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Helene Rother – Women in Automotive Design

“And even today, after six years (as a designer), the automotive industry is still unique in its lack of employing women in creative positions.” – Helene Rother

One of the first women to work in automobile design, Helene Rother, not only began a new era of elegantly designed car interiors but also built a name for herself in a male-dominated field. Born in Germany in 1908, Rother lived there until the mid-20s when she fled to France from the Nazis. She had started her career as a book illustrator and once in France, opened her own design studio called “Contempora Studio” where she designed jewelry and fashion accessories. Until, in 1941, when the Nazis invaded France and she fled to Casablanca, Morocco with her young daughter and they lived in a displaced persons camp as refugees until they could finally travel to the U.S.

After moving to the U.S, Rother immediately got a job as an illustrator for Marvel Comics, and in 1942, she was hired by General Motors as “a designer of fashionable materials”. She became one of the first female automotive designers. Unlike her predecessors, Rother focused on the “upholstery colors and fabrics” in order to "advance bland interior styling into something more eye-catching and stylized than the bland postwar cars” (1). Even though it may not be the first material most people consider when discussing car designs, textiles are an imperative element. Rother shows its importance as she uses innovative textile colors and textures in her cars, and they become extremely popular.

Rother innovated the cars’ upholstery with vibrant colors that were based on what she thought looked aesthetically pleasing and based on the research she did around the country. Rother believed that a car needs a colorful interior, and in a speech that she gave for the Society of Automobile Engineers, she said: “I have interviewed a number of women in different groups in the different cities, in the East, South, and Northwest on the subject of colors in cars… the overwhelming preference with women was red. And after that, a dreamy deep green with a touch of silver” (2). She did not assume that women would like a specific color for their cars, but she heard what they had to say as potential buyers, and it worked.

Textiles in cars are not only important for their aesthetic purposes, but also for their functionality. A car’s upholstery must be made of fabric that will be easy to clean and durable, because of the constant contact with people and different surfaces. Rother also understood that and worked with innovative fabrics at the time to deliver easy-to-clean, resistant upholstery that was also beautifully colorful. From 1948 to 1956 she was not only working on “flagship Nash automobiles” (3) but also on sports cars such as the 1952 Nash-Healey that won third place in the 24-hour Le Mans race. She showed the importance of textiles and details in the interior design of cars from daily use to competitive models.

After having worked in the industry for a long time, Rother opened her own creative studio – the Contempora Studio – where she collaborated with automobile manufacturers and companies in other industries, in a way that she had more control of her designs and projects (4). Her passion for color could be seen in all areas of design that she worked in, and by joining it to textile design she really did change the way in which car design was done. She focused on a more “delicate” part of the automobile design and claimed that it was what would sell the cars, and not the engineering aspects, which most clients had no idea about. She was, in many ways, totally correct and once again proved herself a great designer and innovator, while representing women in an industry where they were (and still are) clearly a minority. Rother worked hard and “Eventually she would earn three times the average male wage and build a personal brand synonymous with luxury” (5).

Footnotes and Links

Giovanna Pedrinola is an artist born in São Paulo, Brazil and currently living in New York City. Her most recent mixed media works explore connections between the physical body and the subconscious mind in an attempt to comprehend our existence. This combined with her fascination with ancient traditions, architecture, dance, music, textiles, rituals, and cosmology, generates continuous research currently archived as text and images.

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