Everyday Elements Designed by Unsung Women Designers

Diversity is good for business, and that is true not just for the employees. In the case of the creative field, such as product or industrial design, more voices means more people are being spoken with, thus more ideas are being explored. This was a lesson that began to be learned in the 1940s (if not earlier) when General Motors hired female designers to make their automobiles more appealing to women. As Yvonne Lin of Smart Design explains, "women bring this different perspective that might reflect who is actually using the product, compared to who is buying it."

Belle Kogan

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Kogan in 1955, image credit: core77.com

The Russian-born Belle Kogan was the first prominent female industrial designer, and also the first woman to head her own design firm, working mainly in the US. She began her design work with pewter and silver home products, but perhaps the objects that most made an impact were ones of plastic. Her design studio was one of the first to experiment with plastics, creating toilet sets and clocks with celluloid, as well as Bakelite jewelry. Kogan worked with brands like Bausch & Lomb, Zippo, and Red Wing Pottery - the last of which she designed over 400 pieces between 1938 and 1964.

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Belle Kogan Zippos, 1938; image credit: lightergallery.com

Kogan designs ran the gamut of melamine table pieces, plastic alarm clocks, and ceramic vases. While she attained recognition and success, even forming the New York chapter of what would later become the Industrial Designers Society of America, she constantly had to content with contemporary views on the limitations of women. In a 1939 interview with the Brooklyn Eagle she describes her struggle: "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."

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Kogan at a 1942 Industrial Designers Institute dinner with her all-male colleagues, image credit: core77.com

The Damsels of Design, General Motors

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Photo credit: General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections via Core77

When General Motors first became aware that most of the household purchasing power was held by the matriarch of the house, they knew they needed a woman’s touch. These designers were dubbed the Damsels of Design, and initially were hired in the 1940s and ‘50s to make cars more desirable for women drivers and their family. At first, they were not a visible part of the design team, but later the Damsels were photographed with the automotive interiors they created as a marketing campaign.

Some features born from this initiative are nearly stereotypical female priorities, but some shaped auto interiors up to the present. It is easy to dismiss the interchangeable seat covers in the 1958 Corvette, but not so easy to overlook GM first ever retractable seat belt for the same model. These details were luxuries at first. It took decades for other car manufacturers to incorporate what is now a ubiquitous safety item.

Not every piece stands the test of time, but they were clearly inspired by the independence and adventure these designers strived to incorporate into their creations, if not directly experience in their roles. Marjorie Ford Pohlman installed a dictaphone into her Buick Shalimar’s glossy purple glove box and an umbrella compartment into the matching seat back, and Suzanne Vanderbilt incorporated an early car phone and memo pad into a 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Seville. But at the same time, their colleagues innovated lighted mirrors and storage consoles that are still present to this day in cars all over the world.

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Photo credit: General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections via Core77

Ray Eames, Industrial Designer

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 Ray and Charles Eames in 1959; img credit: Library of Congress

Discussing the most impactful designers really highlights how little known many of the true influencers are. Ray Eames began her artistic studies as a painter, then began experimenting in plywood molding techniques in 1941. She not only created several iconic furniture pieces, she did much to further the technology of the medium she worked in. The Lounge Chair Wood is created from laminated plywood that was notable at the time (in 1946) for its curve that occurs along two directions.

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Lounge Chair Wood; photo credit: Airgora

While her husband Charles, also a designer, was working for the war effort, Ray “experimented with processes to create the curved plywood.” The Eames further utilized their plywood moulding techniques to create organic, undulating forms that they hung as mobiles and kinetic sculptures in the 1940s.

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Also referred to as the Eames Lounger and Ottoman, the 2-part design has proved to have timeless appeal. While most of the Eames designs were meant to be affordable, this particular item was designed as a luxury furnishing based on the traditional English club chair, and found its way into the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Created for the Herman Miller company, the Eames Lounger has continued to experience updates,

Throughout the 20th century, women have experienced varying degrees of visibility in the creative industry. But even with underrepresentation, and a culture that mostly does not put a face to popular industrial or interior products, women have long been impacting and disrupting these categories.

SocietyIvory KingComment