If AMC’s long-running television show Mad Men has taught us anything, it is that it is hard being a woman in a man’s world. And while Peggy Olsen’s struggle to be taken seriously as an advertising professional in the 1960s is fictional, many talented, driven, and creative women found themselves fighting a similar battle in their own professions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Suzanne Vanderbilt was one such woman, and her work as a designer at General Motors is highlighted in A Driving Force: Cranbrook and the Car, now open in the lower galleries of the Cranbrook Art Museum. A Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate, Vanderbilt was an active member of the “Damsels of Design,” the young women hired by Harley Earl to work on the interiors of vehicles for General Motors in the 1950s and 1960s.
Though the assembling of these women into a charming and attractive group of “damsels” was a PR ploy, the fact remains that these women designers did real work for GM, re-thinking car interiors at the exact moment that the auto industry began recognizing women as significant consumers of their products. Women have historically made the majority of household purchasing decisions, and as cars increasingly became associated with domestic American life it became clear that women would have a greater role in buying them. Recognizing this trend, GM acknowledged that its design, engineering, and marketing of cars would have to shift. And who better to understand the female consumer than women themselves?
Hired by GM after graduating from Pratt in 1955, Suzanne Vanderbilt drove out to Michigan from New York to take a position designing interiors for Chevrolet. In her time working for General Motors she met Peggy Sauer, another “Damsel” who graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1948 with her BFA in sculpture. While Vanderbilt had many opportunities to find out about Cranbrook, I like to imagine that it was Peggy who pointed out the program to her. Maybe they were chatting during a break from one of the promotional photo shoots that General Motors required of their lady designers and Sauer mentioned her time at Cranbrook, or maybe Vanderbilt sought her out as a local authority—either way, it is interesting to contemplate the sort of industrial/artistic networks that existed in and around the automobile industry in Detroit in this period.
Vanderbilt took a leave of absence from General Motors to pursue her MFA in Design at Cranbrook. Soon, though, she switched to the Metals department. Metals seemed an appropriate choice for a few reasons—she wanted to manipulate form in three dimensions, she had a strong interest in ecclesiastical art, and she hoped that working with metal would get her access to the world of exterior auto designing. While companies such as GM and Ford had begun hiring women as interior stylists, exterior body designing remained very much an old boys club. Vanderbilt thought that getting her degree in Metals, which had a great deal of overlap with exterior styling, might help her prove her chops with the exteriors department at General Motors. In her oral history, recorded in 1985 and archived by the Automotive Design Oral History Project at the Benson Ford Research Center, she explained that metalsmithing had “a direct correlation to what I was working with… you learn to cast, you learn to forge, you learn how sheet metal would bend and move, and that’s what I was doing.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most significant changes Vanderbilt made in coming to Cranbrook involved cars. “I put my Corvette up on blocks and bought a Volkswagen because of having to lug a lot of junk around. I didn’t want to do that with a Corvette,” Vanderbilt explained.
When Vanderbilt returned to General Motors, the prevailing attitude was that she had been on vacation for two years. “They said, “Well, did you have a good time?” And I said, “No, I worked harder there than I did here,” and I really did. It was a grind.” Though she worked incredibly hard, her efforts were not enough to get her into an exteriors design position, and when she went to then-Vice President of Design William Mitchell, he failed to see correlation between her metals work at Cranbrook and her ability to assist with exterior styling.
Despite that setback, Vanderbilt flourished at GM following her graduate school sabbatical. Forced to start over again as a senior designer (she had been promoted to assistant chief in the advanced automotive studio before she left), she quickly rose the ranks, eventually holding responsibility for soft trim in all of GM’s lines. She designed until her early retirement in 1977 due to health issues.
Following her retirement, Vanderbilt continued to exercise her creative spirit. Her personal papers are held in the Cranbrook Archives, along with slides of nature and wildlife that Vanderbilt used as inspiration for her artwork. As an artist, she thought constantly of line, color, and form, and as a woman in a man’s world she worked tirelessly to put forward her view of modern, accessible automotive design.
With her strong Cranbrook connections, her long and productive career, and her role as a female pioneer in a male-dominated field, Suzanne Vanderbilt was a shoe-in for Driving Force . Visit the exhibition and you’ll get a chance to see artifacts pulled from Vanderbilt’s papers in the Cranbrook Archives, including Damsels of Design advertisements, fan mail that she received from housewives enamored of her lifestyle, and her incredible portfolio of drawings and automotive interior designs, which have been digitized and made available via interactive display.
For more on Suzanne Vanderbilt, be sure to check out these resources:
Suzanne Vanderbilt’s oral history, compiled, transcribed, and made available through the Automotive Design Oral History Project
General Motors film footage of the Damsels of Design, uploaded by the Museum of the City of New York as part of an exhibition on female automotive designers
Finding aid for the Suzanne Vanderbilt Papers at the Cranbrook Archives
By Shoshana Resnikoff, 2012-2013 Collections Fellow for the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
It wasn’t a “PR ploy” for Harley to have women on his team of designers . . . it was the future of design. He was a visionary and saw many great reasons to have women on board, “seven out of ten times, women make the buying decision in a family when making important purchases.” Plus, he said in 1958, “I think women will be designing whole cars in three to five years from now.” Obviously this wasn’t the case because the men who followed in his footsteps sadly didn’t share his vision.