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Visual Culture

The Pioneering Women Who Designed Car Interiors in the 1950s

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

In the mid-1950s, when General Motors was churning out shapely red Corvettes and shimmering Cadillac Eldorados, the car manufacturer released a promotional film spotlighting a new, seemingly progressive hiring effort. For the first time, the company had appointed a group of women to its design team, and it was advertising the decision with gusto.
“Today’s modern woman, no longer just a voice from the backseat, has the last word in the purchase of seven out of 10 cars,” stated the film’s narrator, the footage showing impeccably coiffed female employees caressing the car interiors they’d designed. “So the feminine taste is represented by these girls—a few of the many Damsels of Design.”
“Damsels of Design” was the title cooked up by GM’s then–vice president of design, Harley Earl, and his PR team to promote their new hires, all in their twenties and thirties, who’d recently graduated with design degrees from Pratt Institute and Cranbrook Academy of Art. Six of the women—Suzanne Vanderbilt, Jeanette Linder, Ruth Glennie, Sandra Longyear, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, and Peggy Sauer—each worked on the interiors of a different GM brand; meanwhile, the other four women—Gere Kavanaugh, Jan Krebs, Dagmar Arnold, and Jayne Van Alstyne—designed car displays and worked with Frigidaire, a subsidiary of GM, devising kitchens and household appliances.
Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

As Earl explained in a 1957 press release, he brought them on to add a “feminine point of view” to GM’s wares. In post-war America, women were studying design and buying cars in larger numbers than ever before—and this fact wasn’t lost on Earl. He was quick to point out female buying power in the press release: “They earn $42 billion annually which makes them very important car customers in their own right.”
If women were buying more cars, as Earl’s thinking went, women designers should be the ones to field their concerns and appeal to their sensibilities. As Susan Skarsgard, a longtime designer and archivist at GM, put it, he “really did understand that there was value in having women as part of the design process.”
Earlier, in 1943, Helene Rother became GM’s first female designer when she was hired on the styling team, creating upholstery, lighting, and hardware for car interiors. (Previously, she’d designed jewelry in Paris and illustrated comics for Timely Publications, which later became Marvel.) Though Rother left GM four years later, the gig earned her the title of “first female automotive designer”—and the capital to open her own design studio.
But it wasn’t until the following decade that Earl enlisted a larger cadre of women, the so-called “Damsels of Design.” In an era when women rarely received high-profile design positions at major corporations, GM offered an important launchpad for the group. But the work GM assigned them (and the group’s moniker itself) was also limiting and laced with sexism.
Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

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“It opened the door for many women, but at the same time, they were sort of objectified, photographed like they were models, and relegated to the sidelines when it came to their responsibilities,” Skarsgard explained. “But all of them were highly talented—and they took the opportunity and ran with it.”
In 1955, when Earl appointed the 10 women to his staff, Vanderbilt hopped in a small car with fellow Pratt graduates and GM hires, Krebs and Glennie, and made the road trip from Manhattan to the Detroit headquarters.
Like all of the women appointed to car design, Vanderbilt joined the styling department where she worked on interiors—in 1955, for Chevrolet, and in ’56, for Cadillac. Other departments, like exterior car design, were off-limits to women. Even in styling, only men worked on certain hardware, like the instrument panel and dashboard.
What’s more, Vanderbilt’s male peers complicated the responsibilities she was allowed to take on. “We took a lot of ribbing, of course,” she recalled in a 1986 interview. “There probably was somewhat of a feeling [from the men] of ‘Oh, well, this won’t last.’” But she quickly learned how to piece a car together “from ground one,” she explained, designing nearly every aspect of Chevrolet interiors, from seats and doors to upholstery and carpet piles.
Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Vanderbilt also routinely corrected the misconception that her work—and that of her “sisters,” as she referred to her fellow female designers—was more than merely decorating, or “select[ing] fabrics and sew[ing] things together,” she explained. “There’s a lot more to it than that, and that’s what we tried to tell the press over and over again.”
But GM’s PR team often capitalized on the employees’ “feminine” qualities rather than their full skill sets, driving the stake between the sexes even deeper. “Besides being color and fabric specialists,” Earl stated in 1957, “our women designers are tuned specifically to the woman driver’s problems.”
The Feminine Auto Show, staged in 1958, was GM’s biggest and glitziest effort to spotlight the damsels. For the exhibition—which was presented in a dome bursting with hyacinths, singing canaries, and soft, sherbet-hued lighting—each of the six female car designers customized the interiors of a range of new GM models. For her acqua Cadillac “Saxony” convertible, Vanderbilt included innovative additions like a folding armrest, a dictaphone, and a partitioned glove compartment. Glennie’s “Fancy Free” Corvette came equipped with colorful slipcovers meant to change with the seasons, and what might have been the industry’s first retractable seat belt.
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The designs that filled GM’s exhibition hall were heralded by the press, with headlines like “Dream Cars Pamper Girls.” While Vanderbilt appreciated the exposure and the rare opportunity to give interviews to press, she disliked designing female-focused concept cars, derogatorily dubbed “Fern cars.” They not only distracted from the real work at hand, they also drove home the misconception that she was only designing for women—and that her responsibilities were different or lesser than those of her testerone-laden colleagues. “We were always the ‘la femmes,’ or we were the female designers,” she once said. “What distressed most of us was that we could never be identified as just designers.”
Though their roles were not publicized, the women did receive internal recognition for their work on products for both sexes. “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,” Vanderbilt explained in an address she gave to the Midwest College Placement Association.
For her part, Vanderbilt stayed on at GM for 23 years, rising up through the ranks (albeit with more difficulty than most men), and eventually landing the position of senior designer. But most of the women hired alongside her left after several years. When Earl retired in 1958, his successor, Bill Mitchell, didn’t harbor “the same value for female designers,” said Skarsgard.
Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Image courtesy of General Motors LLC.

Skarsgard is realistic about the limited impact of GM’s mid-1950s effort to hire more women designers. She’s more interested in the perseverance of each individual designer, and the careers they realized post–“Damsels of Design.”
Kavanaugh made her way to Los Angeles, where she set up her own studio next to and went on to design textiles, products, interiors, furniture, and graphics—a practice for which she won the 2016 AIGA medal. Sauer joined the Studebaker Avanti design team, helping realize what the company referred to as “America’s Only 4 Passenger High-Performance Personal Car.” Glennie crafted interiors for British car manufacturer Vauxhall, and later devised lighting systems for GTE Sylvania. Arnold joined IBM in 1963, and was the first woman at the tech company to receive a patent, for the sleek, compact design of the 1301 Disk Storage Unit.
“I would never want to oversell the idea that this a groundbreaking, amazing thing that changed design,” Skarsgard explained of the designers’ work at GM. “It was a small thing that led to bigger things.” She continued: “Somebody has to crack the ceiling. They may not bust through it, but they make it weaker so by the time years go by, eventually things do change.”
Alexxa Gotthardt