Women of Art Deco

By Kathleen Murphy Skolnik
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 Lucienne Bloch’s The Cycle of a Woman’s Life mural for the Women’s House of Detention.

Open a book on Art Deco design and you’re likely to find such iconic names as Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Paul Frankl, Paul Manship, Demétre Chiparus, Edgar Brandt, Jean Dupas, René Lalique, Kem Weber, Jean Dunand, and Raymond Loewy—all men. Were there any female Art Deco designers? The answer is yes, there certainly were, although only a few of those who were acclaimed in their time—French textile and fashion designer Sonia Delaunay, British ceramicist Clarice Cliff, Irish-born architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray—remain well recognized today, even among historians of art and architecture. Many more have been forgotten, overlooked, or overshadowed by a better-known spouse. Yet during the age of Art Deco, women were well represented in the fields of mural painting; textile, silver, and furniture design; graphic arts; sculpture; and even industrial design. New York buildings and museums are filled with their work. Here’s a small sampling of the women whose contributions to New York’s Art Deco legacy may still be seen today:

Lucienne Bloch (1909–1999) painted murals in New York in the 1930s through a work relief program for artists, part of the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Her father, Ernest Bloch, an internationally renowned classical composer, brought his family to the United States from Geneva, Switzerland, in 1917. The Blochs initially settled in Cleveland but moved to San Francisco in 1925 when Ernest became the director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

At age 15, Lucienne Bloch attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. She continued her education in Europe, primarily in Paris, where she took classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and studied sculpture with Antoine Bourdelle and painting with Andrée Lhoté. Back in the United States by the early 1930s, she worked as an assistant to the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Bloch may be best known for the 1933 photograph she surreptitiously took of Rivera’s ill-fated Man at the Crossroads in the lobby of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center before the mural's destruction. 

 

Bloch’s first FAP commission came in 1935: a series of five murals titled The Cycle of a Woman’s Life for the recreation room of the Women’s House of Detention at 10 Greenwich Avenue in New York (an Art Deco building by Sloan and Robertson, 1932).

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Detail of Lucienne Bloch’s Evolution of Music and Musical Instruments mural in George Washington High School’s music room. Photo: Works Progress Administration.

For the first mural she selected a theme that she felt would resonate with the inmates. As she explained, “Since they were women and for the most part products of poverty and slums, I chose the only subject which would not be foreign to them—children—framed in a New York landscape of the most ordinary kind. It could be Uptown, Downtown, East Side, or West Side—any place they chose. The tenements, the trees, the common dandelions were theirs.”1

That mural, a fresco titled Childhood, depicted a racially diverse group of mothers and children together in a playground bordered by tenements and factories. The New York City skyline rose in the distance. Bloch later wrote that the inmates pretended they had adopted the children in the mural and even gave them names. 

 

Work ceased during the winter months to prevent the fresco from cracking as it dried. The project never resumed, leaving the remaining four murals—Schoolroom, Adolescence, The Working Woman, and Romance—unexecuted. Childhood was lost with the building's demolition in 1974.

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Detail of Lucienne Bloch’s Evolution of Music and Musical Instruments mural in George Washington High School’s music room.

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Detail of Lucienne Bloch’s Evolution of Music and Musical Instruments mural in George Washington High School’s music room.

The Evolution of Music, the fresco Bloch painted in 1938 for the upper wall of the music room of George Washington High School in Washington Heights, remains extant, restored in 1991 through the Municipal Art Society’s Adopt-A-Mural program. Bloch attended the rededication and provided some insight into her approach to the mural’s design: “When I came into the room for the first time . . . I asked myself, ‘What in music is visual?’ . . . I went to the library and while there I suddenly realized that music is composed of sound waves. So I made an oscillating pattern to run through the whole fresco and tie it together. . . . That’s visual.”2 A series of parabolic curves unifying the panels of the mural represents the oscillating pattern she described.

Bloch saw music as an instrument for fostering racial and ethnic harmony. To express this belief in the mural, she incorporated instruments from different cultures and performers from various parts of the world, like the Balinese cymbals and dancers depicted in one panel. 

 

Bloch’s musically talented family members also appear in the mural. Her sister, a devotee of early medieval music, plays the lute and her father composes a musical score. Another celebrated figure from the world of music, Leopold Stokowski, provided a model for a white-haired conductor leading a symphony orchestra. The references to medieval and classical music are followed by a tribute to jazz, with top hats, musical instruments, and black hands wearing white gloves clapping to the beat. A high school choir composed of singers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds occupies the panel above the doorway. 

 

In the years that followed, Bloch continued to paint frescoes in collaboration with her husband, Stephen Pope Dimitroff, a Bulgarian immigrant who was once Rivera’s chief plasterer. She also worked in a variety of other mediums, including photography, lithography, and sculpture. After living for a time in Flint, Michigan, Bloch and Dimitroff moved to Gualala, California, in 1965. She died there in 1999 at the age of 90.

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Gwen Lux’s larger-than-life cast-aluminum sculpture of Eve for Radio City Music Hall 

Gwen Lux (1908–1986) may be best known for her controversial nude figure sculpture of Eve for Radio City Music Hall, but she did her first work in Chicago, where she was born Gwen Wickerts. She studied in Detroit with Mary Chase Stratton, the founder of Pewabic Pottery, and attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before traveling to Yugoslavia to study with Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. She met and married another of Mestrovic’s students, Hungarian-born Eugene Van Breeman Lux, with whom she collaborated on her early commissions.

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Detail of the zodiac relief sculptures by Gwen Lux for the McGraw-Hill Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. (Top Left: Aquarius; Top Center: Aries; Right: Libra)

The Luxes’ first joint project was a series of relief sculptures for the McGraw-Hill Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, an Art Deco building completed in 1929. Relief panels depicting signs of the zodiac occupy the spaces between the windows of the fourth level, while images of mythological figures—Diana with a deer, Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Helios with the horse that draws the chariot of the sun—decorate the floor above. 

 

Gwen Lux’s first major solo commission was her larger-than-life cast-aluminum sculpture of Eve for Radio City Music Hall. Eve's primordial form, clutching an apple, appears to be in the process of evolution. Radio City’s impresario, Roxy Rothafel, did not approve of Eve or of two other nude female figures created for the hall, Robert Laurent’s Girl and Goose and William Zorach’s Dancing Figure. He called them lewd and lascivious and ordered two of them, Lux’s and Zorach’s, removed for opening night. A public outcry led to their return.

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Carpet for Radio City Music Hall (USA), 1932; Designed by Ruth Reeves (American, 1892–1966); wool; H x W: 93 x 93.5 cm (36 5/8 x 36 13/16 in.); Gift of Mrs. Robert Blasberg in memory of Robert Blasberg; 1987-69-1. Photo: © Smithsonian Institution

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 Tablecloth (USA), 1930–39; Designed by Ruth Reeves (American, 1892–1966); linen; Warp x Weft: 89 x 90 cm (35 1/16 x 35 7/16 in.); Museum purchase from General Acquisitions Endowment and Friends of Textiles Funds and through gift of Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt, Robert C. Greenwald, and the Estate of Florence Choate; 1995-103-1. Photo: © Smithsonian Institution

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Coverlet, Electric pattern; designed by Ruth Reeves; 65.2016.6. Photo: © Smithsonian Institution

Lux’s later projects included Power and Direction for Eero Saarinen’s Styling Administration Building at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Her sculpture The Four Freedoms covered the back wall of the main dining room of the SS United States. She created Birds in Flight for the Northland Mall in Southfield, Michigan, and sculpted figures personifying Day and Night for Edward Durell Stone’s 1950 renovation of the auditorium of the Victoria Theatre in Times Square. In 1973, Lux moved from Detroit to Honolulu, where she died in 1986.

 

Radio City Music Hall also houses the best-known works of the textile designer Ruth Reeves (1892–1966). Born in California, Reeves studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the San Francisco School of Design, and the Art Students League of New York. She spent several years in the 1920s studying with Fernand Léger at the Académie Moderne in Paris. Her time there exposed Reeves to early twentieth century avant-garde artistic movements like Cubism. 

 

In 1930 the W&J Sloane Company, the interior decorating and home furnishings store, commissioned from Reeves a series of textiles jointly submitted to the International Exhibition of Decorative Metalwork and Cotton Textiles sponsored by the American Federation of Art and held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The designs were printed on various types of fabrics related to their intended use, such as wall coverings, tablecloths, curtains, and upholstery. Reeves’s designs included narrative works called “personal prints,” based on her own life or the lives of friends. One of these, American Scene, celebrates everyday American work, sports, and family activities. Another design for Sloane’s, Manhattan, includes skyscrapers, factories, switchboard operators, ocean liners, airplanes, and even the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Electric, a bold geometric design printed on gray billiard cloth felt, was described as “ideal for the aluminum furniture which a radio room in a contemporary manner seems to demand.”3 Sloane’s, which didn’t see Reeves’s  textiles until they had been printed and delivered, was not very pleased with her unconventional, Cubist-inspired designs. The textiles didn’t sell very well, and Reeves never again designed for Sloane’s.

Reeves’s commissions for Radio City Music Hall included a carpet for the grand foyer, Still Life with Musical Instruments, which incorporates Cubist-inspired images of guitars, banjos, clarinets, saxophones, piano keys, accordions, and harps in shades of gray, gold, rust, cream, and black. Her other design for the Music Hall, a sepia-toned textile, History of the Theatre, adorns the auditorium's rear and lower side walls; it includes musicians, singers, actors, equestrian performers, ballet dancers, and a high-stepping chorus line. 

 

In 1934 Reeves spent three months in Guatemala as a Carnegie fellow studying native textile and clothing design. The following March, an exhibition of more than 100 Guatemalan costumes and textiles she had acquired, along with 35 original designs inspired by her travels, opened in the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. After closing in New York, the exhibition toured the United States for two years.

During the Great Depression, Reeves and Romana Javitz, a curator at the New York Public Library, conceived the Index of American Design, produced under the auspices of the FAP. Reeves supervised the index in 1936 and1937. The project employed some 400 artists who produced more than 18,000 images, primarily watercolors, of traditional American crafts from the colonial period through the end of the nineteenth century, including glassware, ceramics, costumes, textiles, metalwork, toys, and furniture. Objects illustrated ranged from weather vanes and tavern signs to quilts, Shaker furniture and carousel animals. The images were intended to provide visual references for contemporary artists looking to develop a distinctively American artistic output.

 

In 1956 Reeves received a Fulbright scholarship to study the craft traditions of India. She served on the All-India Handicrafts Board and as handicraft advisor to the Registrar General of India and remained in India until her death in 1966.

Ilonka Karasz (1896–1981) may be better known than other woman designers of the Art Deco era, but the broad scope of her talent is not always recognized. Her extensive body of work includes illustrations, textiles, rugs, metalwork, lighting, ceramics, furniture, and wallpaper.

One of the first women to study at the Royal School of Arts and Crafts in her native Budapest, Karasz immigrated to the United States in 1913, while still a teenager. Settling in Greenwich Village, she became part of a community of artists interested in modern design. Her illustrations began appearing in avant-garde magazines, including one with the intriguing title Playboy: A Portfolio of Art and Satire. Karasz remained involved in graphic design throughout her career. Her best-known works in this field are the nearly 200 New Yorker covers that she designed from the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s. 

During her early years in New York, Karasz participated in textile design competitions sponsored by the fashion publication Women’s Wear, and some of her early designs were commercially produced. In the late 1920s and 1930s she designed textiles for several leading firms, including F. Schumacher & Company and Cheney Brothers. 

 

Karasz’s furniture and silver designs frequently figured in model rooms at exhibitions of modern American design organized by artists’ associations, galleries, and department stores in the wake of the 1925 Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. For the 1928 American Designers’ Gallery exhibition, she designed the catalog cover and created two entire rooms: a studio apartment filled with multipurpose furniture and a nursery infused with bright colors and geometric forms. For the 1929 American Designers’ Gallery, she designed a dining room with a table that could be folded and placed against a wall for easy storage.

One of Karasz’s lesser-known talents was her skill as a mapmaker. Her cover designs often included maps, and she also designed maps for several books, including the 1926 publication New York: Not So Little and Not So Old by Sarah M. Lockwood. 

 

For most of her life, Karasz lived in Brewster, New York, with her husband, the chemist William Nyland. She died in 1981 at her daughter's home in Warwick, New York.

Belle Kogan (1902–2000) was among the few women of her time to achieve success in industrial design, a field dominated by men in the 1920s and 1930s. Born in Russia in 1902, Kogan immigrated with her parents to Allentown, Pennsylvania, at age four.

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Print, Cover of The New Yorker, The New York World’s Fair, September 2, 1939; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); USA; offset lithograph on paper; 30.2 x 22.2 cm (11 7/8 x 8 3/4 in.); Gift of Anonymous Donor; 1960-207-18. Photo: © Smithsonian Institution 

During her senior year of high school, she opted to take a course in mechanical drawing—not surprisingly, the only woman in the class. After graduating, she taught the course while saving money to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She made it to Pratt but soon had to return to Pennsylvania to help with the family jewelry business.

 

In 1932, with a retainer from Quaker Silver, she opened her own practice, Belle Kogan Associates, on Madison Avenue in New York. Her early clients included the Bakelite Corporation, for which she designed distinctive bangle bracelets with oblong dots injected during the manufacturing process.

Her long client list included Red Wing Pottery, for which she designed more than 400 pieces from 1938 to 1964. She also designed serving dishes for Reed & Barton, lighters for Zippo, and melamine dinnerware for the Boonton Modeling Company. Kogan maintained her practice in New York until she closed the office in 1970 and moved to Israel, where she established a studio for KV Design. She retired two years later and remained in Israel until her death in 2000 at age 98. In 1994 Kogan became only the second women to receive the Personal Recognition Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America. 

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TOP LEFT: Serving dish, Taunton, Massachusetts, USA, c. 1938. Designed by Belle Kogan (American, 1902-2000), Manufactured by Reed and Barton. Gift of Daniel Morris and Denis Gallion, 1993-134-14. Photo: © Smithsonian Institution

 

BOTTOM LEFT:  Bowl (USA), c. 1928; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); electro-plated nickel silver; H x diam.: 4.8 x 8.1 cm (1 7/8 x 3 3/16 in.); Museum purchase from Decorative Arts Association Acquisition and General Acquisitions Endowment Funds; 1993-111-2. Photo: © Smithsonian Institution

RIGHT:  Vase, 1928; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); silver-plated metal; H x diam.: 19.8 x 10.6 cm (7 13/16 x 4 3/16 in.); Museum purchase from Decorative Arts Association Acquisition and General Acquisitions Endowment Funds; 1993-111-1. Photo: © Smithsonian Institution

These five talented designers represent only a fraction of the women who made their mark on the Art Deco era. They and many, many others—Loja Saarinen, Elsa Tennhardt, Greta von Nessen, Ellen Manderfield, Grete Marks, Marguerita Mergentime, Henrietta Reiss, Eva Zeisel, and Marie Zimmerman, to name but a few—attest to the fact that Art Deco design was not just a man’s world. 

About the Author:

 

Kathleen Murphy Skolnik teaches art and architectural history at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois, and leads seminars on Art Deco design at the Newberry Library, a private research library also in Chicago. She is the co-author of The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière and a contributor to the recently published Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern America. She currently serves on ADSNY’s Advisory Board.

 

Endnotes: 

1. Lucienne Bloch, “Murals for Use” in Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973), p. 76.

2. “Music and Art,” The New Yorker, November 18, 1991, pp. 40–41.

3. Catalog, Exhibition of Contemporary Textiles – Ruth Reeves, W..J. Sloane, 1930.

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Red Wing Pottery produced almost 2,000 styles of glazed art pottery between about 1929 and 1967. This 1960s mandarin orange ceramic compote from the Prismatique line was created by Belle Kogan, a nationally known industrial designer who turned out the first of her 100 Red Wing Pottery commissions in 1939.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Spring 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.