A woman’s place is in the… Design Studio.
Even now, well into the 21st century, the automotive industry and its related fields employ and attract more men than they do women, and the styling studios are no exception. There certainly has been a noticeable influx of women in the design departments over the past few decades: Anne Asensio, Marcy Fisher, Juliane Blasi and Michelle Christensen being a few latterday examples.
Wind back the clock some 90 years however and it was a different environment – and not just within the car industry. It took a determined and strong-willed woman to overcome the prejudice, condescendence, resistance and occasionally, outright hostility she would often confront if she dared enter an arena hitherto considered to be the sole domain of men.
Some of the women presented herein might appear a tad overdressed in period photographs, but it is important to remember that for male designers a suit and tie – as opposed to the black turtleneck and complex eyeglasses which seems to be the preferred uniform of late was for the most part of the past century the required attire. So, look past the glamour and meet a few pioneering women who cleared the path under at times, challenging conditions.
First in line in this broadly chronological overview, Dorothée Pullinger was admittedly neither a stylist nor designer in the classical sense but she did play an important role in the creation of the first car specifically aimed at woman drivers. Apart from that achievement, the eldest child of automotive engineer, Thomas Charles Pullinger had more talents on offer.
Dorothée started her career in the automobile field in 1910, when she was just sixteen years of age, as a draughtswoman at Scottish car manufacturer Arrol-Johnston. When world war 1 broke out she was put in charge of Arrol-Johnston’s plant in Barrow-in-Furness which was converted from making cars to producing ammunition.
Pullinger may doubtless have benefited from her father being one of the senior managers at the company to get the job but she displayed astute management proficiency, being in charge of a 7000-strong all female workforce and was awarded an MBE in 1920 for her contribution to the war effort.
After hostilities ended, the Barrow-in-Furness factory was converted back to the manufacturing of cars and renamed Galloway Motors Ltd – it now having become a subsidiary of Arrol-Johnston. Developed by Thomas Charles Pullinger with considerable input from his daughter, the Galloway 10/20 introduced in 1920 offered several features that were aimed to appeal to woman drivers: a raised seat position, lower dashboard, a steering wheel of smaller diameter, rear view mirror and a handbrake lever positioned next to the driver’s seat were some examples. About 4000 10/20s were built until the make became defunct in 1928.
Even though Dorothée Pullinger became the first female member (reluctantly accepted it must be added) of the Institution of Automobile Engineers in 1921 and won the Scottish six day car trial in 1924 (she was an enthusiastic amateur racer as well), she became increasingly disenchanted with the continuing resistance experienced as a woman in what was certainly then considered a man’s field of work.
She left the automotive manufacturing business and established the White Service Steam Laundry which became quite successful. During world war 2, Pullinger, her previous achievements evidently not forgotten, was the only woman appointed to the Industry panel of the Ministry of Production. She moved to Guernsey in 1947 and started Normandy Laundries there. Her long and fruitful life ended in 1986 on Guernsey at the age of 92.
Studebaker interior designer Helen Dryden, born in 1887, graduated from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and gained fame as an illustrator for fashion magazines before she was hired in 1934 by the South Bend carmaker through Raymond Loewy. Although some advertisements stated about the Studebaker were headlined, “It’s styled by Helen Dryden“, her contributions were always limited to the interiors of the cars; she would work for Studebaker until 1940.
As at least one among the esteemed DTW readership has a specific affinity with car ashtrays, here is a quote from Ms. Dryden on that particular subject: “In seeking simplicity in modern motor car design, which to me is so essential, there are many things to be considered. I feel that real progress will have been made when more car interiors have recessed ash receivers rather than those little wooden boxes that we have grown accustomed to seeing stuck on the side of the car. An ideal arrangement for disposing of ashes in the deluxe type of vehicle would seem to me to be a small pocket recessed in the wall, covered with a metal door on a hinge. The ashes could easily be dropped inside and the smooth face of the wall would not be disturbed.”
Named at one time the highest paid female artist in America by The New York Times, Helen Dryden departed this world either in 1972 or 1981 depending on the source consulted.
Edsel Ford, the aesthetically gifted but somewhat frail son of Henry, added the first female stylist to his design department in 1938, her name was Leota Carroll, also an illustrator like Helen Dryden. Carroll worked under Ross Cousins who was himself the son of an automotive illustrator and she was soon followed by some more female additions such as Doris Dickason who specialised in instrument panels and steering wheels, and Florence Henderson who designed trim and ornamentation.
When Edsel died in 1943, Henry Ford, who never had much interest in styling to begin with, reduced the headcount of the department by half and fired all the women; it would not be until 1970 that the Ford Motor Company hired another female for its design department.
The Detroit based Hudson Motor Company added 22-year old Elizabeth Ann (Betty) Thatcher to its styling department in 1939. A graduate of the Cleveland School of Arts with a major in Industrial Design, her contributions to the manufacturers’ cars were not limited to the interior – she also designed most of the decorative exterior trim for the 1941 Hudson. When Betty Thatcher became Betty Oros in 1941 after she married designer Joe Oros -then working at Cadillac, she resigned from her job at Hudson to avoid conflicts of interest.
The first woman to be employed in GM styling was Helene Rother. Born in Leipzig in 1908, she escaped Nazi Germany in 1941 together with her husband and started a new life in the United States. At first Rother worked on illustrated comics for Marvel, but when she responded to an ad by General Motors in The New York Times for an automotive interior stylist her career took off.
Working under Harley Earl, she designed interiors for all makes across the GM portfolio until 1947 when she left to start her own company – Rother Design Styling Studios. One of her main clients would be another car manufacturer, Nash. She would enjoy a successful partnership with the Kenosha carmaker until its demise in 1957 when it was absorbed in American Motors. Other work by Rother’s firm included among other things furniture, mosaics and stained glass windows.
In 1948, Helene Rother became the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers, where she expressed her dismay with the drab interiors and especially the colour choices: “Handsome, big and powerful…”, Helene observed on the current styles of the American automobile, “yet inside there is little to distinguish them apart from one another. Perhaps our new stylists fear to use colours that are too extreme. This results in our being presented again and again with grey and tan interiors, or could it have something to do with the bad climate in Detroit?” Helene Rother Ackerknecht passed away in 1999 and was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2020.
Audrey Moore Hodges studied fashion design at the Detroit Art Academy and graduated from the University of Michigan’s industrial design programme in 1943. During her studies she made technical drawings at the Willow Run plant where the B-24 bomber was being built. Upon being informed about Audrey’s talent by a mutual friend, Virgil Exner (then doing design work for Studebaker) invited the 26-year old to South Bend which resulted in her joining the Studebaker design department in February of 1944.
She designed and contributed several components for the all-new 1947 model, including its hood ornament. In 1947 Audrey Moore Hodges moved to Chicago to work for the fledgling Tucker Motor Company – Alex Tremulis was her mentor there. She styled most of the interior and was also one of the authors of the Tucker’s distinctive instrument panel. After Tucker folded, Audrey Moore Hodges left the automotive field and became a sales representative and fashion advisor for women’s fashion companies such as the FormFit Company and Bienjolie. Later in life she started a travel agency that she ran together with her husband until her death in 1996.
It is unclear which, if any, design elements of Plymouth and Chrysler products of the early 1950s can be traced back to her ideas, but what is certain is that Maxine Regan knew how to draw cars and was a talented artist and handy with the airbrush pencil – the lead illustration of this article was made by her.
Having studied arts and worked as a jewellery designer, Maxine Regan would become one of the fixtures of Chrysler Corporation’s version of GM’s Motorama: the “New worlds in engineering” roadshow that travelled all around the country’s major cities over a period of fourteen months in 1951-52.
New worlds in engineering featured over 70 displays and attracted 4.5 million visitors; apart from miss Regan demonstrating her drawing and airbrushing skills there were concept cars present such as the C-200 by Exner/Ghia, several cutaway models, an electron microscope and the “transparent chassis“. This was a full size, completely functional chassis and engine made out of plexiglas and consisting of more than 1200 moving parts; it had reportedly cost Chrysler US $250,000 to make.
“Today people are practically living in their automobiles, so we have to have to make them as comfortable, attractive and safe as your own living room, with as much attention to decor“, Maxine Regan was quoted in an interview. The platinum blonde designer continued: “I’ve designed a dashboard covered in alligator skin with a matching umbrella which fits into the door panel. Don’t you know women are just going to love that?”
In 1950, at 20 years of age, MaryEllen Green was the youngest designer GM had ever hired; she was in fact too young to sign her employment contract and GM needed written permission from her mother before they could make it official. A graduate in industrial design from Pratt Institute, Green was tasked with designing interiors for GM’s showcars and special vehicles for VIPs and dignitaries.
The all-red Cadillac convertible with special pleated red leather seats that was displayed at the GM building entrance during 1952 to celebrate Cadillac’s 50th anniversary was her work, for example. After leaving GM she went to work for Sundberg-Ferar as an industrial designer; among her clients were Samsonite, IBM, Coldspot, Kenmore and Packard.
She was enlisted by Packard stylist Dick Teague to design the seats for Packard’s flagship model, the Caribbean. Her design used in the 1955 and 1956 models, the Posture-Perfect seat, featured reversible upholstery: leather on one side, fabric on the other. As of this writing she is still among us and now goes by her maiden name MaryEllen Dohrs.
Likely the most widely publicised group of female car designers were the somewhat condescendingly named damsels of design who worked under GM styling supremo Harley Earl in the late fifties. As this article shows however, they were certainly not the first women Earl hired. In a press release about the group, Earl was quoted: “The skilled feminine hands helping to shape our cars of tomorrow are worthy representatives of American women, who today cast the final vote in the purchase of three out of four automobiles.”
The damsels were Ruth Glennie, Suzanne Vanderbilt, Marjorie Ford, Jeanette Linder, Peggy Sauer, Sandra Longyear and Jeanette Krebs. The last would later on marry designer, Tony Lapine. These ladies designed many interior elements for the complete range of General Motors passenger vehicles and came up with useful features we now take for granted such as lighted make-up mirrors, storage consoles, the remote window and door lockout switch, adjustable lumbar supports in the seats and retractable seatbelts.
In 1958 Earl organized the Feminine Auto Show in GM’s huge styling dome to showcase the capabilities of his female design team; they were all tasked with designing a special show car (in some cases two): the damsels had virtually complete authority on the interior ideas but the exterior of the cars was not altered except for the colour of the paintwork.
Suzanne Vanderbilt jumped at the opportunity: “I particularly enjoyed proving to our male counterparts that we were 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 could.” Of the cars displayed during the show, unfortunately only Ruth Glennie’s Chevrolet Corvette Fancy Free has survived.
Alas, when Harley Earl retired in late 1958 and was succeeded by Bill Mitchell, the damsels were disbanded. Despite Mitchell being close to twenty years the junior of Earl and thus of a younger generation he wanted nothing of it. Comparing the following quotes is illustrative: Earl- “I think that in three or four years women will be designing entire automobiles“. Mitchell- “No women are going to stand next to any senior designers of mine on any exterior styling of Cadillacs or GM’s other brands“. Ouch.
Only Vanderbilt and Glennie would continue to work in design for GM for several more years but the damsels were history. Looking back, Suzanne Vanderbilt recalled the experience of working under Harley Earl around whom rumours circulated about intimidation and profanity – at least when he was mentoring the damsels, this was not so: “Harley Earl… was a gentleman, in spite of stories that you hear. He was always a gentleman with the women. More a father figure, maybe, than a boss, and he commanded a great deal of respect.”
Born in the Netherlands in 1946 but raised in Canada, Mimi Vandermolen was one the first women to study industrial design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, graduating in 1969. Vandermolen started working in Ford Motor Company design in 1970 and contributed to the interior design of the downsized Mustang II and Granada but lost her job in 1974 as Ford design laid off many of its staff due to the oil crisis.
Within a few years she was back at Dearborn however and became part of the team that developed the design of the upcoming aerodynamic Ford Taurus. The soft style of the Taurus was -especially for an American car – quite revolutionary at the time, and the rounded style also permeated the interior of the car, courtesy of Vandermolen.
Vandermolen was promoted in 1987 to Design Executive for Small Cars, and the first vehicle she was responsible for inside and out was the second generation Ford Probe that debuted in 1993. Just as Dorothée Pullinger many years earlier, Mimi Vandermolen put a lot of emphasis on creating cars that appealed to women and suited their needs.
In fact, she had her male staff wear fake fingernails when trying out doorhandles and operating interior fixtures and even threatened to make them wear skirts when assessing ease of entry and exit of the cars, although (mercifully no doubt), no be-skirted male designers have ever been spotted roaming Ford’s styling studios.