A Colorful Life: Gere Kavanaugh, Designer by Louise Sandhaus & Kat Catmur (Princeton Architectural Press) is among the most exuberant design books I’ve seen in years. The life of Gere Kavanaugh, who was brought back into view (at least for those in the graphic design world who were not aware of her gifts), by having received the 2016 AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement, are all the better for it. She was a force behind California style, a maker, “influencer” and leader of American textiles in many areas. This new book is a fitting testament. In a Spring publishing season filled with some great design books, this one is not to be missed. I spoke to authors Sandhaus and Catmur, but this is just a taste.
Gere Kavanaugh is indeed a powerhouse of design. But until she received the AIGA Medal last year I had never known about her achievements. How did you learn about her?
She’s a fixture in L.A. If you go to any event here related to design, there’s Gere front row center listening attentively and usually with much to add to the conversation. Everyone who knows Gere seems to describe her the same way: the unique and fascinating wardrobe of traditional garments or clothing of her own design and fabrics, the whooping haaaallllooo… and, of course, her rubber chicken purse.
It is the flaw in graphic design history that many, like Gere Kavanaugh, on the edges yet in the center of popular culture, do not get covered. Where do you feel she fits into the design history that is ever-growing?
Part of the issue in Gere’s exclusion from design history may be because the range of her work is so diverse. It is hard to know where or how to categorize her unconventional practice within conventional historical narratives. She was a product designer AND a textile designer AND a furniture designer AND an exhibition designer, just to name a few. This lack of specialization means she did not fit neatly into any one area of design.
One thing that we found curious is that stories about Gere and her projects were published extensively throughout her career in all sorts of magazines, newspapers, and journals. These included local newspapers like the Detroit Free Press and the L.A.Times; popular magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, House Beautiful, and Cosmopolitan; as well as the trade press, such as Women’s Wear Daily and Interiors. The issue wasn’t that she was left out of history, but that over time she was forgotten. Now we’re in a moment of unforgetting—particularly of women’s contributions.
You write about her “Life in Color.” Do you believe this passion for hue is a distinctly West Coast phenomenon than East?
According to Gere, a whole new sense of color came distinctly alive when she moved to California. April Greiman says pretty much the same thing, and the film industry would agree with both of them since the industry was established here because of the light (and weather, of course). It’s a trope for sure, but at a certain time of day L.A.’s quality of light makes colors appear to glow from within—that proverbial magic hour. But Gere credits her first awareness and passion for color when playing with her mother’s colorful spools of thread as child. She would stack sets of different colorful spools (essentially creating different color palettes) and from an unusually young age she developed an understanding and love of color.
The chapter on Gere’s graphic design is slim — you call it the final arrow in her quiver – why isn’t there more graphic work in her legacy?
Perhaps it was Kavanaugh’s strength in so many other areas that has overshadowed her graphic design work. When she did have graphic design projects—often for established clients like Isabel Scott and Toys for Roy—her sensibilities of space and color allowed her to fill role as a graphic designer competently although she didn’t have specific graphic design training. These project when she was able to contribute more than one design discipline, she would refer to as doing the “kit and kaboodle”!
Although she didn’t seem to receive any typographic training during her studies at Cranbrook, she did design a custom typeface for the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and for Arklow Pottery in Ireland. For other typographic needs she worked with Vernon Simpson, who ran a type shop in Los Angeles, mostly setting the type in Kavanaugh’s beloved Helvetica. Although for a holiday poster she designed for Isabel Scott Fabrics, Kavanaugh hired the Emmy-award-winning title designer, Maury Nemoy, to create a magnificent calligraphic backdrop to Gere’s white dove illustration.
There is a quality at once of its time but also very contemporary in the collection of work that you show. How would you describe her place in the American modern tradition?
Throughout her life, Gere has both known and been influenced by many of America’s great thinkers and artists. Her multifaceted design talents were first nurtured at Cranbrook, which played an exceptional role in developing American modernism and produced many luminaries of design such as Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, and Ruth Adler Schnee, among many others. Gere embraced the interdisciplinary approach to design working with silk screening, textiles and product design, furniture and jewelry. Throughout her career this cross-pollination would see ideas transcend material boundaries, such as her beloved flower motif that would adorn textiles, become furniture or stand as eleven-foot-tall steel sculptures.
At Cranbrook, Kavanaugh was also exposed the work of the nearby Eero Saarinen office which she visited often with fellow students. She had a front row seat to a new look for American automobiles with working in Harley Earl’s Styling Division at General Motors. And for many years Kavanaugh shared a studio space with Frank Gehry.
Gere developed trusting relationships with clients who gave her the scope she needed to create her vision. Under the mentorship of Rudi Baumfeld, Gere designed interiors for Joseph Magnin—a client that lauded American post-war pop culture and had the gumption and foresight to embrace Gere’s unapologetically bold designs. In one such example, Gere commissioned Ruth Asawa to create pendulous sculptures for the foyer of a store where previously fussy chandeliers would have hung, in another she used the graphic symbol of the flower across every possible surface of the store, including superside petal carpeting, hanging flower lamps and shimmering gold floral wallpaper, that she design for Bill Kehlior.
Gere’s initiation into the design world with a zeal for bold, playful and graphic form that aligns with the more joyful and enthusiastic ideals of modernist expression in American that we see in Paul Rand, the Eames, and Alexander Girard.
There is a certain relationship to Sister Corita Kent and Deborah Sussman, would you make that connection?
Gere had met Sister Corita and Sister Magdalen Mary Martin (Maggie) at a barbecue in Memphis when they were in Gere’s hometown to give a talk. The three stayed in touch and in 1960, after Victor Gruen offered Gere a job in their L.A. office as head of interiors, Gere came out to see what the city was like. She recants Sisters Corita and Maggie saying to her “we have a house for you… you must move out here.” And she did.
Deborah Sussman had worked for the Eames from 1953 until 1957 and then again from 1960 until she forming her own office in 1968. Sussman and Kavanaugh had met at an art opening sometime during the later period and as there were few women designers in L.A. at the time, a bond formed. When Sussman left the Eames she joined the office space that Gere was sharing with Frank Gehry and his business partner, Greg Walsh.
The intersection of Kavanaugh, Corita, and Sussman happens when Gehry was hired to design the Joseph Magnin South Coast Plaza store in Costa Mesa. Gehry invited Gere to work with him on the store interiors and Sussman to work on the on signage and graphics. As part of Gere’s design for the store restaurant, Soupçon, she worked with students of Corita Kent’s at Immaculate Heart College to create food-related graphic “clouds” that would be used in lieu of more conventional wallpaper.
Kavanaugh is very much alive; is she still working?
Like you said, she’s VERY much alive and active and still fielding calls from clients about projects. The book seems to be re-energized recognition for her work as well, and we’re getting an inkling that some of her projects may either go into production for the first time or into production again.
I certainly feel this is an important and eye-opening volume that expands on the history of design. Do you have a specific hope for the book?
That’s quite a statement. We do think that what is considered design history is quite limited because “the canon” has been so engrained. But as you’ve shown through your own prolific writing about unknown or little-known designers and also now with the availability of so many archives that have become digitally available: History is big, but until recently the record has been small.
The hope is that this is yet another contribution that recognizes the distinct, considerable, and remarkable contribution to design by Californians. But another hope is a recognition that the history of design can take place in many forms and from different voices. As Lorraine Wild has pointed out, until recently the history of design was told by designers themselves. No one else cared. So perhaps what this book shows, aside from the story of Gere’s career, is that when designers become researchers and writers they can tell stories through both design and writing—through the crafting of words and pictures that is uniquely in their repertoire.