Helene Rother (1908–1999) was the first woman to work as an automotive designer when she joined the interior styling staff of General Motors in Detroit in 1943. She specialized in designs for automotive interiors, as well as furniture, jewellery, fashion accessories, and stained glass windows.
A native of Leipzig, Germany, Rother studied art at the Kunstgewerbeschule (a school of applied arts) in Hamburg. It is also claimed that she studied at the Bauhaus, although the details of when remain unclear. No dates are available and some sources say she went to the Weimar Bauhaus (open 1919-1925) and some say Dessau, (open 1926-1932).
Rother fled from Nazi-occupied France together with her seven-year-old daughter Ina, to a refugee camp in northern Africa where they stayed for four months before finding passage on a ship bound for New York City in 1941.
Rother's first employment in New York was as an illustrator for Marvel Comics. The following year, she joined the interior styling staff of General Motors in Detroit, Michigan. She was responsible for upholstery colors and fabrics, lighting, door hardware and seat construction.
Although she was Detroit's first woman automotive designer, it was downplayed at the time and her salary as reported in a newspaper was US$600 a month. At this time the average wage was $200 for a man. "She was one of the few women to succeed in a man's job during an era when the vast majority of women couldn't even see a glass ceiling-it was hidden behind steel doors."
In 1947, Rother established her own design studio in the Fisher Building, where she specialized in designs for automotive interiors, furniture, and stained glass windows. Her business was named Helene Rother Associates. In 1948 she published a technical paper with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) asking "Are we doing a good job in our car interiors" She participated in SAE conferences describing that much can be and should be done in improving automobile interior design and the materials used at that time, summarizing what determines quality in textiles "You get exactly what you pay for."
In 1949, The SAE Journal reported on Rother's work and her activities advocating women in the industry. They described her "efforts have encompassed items ranging from jewelry and accessories to several of today's automobiles, and quoted her that "even the Army is ahead of industry in employing the talents of women."
She was soon contracted by Nash Motors and styled the elegant interiors of most of the cars from 1948 to 1956. Even the economical Nash Rambler models were prominently promoted as "irresistible glamour" on wheels. The innovative 100-inch wheelbase Rambler was conceived initially as a well-appointed convertible with its interior designed with the aid of Rother as a consultant. Nash used a strategy to give the new Rambler a positive public image by avoiding it being seen by the public as a "cheap little car." It was "well-equipped and stylish" with no "stripped-down" versions. The focus on design and quality features helped establish a new segment in the automobile market, as the Rambler is widely acknowledged to be the first successful modern American compact car.
Rother designed the Rambler's interiors to appeal to the feminine eye knew because she knew what women looked for in a car and her designs featured elegant, stylish, and expensive fabrics that coordinated in colors and trim. The new 1951 Rambler models were also "given the custom touch" with fabrics and colors selected by Rother that "equaled the best of interiors in American luxury cars of the period."
She toured the 1951 Paris Auto Salon, and was the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. In 1953, Nash was awarded the Jackson Medal, "...since 1898, one of America's most sought-after awards," according to an advertisement, for excellence of design. Many Nash sales brochures and Rambler advertisements of the time featured the copy stating: "Styling by Pinin Farina and interiors by Madame Helene Rother of Paris" as proof of the European influence on company's automobile styling. She conferred with Pinin Farina, who styled the exterior of the 1953 Nash Airflytes, to coordinate with the interiors and new custom fabrics. In 1954, the Nash Ambassadors had a big feature: the completely new interior by Rother. That year, Nash merged with Hudson to create American Motors Corporation (AMC), but her influence on interior fashion in automobiles continued.
Rother purchased a home on Chicago Boulevard in Detroit, with living quarters upstairs and a studio downstairs, where she continued other independent consulting work. Her clients included several tire manufacturing companies, as well as non-automotive firms. She was also responsible for designing the interiors of ambulances and hearses for Miller-Meteor.
A sterling flatware pattern called "Skylark" was designed by Rother for Samuel Kirk & Son, silver craftsmen firm since 1815, that the company issued from 1954 into the late-1980s. The Skylark brand and logo expired in 1997.
Rother decided she wanted to begin producing art again so she went for a visit to Europe where she saw the struggle to restore or rebuild war-damaged churches and cathedrals. She also designed stained glass for American churches and had installations in the mid-1960s, mainly in Michigan, such as the Beverly Hills United Methodist Church in Beverly Hills, and the St. Lazarus Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in northeast Detroit with all thick "chunk" faceted glass, that was fabricated in France. In 1962, the St. James United Church of Christ in Dearborn, was dedicated featuring windows and the reredos designed by Rother. The glass was selected and fabricated into small pieces by a family group of craftsmen in Buche, a suburb of Paris, before being shipped from France for final assembly during the construction.
Rother remains relatively unknown in the world of stained glass as women who designed stained glass, either independently or under a major studio name, were for the most part unrecognized at the time.
In 1953, Tide, a magazine covering the sales and advertising industry and trends, wrote: "a most attractive woman, whom I have thus encountered along the periphery of advertising is Madam Helene Rother — pretty and vivacious enough to serve as a prototype of Parisian women. She is an industrial designer with an impressive record."
According to automotive historian Patrick Foster, Rother is one of the important people in the automotive industry who have been overlooked or forgotten. She was not the first woman to work in styling; however, "she was an early pioneer and one of the best."
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