues inherit a remarkable legacy from these trailblazing predecessors.

1.See Pulos, American Design Adventure (1988); and Votolato, American Design (1998).

2.Anna Wagner Keichline, “Bed for Apartments,” patent no. 1,736,653 (19 November 1929); “Kitchen Construction,” patent no. 1,612,730 (28 December 1926).

3.The figure for 1900 is based on United States Patent and Trademarks Office records, and for 1995 is from Buttons to Biotech (1998).

4.Viola E. Kent, “Design for a Meat or Vegetable Chopper,” patent no. 33,328 (9 October 1900); Hermena Kessler, “Design for a Kitchen-Bin,” patent no. 37,689 (21 November 1905); Martha H. Solms, “Design for Linoleum, Oil-cloth, or Floor-covering,” patent no. 47,346 (11 May 1915); Sarah Lord Murphy, “Design for a Telephone Appliance,” patent no. 48,444 (11 January 1916); Charlotte S. Kohler, “Pedestal,” patent no. 37,542; (12 September 1905), assigned to J. M. Kohler and Sons.

5.“Charlotte S. Kohler” [obituary], Kohler of Kohler News (March 1947); and biographical sketch, Kohler Corporate Archives, Kohler, Wisconsin.

6.See Davies, At Home in Manhattan (1983): 10–12, 27.

7.Ibid., p. 90.

8.Glassgold, “Some Modern Furniture Designers” (February 1930): 214.

9.Stanford, “International Exhibit of Modern Art” (July 1928): 19, cited in Brown, “Ilonka Karasz” (2000–2001): n. 38. See also Storey, “Latest Art-In-Industry Exhibition” (27 May 1928): 19.

10.Tachau, “Modern Ideas” (September 1935): 292.

11.Anderson, “Contemporary American Designers” (December 1935): 87.

12.Heskett, Industrial Design (1980): 105.

13.Meikle, Twentieth Century Limited (1979): esp. chap. 3. Quotation from “The New Industrial Designers,” in Belle Kogan Design, 1930–1972: Retrospective Exhibition (Israel: The Center for Technological Education, [1972]): unpaginated, Banet Collection.

14.“New Industrial Designers” [1972]: unpaginated, Banet Collection.

15.Rice, “Belle Kogan Remembers” (1994): 33.

16.Ibid., p. 36.

17.Babbitt, “As a Woman Sees Design” (1935): 14.

18.Jane Corby, “Smart Girls,” Brookyln Eagle (26 July 1939): page unknown, Banet Collection.

19.Belle Kogan Design [1972]: unpaginated, Banet Collection.

20.Rice, “Belle Kogan Remembers” (1994): 39.

21.Jane Corby, “Smart Girls,” Brooklyn Eagle (26 July 1939): page unknown, Banet Collection. In 1933 Kogan had hired her first design-trained employee, Madeline Masters (“Belle Kogan Remembers” [1994]: 39). Kogan was later cited as one of the few industrial designers to have employed an African American designer; see “Is Industrial Design Color Blind?” (1963): 83–84.

22.Belle Kogan Associates brochure, mid-1960s, Banet Collection.

23.Rice, “Belle Kogan Remembers” (1994): 34–35; and remarks at IDSA awards ceremony, Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan, 17 August 1994, transcribed by Bernard A. Banet, Banet Collection.

24.Anne Swainson (1994).

25.Women designers at Chase included Helen Bishop Dennis, Sarah Lieberman, and Ruth Gerth, about whom little is known. See Johnson Chase Complete (1999): 27–29.

26.Cheney and Cheney, Art and the Machine (1936/1992): 250.

27.Ellen Manderfield, “Summary of Professional Activities,” 13 April 1978, p. 1, in the Manderfield file, Industrial Design Archive, George Arents Research Library for Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

28.Ellen Manderfield, “Design Contributions,” January 1983, p. 1–5, typescript, in ibid.

29.Manderfield, “Summery of Professional Activities” (1978): 3, in ibid.

30.“Ellen Manderfield” (1999–2000): 6.

31.Information about Carnegie graduates is taken from Lesko, “Industrial Design at Carnegie Institute” (1997): 269–92; and for interview with Maud Bowers, see ibid., pp. 274–79.

32.Goddess in the Details (1994): 11; for Bower’s water heater, see Lesko, “Industrial Design at Carnegie Institute” (1997): 276.

33.R. Craig Miller, “Interior Design and Furniture,” in Clark, ed., Design in America (1983): 273, 306n.73

34.Fedderson, Scandinavians in Michigan, vol. 1 (1968): 85, 86–87.

35.Ibid., p. 89.

36.For Schust Knoll biography see Oedekoven-Gerischer et al., Frauen im Design (1989): 132; and “Biographies of the Artists,” in Clark, ed., Design in America (1983): 270.

37.Larrabee and Vignelli; Knoll Design (1981): 19.

38.Ibid., p. 77.

39.Cliff, “Gallery 4,” (1961): 66, 71.

40.“Eight Solutions” (1948): 108–11.

41.Arguably the defining moments of midcentury modern design, the Good Design exhibitions sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Merchandise Mart of Chicago from 1950 to 1954 featured “a selection of the best progressive design in home furnishings newly available during the year to the American consuming public.” See Terance Riley and Edward Eigen, “Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design,” in Elderfield, ed., Museum of Modern Art (1994): 150–79.

42.R. Craig Miller, “Interior Design and Furniture,” in Clark, ed., Design in America (1983): 134. The “Parallel Bar” system was being publicized in 1956; see, e.g., Art and Architecture (March 1956): 36.

43.Janet Chusmir, “Florence Bassett’s World on Display,” Miami Herald (12 March 1972): sec. 8L.

44.R. Craig Miller, “Interior Design and Furniture,” in Clark, ed., Design in America (1983): 122.

45.Neuhart, Neuhart, and Eames, Eames Design (1989): 22–23; Eidelberg, ed., What Modern Was (1991): 371.

46.R. Craig Miller, “Interior Design and Furniture,” in Clark, ed., Design in America (1983): 108, 268.

47.Eidelberg, ed., What Modern Was (1991): 371.

48.The year 1946 also saw the introduction of the “DCW” (a dining-chair version of the “LCW”), the “LCM” and “DCM” (metal-framed variations on the “LCW” and “DCW”), the “FSW” (a folding screen in wood), and a variety of plywood tables; see Neuhart, Neuhart, and Eames, Eames Design (1989): 72–80.

49.Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames (1995): 83.

50.Quotation from ibid., p. 82.

51.“Designers for Everybody” (April 1954): 69; Musselman, “Designing Woman” (1995): 30.

52.Josephine Di Lorenzo, “Clever Gal Has Design to Thank for Her Living,” [New York] Sunday News (25 February 1951): M10; Musselman, “Designing Woman” (1995): 27.

53.Musselman, “Designing Woman” (1995): 27.

54.Josephine Di Lorenzo, “Clever Gal Has Design to Thank for Her Living,” [New York] Sunday News (25 February 1951): M10.

55.Diamond, “Coordination Starts at Home” (October 1946): 45.

56.“Libbey Studies Post-War Designs” (November 1944): 48.

57.“In Memoriam … Freda Diamond” [obituary], Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorators Newsletter (February 1998): 8.

58.People, Interiors (August 1945): 98.

59.“Designs for Living in America” (February 1958): 43.

60.Clipping from Furnishings Merchandising (February 1945), Company Scrapbook, Freda Diamond Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

61.“Designers for Everybody” (April 1954): 69.

62.Hiesinger and Marcus, Design Since 1945 (1983): 224.

63.Furniture Forum 4, no. 1 (February 1953): unpaginated.

64.Hiesinger and Marcus, Design Since 1945 (1983): 224; for other examples of her winning designs, see also the Good Design exhibition catalogues produced by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1950–54.

65.Biographical details from Henderson, “Swedish Furniture Designer” (1951): 55; “Newsreel” Interiors (November 1943): 54.

66.Henderson, “Swedish Furniture Designer” (1951): 54.

67.Ibid., pp. 55–57.

68.See e.g., “Furniture and Lamps by Greta Magnusson Grossman” (1950): 30.

69.Society of Industrial Designers, U.S. Industrial Design (1951); “Faithful Helpmates” (1945): 56–57.

70.Carpenter, “Statement: The Designing Woman” (1964): 72.

71.Ibid., p. 73.

72.Ellen Manderfield, “Summary of Professional Activities,” 13 April 1978, p. 1, in the Manderfield file, Industrial Design Archive, George Arents Research Library for Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

73.“Woman of the Month,” Today’s Woman (25 January 1946), clipping in the Banet Collection.

74.Linz, Art Desco Chrome (1999). Another early woman auto designer was Betty Thatcher, who joined Hudson in 1939. See Lamm and Holls, Century of Automotive Style (1997): 192–93.

75.Earl quoted in “Woman Play Prominent Part in GM Car Styling,” New Center News, 27 May 1957, clipping in the Van Alstyne Collection, Cranbrook Academy of Art Archives. See also Goddess in the Details (1994): 14–21.

76.Suzanne Vanderbilt interviewed by Dave Crippin, Edsel B. Ford Design History Center, 22 April 1986, West Bloomfield, Michigan, transcript in the Vanderbilt Collection, Cranbrook Academy of Art Archives.


78.Goddess in the Details (1994): 18–19.

79.Erika Doering, “Dagmar Arnold” [obituary] (1999): 14. Also see Goddess in the Details (1994): 20–21.

80.Vanderbilt interviewed by Dave Crippin, 22 April 1986.

81.Once, while visiting New York, Vanderbilt purchased a coat made of the new fabric Ultrasuede and sent a sample back to the studio for consultation. On several occasions, rather than employing fabrics specially designed for automobiles, Vanderbilt used furniture fabrics as initial concepts, exploring interpretations of the fabrics as automotive textiles (ibid.).

82.Lucia DeRespinis interviewed by Cheryl Buckley, 7 October 1999.

83.Goddess in the Details (1994): 30.

84.Peggy Gruen interviewed by Eric Setliff, 14 March 2000; California Design 8 (Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum, 1962): 80–81; Goddess in the Details (1994): 30.

85.California Design 9 (1965): 18–19.

86.California Design 10 (1968): 91; California Design 11 (1971): 94; Peggy Gruen interviewed by Eric Setliff, 14 March 2000; quotation from Goddess in the Details (1994): 30.

87.“Artistry in Glass,” Pittsburg People (August 1953): 19.

88.Johnson, Higgins (1997): 51, quotation from p. 11.

89.Seiler and Kirkham, “Lella Vignelli” (2000–2001).

90.Lisa Krohn interviewed by Ella Howard, 19 January 2000

91.Nancy Perkins interviewed by Ella Howard, 17 December 1999.


93.“Is Industrial Design Color Blind?” (1963): 83–84.

94.Carole Bilson interviewed by Ella Howard, 31 January 2000.


96.Jill Shurtleff interviewed by Ella Howard, 14 December 1999.

97.It is estimated that more than half the “Sensor for Women” sales have been to women who formerly used disposable razors. Shurtleff, “Finally!” (1993): 33–35.

98.Jill Shurtleff interviewed by Ella Howard, 14 December 1999.

99.Rudy Reichel Riley interviewed by Pat Kirkham and Ella Howard, 2 February 2000.

100.Birsel was featured on the cover of Interiors (September 1999) and Metropolis (November 1999).

101.Birsel quoted in Schwartz, “120 Degrees of Separation” (1999): 51.

102.All three statistics are minimum figures (IDSA members are not required to declare their sex): statistics for 1974 from interview with Nancy Perkins; for 1986 from Krohn, “Against the Odds” (1986): 38; for 1999 from Gigi Thompson, IDSA, conversation with Ella Howard, 24 March 2000.

103.Erika Doering, correspondence with the authors, March 2000.

104.Ellen Manderfield, “Summary of Professional Activities,” 13 April 1978, p. 4, in the Manderfield file, Industrial Design Archive, George Arents Research Library for Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.