Book Review: Damsels in Design

21 June 2018 | by Maxine Morland

Original sketch of the Studebaker Champion by Audrey Hodges. Photo by C. Smith/Courtesy of Samuel M. Sandifer, Jr./National Museum of Automotive Design

If you buy this meticulously researched book – its full title is ‘Damsels in Design – Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry 1939-1959’ – by Constance A. Smith,  don’t expect it to reveal vast numbers of unsung female designers. It doesn’t. But it does provide a charming series of insights into the automotive design landscape of the post-war era in America and features some delightful sketches by talented artists.

Constance Smith herself worked in automotive design, and taught at the Pratt Institute. She says: “After studying sculpture, I fell in love with three-dimensional design after seeing a display of products at my college. After serving in the advanced concepts studio at General Motors and designing mostly electronic instrument panels, I also designed automotive components for arthritic drivers using funds from a National Endowment for the Arts grant.” As such, she has a good understanding of the work these women were doing.

The ‘Damsels’, a name bestowed by the charismatic Harley Earl, who recruited them in the mid-1950s, included , Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Longyear and Peggy Sauer, who were placed in GM’s automotive interior design departments to work on brands like Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. There were another four Damsels – Jan Krebs, Dagmar Arnold, Gere Kavanaugh and Jayne Van Alstyne – who worked as industrial designers for GM-owned Frigidaire, where they helped create the Kitchen of Tomorrow and designed displays and exhibits for the Styling department.


This well-researched book reveals some hidden stories of women working in studios alongside their male counterparts, but those stories are fairly thin on the ground – a little like female designers in exteriors studios. Only a few women were allowed near the cars, most often working on trim and interiors, or customising established models for show like ‘The Feminine Autoshow’ held in the Design Dome at the technical centre at GM in 1958. The book also covers non-automotive design for GM, on projects such as the Kitchen of Tomorrow for Frigidaire, and interiors and fittings for the Train of Tomorrow. That is not to belittle their work, some of which is breathtaking, but the book makes it clear how unusual female designers were in the workplace. 

Finding the source material and interview subjects must have been a challenge for Constance Smith, who began writing Damsels in 2010. She told Maorinews News that, because of name changes, it took her years to locate the women or their heirs. She had worked with two of the women at GM, and most of the women had passed through the Pratt Institute, but it still took some digging, “I also reviewed obituaries, church records, college library collections, books, periodicals, museum archives, automotive libraries, auto organisations, car collectors clubs, car dealers, etc.”

 Being constantly referred to as ‘Damsels’ or ‘female designers’ was  irritating for women whose designs were outstanding. In an by the Benson Ford Research Center in 1985, Suzanne Vanderbilt said “What distressed most of us was that we could never be identified as just designers. We were always ‘la femmes’, or ‘the female designers’… we were designers, and men were designing for women long before we came along. That's what rubbed us a little.”

Elizabeth Thatcher Oros door handle sketch

Elizabeth Thatcher Oros sketch, for Hudson

In spite of, or perhaps because of the limitations placed on them,  this group of designers produced some very fresh user-interface designs for the cars and products they worked on, which displayed a remarkably modern approach – much more akin to current sensibilities about how a car or product should integrate into a customer's lifestyle.

Part of this could be because of their training at the Pratt Institute. The Kostellows were a hugely influential teaching couple and are referenced a lot in this book. Alexander was one of the founders of Pratt’s Industrial Design Department and his wife, artist Rowena Reed Kostellow, (to whom the book is dedicated), set up the Abstract Three Dimensional Design course, which she taught for more than 50 years. The book Elements of Design (based on her course) was essential reading for automotive and product designers. As Suzanne Vanderbilt said: “Rowena Reed Kostellow taught three-dimensional design, perhaps the most significant study for me. Learning to see through and around a form and studying the imaginative inner structure was fascinating.”

Her course influenced a whole generation of designers. “Pratt alumni designed the 1955 T-Bird for Ford, Pontiac's muscle cars, the 1958 Impala, Chevrolet Corvettes, and numerous other cars – inside or out,” Constance Smith told CDN. Rowena Reed Kostellow also encouraged and helped to recruit the GM Damsels – the group of six women who joined GM in 1955. She frequently asked women: “Would you rather be polishing silverware or designing it?”

 Ruth Glennie, an industrial designer, clearly wanted to be in the latter camp. She joined GM as a junior designer in the Styling Section in 1955 and was particularly interested in lighting and safety features. In 1958 she was given a Chevrolet Corvette to modify for the feminine show that year. Dubbed the ‘Fancy Free’ (see our latest Concept Car of the Week), she, created four interior treatments, one for each season with removable seat covers, but the technical innovations are what really stand out – retractable seatbelts using a pneumatic retractor mode, rather than the spring roller system common at the time, and reflectors on the base of the door replaced with lamps which flashed when the door was opened, improving both the visibility of the doors to other drivers but also creating pools of light for the occupants. At around the same time she also designed a head-up display, decades before her time, which proposed displaying speed or RPM in the windshield, in the driver’s line of sight. This book features one of Glennie’s original sketches of her HUD.

Ruth Glennie HUD sketch.jpg

Ruth Glennie's HUD sketch. Photo by Constance Smith

Damsels in Design is also fascinating in a slightly perverse way, because it provides a lovely insight into what designers were actually doing in the post-war era in design studios, both men and women. A ‘normal’ male designer of the same period probably wouldn’t warrant someone trawling the archives and tracking them or surviving relatives and cars down for interviews, or going into this level of detail about their work, process and inspirations. But because there were (and are) so few women working in automotive design, Smith has gone the extra mile, and the detail is fascinating.

The book transports you into a time and a place in a highly evocative way, particularly given the illustrations Smith has managed to find and include. There is some allusion to the difficulties these women faced working in such a male-dominated environment, but there is far more about the professors who taught design at that time, the layout of the studio, the tunnels under the road to enter the GM building on Grand Boulevard, and other such delights.


Suzanne Vanderbilt

Much of the book is based around GM, naturally, but some of the Damsels moved on to other car makers. Mary Ellen Green joined GM in 1950 after an industrial design course at the Pratt Institute. Smith writes about how Harley Earl noticed Green’s red hair, and, because it was the same shade as the original Le Sabre concept car, he asked her to pose with it. But she wasn’t just a model, she was working on concepts, show cars and components. When her then boss moved on to Sundberg-Ferar and Packard she went with him, and her work began to be noticed.  In the book, she recalls: “While designing I used conte crayon on large newsprint and fired out multiple design sketches without vanishing points or perspective layouts (thank you Alexander [Kostellow].) My sketches were noticed and the salary increases began.”

Smith’s meticulous research also sheds light on the Train of Tomorrow, designed at GM and released in 1947. Featuring domed passenger cars, the train required the design of interiors, seating textiles, silverware – well beyond the normal scope of an automotive designer. Young artist and designer Amy Light was hired exclusively for this project.

Harley Earl, vice president of GM's Styling Section, had a vision of a new society, in which women deserved a place as designers, but his replacement, Bill Mitchell, did not. After he took over in 1959 he attempted to ban women from the exterior design studio. Almost all of the women who had been hired and encouraged by his predecessor saw their careers stall. Only one endured, Suzanne Vanderbilt.


Vanderbilt working on a clay model

This book is full of creative and detailed observations. I really wanted the original sketches and plans to have been used larger – while the black and white photographs of Harley Earl plus others are evocative, I would rather have seen Ruth Glennie’s gorgeous sketches used as large as possible (if you have read any of our CDN special publications, you will see why), but anyone with an interest in automotive design will enjoy this book.

In an interview in the 1980s about her career, Susanne Vanderbilt said: “Many times we’ve had a misconception about interior designers, meaning you just select fabrics and sew things together – just as interior ‘decorators’ do, but there's a lot more to it than that, and that's what we tried to tell the press over and over again. We weren’t there just to decorate.” She continued: “Good design should be for men and women, and, I think, they tried to separate it too much to even get to the point of designing a car for a woman.”


Suzanne Vanderbilt sketch

There is an ongoing discussion in automotive design about how to encourage more women to become designers, and the discourse has not changed as much as we would like. Can women only design for women (in colour and trim) and men for men? Clearly not, but it persists as a compelling dialogue. “Talented women and their notable achievements need to be recognised,” says Constance Smith. “The movie Hidden Figures introduced us to the women working at NASA. Women in automotive need role models and mentors. They need to understand the breadth of professions auto encompasses.” With ‘Damsels in Design – Women Pioneers in the Automotive Industry 1939-1959’ Constance Smith has begun the process of recognising those forgotten figures and their work.

Want to read more? The book is available , and also via Amazon (/).

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GM's Damsels of Design with Harley Earl

Below: a video from GM‘s Public Relations department promoting the Damsels of Design. Watch those nylons!