The Unlikely Story of One of General Motors's First Female Designers
Recently, at Palm Springs Modernism Week, a trio of presentations covered the often obscured historical role that women have played in industrial design. Coordinated by Susan Skarsgard, design archivist at General Motors’s landmark Eero Saarinen–designed Technical Center, these included a session with 87-year-old Gere Kavanaugh, who discussed her 60-year career. Kavanaugh attended the Memphis Academy of Arts and was among the first women to earn an advanced degree from the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art outside of Detroit. She then was one of the first women to be hired by General Motors's design department.
“When I was asked to apply for the job, it came through Walter Hickey, who was an ex–Eero Saarinen employee who went to work for General Motors,” says Kavanaugh. “I worked in the architectural design area, as a liaison between Saarinen and GM. And I did work for Frigidaire and created experimental kitchen designs using Frigidaire products. And I did an exhibit on textiles and color.” Kavanaugh and her female colleagues were labeled, rather patronizingly, the "Damsels of Design" by the General Motors PR department. “I never liked the name, and none of us did. But we just laughed and carried on and did what we needed to do,” Kavanaugh says. “We all knew that it was a publicity stunt.”
Gere Kavanaugh standing before GM's Styling Dome. It was designed by Kavanaugh for their 1958 exhibition of vehicles, an event that included nearly one-hundred canaries placed within the nets that would start singing when the lights came on.
In fact, it wasn’t until after leaving GM and taking a job in the Los Angeles office of Detroit-area architect Victor Gruen (best known for having designed the world’s first suburban shopping malls) that Kavanaugh experienced discrimination. And it wasn’t at work. “I was invited to a party at the Herman Miller showroom in L.A., and a man there asked me where I worked. I said I worked at Gruen, and that I was the principal interior designer. And he looked at me and said, 'Oh, you’re a girl designer,'” Kavanaugh says, indignant. “My mouth hung open. Then, he said, 'There’s another girl designer here.' And he took me to the other side of the room and introduced me to Deborah Sussman, who had at that time been working with Ray Eames for 12 years, as another girl designer. For years after, we’d always joke about that.”
Kavanaugh eventually opened a firm of her own, Gere Kavanaugh Designs, and teamed with a group of up-and-coming designers to rent a studio. Sharing space with her in that time were artists who included Frank Gehry , Sussman, and Don Chadwick. “I met Frank Gehry and Greg Walsh when they both started working at Gruen. They were kind of a team and had gone to USC together, and I became great friends with them,” Kavanaugh says. “We all got a tiny bungalow office together in Santa Monica. And I collaborated with them, it was a collaborative office.”
Beloved of activity and creativity, Kavanaugh continues her practice in Los Angeles today. Her clients have included companies such as Pepsi, Neutrogena, CB2, and Hallmark. She is currently working on a custom furniture suite for the house of a client she worked with 25 years ago. “People always ask me, 'What do you like to design best?' And my answer is always the same,” Kavanaugh says. “Anything I can get my hands on.”