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Wally Edgar Chevrolet -- GENERAL MOTORS Women In Design Date Back To Harley Earl Days
The Damsels of Design , Anne Asensio, Chelsia Lau and Diane Allen all have two things in common. They happen to be three of the most respected automobile designers in the world today. They owe their careers to car designer icon Harley Earl.
By: GORDY O'CONNOR
By the mid-fifties, Earl had assembled a team of bright and creative women dubbed the "Damsels of Design" that would turn the world of automobile design on its head. Perhaps the first dream team, the roster of stylists included Dagmar Arnold, Ruth Glennie, Gere Kavanaugh, Jan Hrebs, Sandra Longyear, Helene Pollins, Peggy Sauer, Jane Van Alstyne, and Suzanne Vanderbilt.
While addressing the design of his Dream Cars in 1956, Harley Earl wrote:
"Of all the useful and beautiful products designed by Stylists, the best known and most appreciated is the American automobile, which ranks second only to women's fashions in the attention given to changing and improving its appearance."
The astute Earl, plucked these feminine designers not from the then customary role of stay at home mom but from a wide swath of academic and professional backgrounds. All the women, for example, held bachelor degrees and had received extensive industrial design training. Seven of the nine attended renowned art school Pratt Institute in New York, while two in the group held masters' degrees in fine art.
This talented crew was given carte blanche to redesign the interiors of the Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Pontiac and Chevrolet. While some of what they came up with didnt resonate with the public (and male counterparts for that matter) they contributed many ideas that were truly revolutionary for the time.
It was an exciting notion to start at the bottom and create a new car from scratch, said Suzanne Vanderbilt. But the truth is I didnt know one car from another then. Three of us drove out here in a Studebaker, scared and doubtful. We were away from home, our hometown and families. But none of us ever looked for another job.
The women started by designing color, texture and trim of interior fabrics shaping seats, door handles, armrests and steering wheels but soon were given the opportunity to take on more ambitious projects. Some of these more complicated design features included such items as a removable cosmetic case, a dictating machine that swung out from the glove compartment, plush floor carpeting, a removable transistor radio, custom leather straps in the trunk to keep groceries secure and a pre-cell era telephone.
Some of the more bold suggestions the team came up included a series of four slip covers to match the colors of the seasons, a three piece set of fiberglass luggage to complement the cars upholstery, toys magnetized to the back of the front seat to keep the kids entertained and a compartment for picnic supplies including a thermos to correspond to the cars color scheme.
Only someone with Earls lofty reputation culled during his 30 years designing cars for a big automaker could have gotten away with hiring women in a profession that hitherto was dominated by men. Of course, GM was sensitive of the role women reserved in deciding which vehicle the family would choose. In fact, their research revealed that by 1955 women had the final say on domestic car purchases in seven out of 10 households in America.
Despite the fact that none of the women chosen by GM to work in the design department had a background in the automobile business, they quickly began applying their ideas once on board.
As Vanderbilt explained at the time: We carefully examine human dexterity, comfort and fatigue and adapt what we find to style and design, she said. Unfortunately, we cant help someone who happens to be seven feet tall or four feet short but for those in between we can make a car an easy and pleasant experience.
In addition to coming up with fresh ideas for GM cars, the Damsels were charged with the job of designing "The Kitchen of the Future" for the companys Frigidaire subsidiary. Their vision included such radical ideas as round sinks to accommodate round dishes, Formica sink tops chiseled to give the appearance of tile and toaster slots built into table tops.
In their kitchens the girls have taken standard equipment and ingeniously customized it, said Pauline Sterling writing in May 1956 for the Detroit Free Press. They've done with kitchens what a woman can do with a dress “ buy one off the rack then dress it up to suit her own personality.
Many of the concepts put forth by these women pioneers have stood the test of time and have vindicated Earls bold move to empower women to take on a profession monopolized by men. In fact, Earl took a lot of criticism for enlisting the women not only from senior management at GM and the men asked to work with the women in the design department but from those in American companies outside the auto industry who felt the womans place was in the home.
For his part, Earl considered his social experiment to be an unqualified success." I am proud to say I believe the future for qualified women in automobile design is virtually unlimited", said Earl. In fact, he predicted," I think in three or four years women will be designing entire automobiles"
Unfortunately for the Damsels, when Earl retired in 1959, his successor, Bill Mitchell, didnt share his predecessors enthusiasm for the women in GMs design department and eventually let them go. "No women are going to stand next to any senior designers of mine on any exterior styling of Cadillacs or GMs other major brands", Mitchell snapped.
Despite the attitude of executives like Mitchell, Harley Earl and his team of bright, ambitious Damsels of Design paved the way for other women who have since broken the glass ceiling and risen through the ranks to become successful decision makers for companies throughout America.
Commenting on her experience at GM Suzanne Vanderbilt said:
"I think the most significant thing about the program was that the designs were as appealing to men who saw them as the women. It was designers' paradise and we particularly enjoyed proving to our male counterparts that we are not in the business to add lace doilies to seat backs or rhinestones to the carpets, but to make the automobile just as usable and attractive to both men and women as we possibly can".
SOURCE: Motor Cities Heritage
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