Highlighting the Mothers of the Design Industry

Highlighting the Mothers of the Design Industry

This past Mother’s Day, we found it only appropriate to not only thank and give praise to Mother Earth, but to the mothers of the design industry. 

It’s a widely understood notion that women have never quite had the upperhand in any competitive industry, especially regarding anything creative. Men triumphed over the design industry for so long, and when a woman was prevalent within it, she either accompanied her husband or followed the legacy of her father. 

It wasn’t until the late 60s and early 70s that women began to establish their independent design careers. Surprisingly, however, America saw its very first interior designer in the late 19th century, when Elsie de Wolfe managed to stumble into the position of interior decorator before there was such a thing.

Elsie de Wolfe

She was first known for her eccentric physical presentation, sporting blue hair and having a peculiar affinity for quirky patterns (yes, blue hair in the late 1800s, I know). In the 1890s, however, she began to design stages for performance art, and soon took up decorating residences at the Washington Irving House in New York City (Library of Congress).

After a feature in a magazine known as The Delineator, her words soon became a bestselling book, titled, “The House in Good Taste.” Her recommendations remained simple: Do-it-yourself when possible, let nature inspire your interior space, have a meal outside, pay close attention to the color choices, etc. 

De Wolfe was very much inspired by the French summertime, drawing on pastels and harmonious color combinations, alongside the intricacies of 18th-century French furniture. 

Prior to de Wolfe’s popularity, a woman’s home was not a place considered to be designed. Going into the 1900s, she went on to become one of the most favored interior designers in the Western world. 

De Wolfe brought something new to the design industry: the concept that a space should not reflect one’s bank account; rather, their personality. Following her design career, de Wolfe was prevalent in the fight for women’s rights to vote, received the Legion d’Honneur for allowing the Red Cross use her space in France during World War I, and also contributed to funding decorative arts programs with her foundation.

Florence Knoll

Jumping forward to the early 20th century, Florence Knoll, born Florence Schust, emerged as a designer who later partnered with her aspiring furniture-business owner husband, Hans Knoll. 

Upon being orphaned at a young age, she befriended the Saarinen family who invited her to vacation with them in Finland. Between vacationing in Finland and studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, she was able to develop her skills and education to the degree that would assist in sparking her design career. 

Knoll had the substantial opportunity to study under a few of the 20th century’s most renowned architects, of which included Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. 

With quite the resume, Knoll pursued her collaboration with her husband, shifting the narrative for what postwar-American corporate interiors would look like. She brought in a comprehensive design to office planning, drew on modern ideas of efficiency, and expanded the notions of what space planning actually looked like (Knoll). 

Her contributions to Knoll as a company have remained renowned for her innovations, drawing in the modern corporate space and signature Knoll style for the remainder of the 20th century and its following decades.