A National Editorial Association press release photo, dated October 31, 1935, announces, “Helen Dryden, industrial designer for the Studebaker President, is the only woman to to invade man’s domain, automobile production.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
To aficionados of flamboyant, early 20th-century fashion magazine covers—or enthusiasts of mid-1930s Studebakers—her name may spark some recognition. For die-hard fans of a damned perplexing mystery story, Helen Dryden’s biography will leave you intrigued.
She was born November 26, 1883, into a wealthy Baltimore, Maryland, family that lived in an upscale neighborhood adjacent to that city’s George Washington monument. Both parents “were of old Baltimore background.” But at age seven, her presumed future career as a socialite in a prominent family was made highly unlikely due to an unexplained “break-down of a sugar refining business.”
The family moved to Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, circa 1891, where Helen attended school at Eden Hall, Torresdale, and later, Mrs. Comegy’s School. She demonstrated an interest and abilities in art that led her to briefly attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and to study landscape painting under Hugh Breckinridge for four years. But her fascination centered on 18th-century French society, design and dress.
For a school project, she produced a set of paper dolls which appeared in a newspaper fashion section. From that exposure she was later hired to illustrate Ann Rittenhouse’s fashion articles in the Philadelphia Public Ledger and Philadelphia Press for a year.
Still, her intense desire to develop illustrations in her own style and on her own terms led her to move to a tiny Washington Square studio in New York City in 1908 or 1909. Specifically, she longed to produce fashion illustrations, but her unconventional sketches were rejected at several publishing houses over the course of a year. Between odd jobs, she prepared a portfolio for the fashion editor at Vogue, where she was “coldly and flatly turned down.” Though she was brusquely sent on her way, her samples were kept on file.
Soon after her rejection, situations changed quickly at Vogue. In 1909, Condé Montrose Nast purchased the magazine and assumed command as owner, chairman of the board, president, publisher—and, apparently—interim fashion editor. Reviewing recent illustration submissions, he embraced Helen Dryden’s non-photographic, simplified and stylized artwork.
“There was a place for what I had to offer. One of the magazines gave me a job drawing fashions. If I had copied the others, I might have obtained work earlier, but I would have had no career. I felt I had something original to offer and refused to be talked out of it.”
Over a span of a dozen years, Helen Dryden’s covers for Vogue set traditional magazine cover design on its ear.
Dryden was hired as a fashion editor, and within three months produced the first of approximately 100 fanciful cover designs that appeared from 1910 to 1923. Vogue’s premier editorial and artwork positioned it as an influential voice in the developing fashion industry, and through her cover designs, Dryden also became a trendsetter for the high-fashion social elite. Within a few years of her numerous initial rejections she was repeatedly referred to as “America’s most highly paid female artist” in numerous published articles.
The Condé Nast organization employed numerous artists during Dryden’s tenure, including, in 1919, fashion illustrator and Ziegfeld Follies costume designer Raymond Loewy. Dryden’s and Loewy’s design efforts would occasionally intertwine for decades.
As the publisher expanded to include additional magazine titles, Dryden also produced covers for House & Garden and Vanity Fair.
Concurrent with her responsibilities at Vogue, Dryden launched a second career, commencing in 1914 and lasting through the early ’20s, as a Broadway theater costume designer for at least seven productions, sometimes drawing rave reviews for her extravagant, colorful and bizarre costumes even when the plays themselves were panned. She made Ethel Barrymore shine as a queen in Clair de Lune, and her White Peacock costume design for the Russian ballet launched countless imitations on the stage and in the streets.
Helen Dryden’s theatre costume design, printed illustrations and magazine covers proliferated in the 1920s.
In mid-1923, it appears that Dryden severed ties to Vogue, but throughout the 1920s, Dryden designed patterns for Imperial Wallpaper and illustrated advertisements for Aberfoyle dress fabrics, Martex towels, Stehli silks and hats for Knox and Reboux, and she appeared in ads for Cutex. From at least late 1926 to early 1930 she illustrated covers for Delineator magazine, a women’s homemaking magazine produced by Butterick Publishing to market its sewing patterns. Her Delineator covers employed a progressively angular, flat and stark style.
By the late 1920s, Dryden was ready to expand her resume. For her entrée into Career Number Three, she dared to invade the boys-only industrial design arena. She designed decorative lighting pieces for Revere Copper and was hired as an automotive product stylist for the Dura Company of Toledo, Ohio. As reported in the July 27, 1929, issue of Automobile Topics, “Helen Dryden, who has been called America’s highest paid woman artist, has been appointed director of design… of automobile body hardware… She is recognized as an international authority on design, style and decoration and is expected to exert an important creative influence in the automotive field.”
Her position at automotive hardware manufacturer Dura—at a reported $35,000 a year—ended abruptly only months later with a wave of layoffs as a result of the October, 1929, stock market crash, as her much lower-paid successor, George W. Walker, recalled in a 1985 interview with David R. Crippen for the Edsel B. Ford Design History Center.
But Dryden retained her affiliation with Dura; in an Automobile Topics article from January, 1930, she was referred to as a Dura design consultant and reported that “I can see many opportunities for really well dressed cars done in true modern style… I mean simplicity which now more than ever has come into its own as true art. Color… must be touched upon in considering simplicity. Soft neutral shades are most popular among women of taste and distinction.”
Dryden appeared as one of several celebrities in an advertisement for 1930 Studebakers, which were “styled as befits champions by those whose word in art carries authority.” She was also referenced, along with Norman Bel Geddes, in a less complimentary January 13, 1930 TIME review of the 30th annual National Automobile Show, “Obviously the recent U.S. renascence in bathroom fixtures and furniture has smitten the automobile. Some of the artists responsible for the renascence are now working on auto bodies.”
In an article Dryden authored for the January 25, 1930 issue of Automobile Topics, she opined that “whatever fault lies with automobile design and fittings today, may be attributed to the tendency to go back to stage-coach days for inspiration, instead of thinking in modern terms… I can regard curves and knobs—looking for all the world like big lumps of taffy—as nothing more or less than relics of the past, designs that have been handed down from past generations.
“Here we have a vehicle like none other in the history of the world. Let us… invent complimentary fittings and adornments sleek, straight and slim. To me the modern automobile… is worthy serious study as a thing apart from any other means of transportation. It deserves new ideas in decoration, typifying its own individual period.”
Beyond broad statements, she offered specific recommendations: “In seeking simplicity in modern motor car design, which to me is so essential, there are many things to be considered. I feel that real progress will have been made when more car interiors have recessed ash receivers rather than those little wooden boxes that we have grown accustomed to seeing stuck on the side of the car. An ideal arrangement for disposing of ashes in the deluxe type of vehicle would seem to me to be a small pocket recessed in the wall, covered with a metal door on a hinge. The ashes could easily be dropped inside and the smooth face of the wall would not be disturbed.”
Dryden also addressed gender-specific marketing issues: “With womankind influencing the sale of automobiles in greater numbers today than ever before, it is essential to consider what will have the greatest appeal to her taste and what will best meet her requirements. Her car must afford a suitable background for her social life, her clothes, her manner of living.”
The October 25, 1930, issue of Automobile Topics revealed that Dryden traveled abroad to review the Paris Salon and stated that “during the past year Miss Dryden has widened the recognition she has won in the art world through her achievements in bringing new ideas of design into the automotive field. As consultant to the Dura Co. in evolving new types of automobile hardware she has been brought in close touch with the modern automobile and has viewed its decoration not alone from the standpoint of artist and stylist, but through the eyes of a woman…”
In the same issue, Dryden reported, “Europe seems to give the designer a free hand in developing his ideas, and as a result the Salon was a refreshing contrast to our own very uniform exhibits… More and more carrossiers are becoming converted to the modern school of design which merely insists that a thing should be built as simply and honestly as possible… the French are building cars lower, flatter, and simpler, thereby, reducing wind resistance and giving emphasis to the lines of speed.
“An Austro-Daimler four passenger coupe built in Vienna… was long and low and very simple… there was no hood hinge, the hood being made in three pieces with the sides clamping down the top… how smart [it] appeared merely because of the absence of the ridge down the center.
“Due to my experience in designing automobile hardware… I am convinced that the French designers strike a higher level of luxury… than we have yet achieved in America… When line and proportion are perfect, only then is that illusive quality of chic to be found…”
On female designers in the commercial design field, Dryden offered in a 1930 interview, “Perhaps one never hears of the women at the top in these lines. But some of them are making $50,000, $75,000 a year. Such jobs are few, naturally. Most pay much less. Still, a great many women designers of one thing and another in New York earn $8,000 a year; and $12,000, $15,000, $25,000 salaries are not rare.” But she warns that, “You cannot afford to be temperamental with men who use your work to sell something else… If you know you are right, be firm, as far as you may… but don’t forget that in a way you are still something of an outsider, especially if you are called in as an expert adviser, and business isn’t thoroughly used to you yet…”
An October 1, 1930, Fresno (California) Bee article goes so far as to state “At the present time she is devoting her talents at a salary said to be $100,000 a year to designing automobiles.”
Given the steadily worsening state of the Great Depression-era economy in 1930, we find both of these salary references to be highly optimistic at best. At that time, Dryden’s financial position was post-Vogue and pre-Studebaker. As a part-time consultant for Dura and an occasional globetrotting freelance automotive styling critic, the astronomical numbers simply don’t seem to apply to the reality of the day.
The National Alliance of Art and Industry awarded Dryden an honorable mention as a commercial designer in the automotive field for 1932.
In November, 1934, Dryden was hired as a stylist at Studebaker, while she continued to report on the state of automotive design and pursue her other commercial design activities.
The January 9, 1935, edition of The New York Times included coverage of the opening of the 1935 Auto Show at Grand Central Palace and lists Dryden as an industrial designer and style expert. The article reports that she found the new models to be “rather conservative in body contours, colors, upholstery and interior appointments.”
Image courtesy Richard Quinn collection
Dryden was given headline status in several ads for the 1936 Studebaker President: “In its singularly beautiful, lavishly roomy interior, the genius of that famed industrial designer, the gifted Helen Dryden, has been expressed in fine fabric, beautifully tailored, and in fittings of advanced motif that are of impeccable good taste.”
The headline “Fashion expert designed Studebaker President” greeted readers of the November 4, 1935 issue of Automotive Topics, and the article continued, “Studebaker’s new President models are featuring interiors designed by Helen Dryden, fashion expert… a car outstanding for its simple smartness. All unnecessary trimmings have been removed from the outside and inside. Horizontal lines prevail to emphasize the feeling of speed. Louvers and bumpers carry out the horizontal effect. Color is neutral… ash receivers are flat… ” and its trunk hinges were relocated to the inside to allow a simple exterior shape. Dryden was quoted “…I have ‘ensembled’ the interior with the same care for detail and the same taste which I know women demand in their dress today.”
TIME reported in its November 11, 1935 edition that “Studebaker’s [1936 model] interior hardware and instrument panel was designed by Helen Dryden, one of the top U.S. industrial designers and one of the few women designers in the automotive field… she designed… hardware for Toledo’s Dura Co., an automobile supplier. Her Studebaker instrument panel was one of the smartest at the Show.”
Her home addresses during these halcyon days was 9 East 10th Street and, later, 25 Fifth Avenue at 10th Street. Although her ties to Raymond Loewy himself stretched back two decades, she likely worked in conjunction with the New York City studio of Raymond Loewy Associates when the firm came onboard at Studebaker in 1936.
An advertisement for the 1937 State President Eight reminds us that the interior is “inimitably styled by Helen Dryden” and another proclaims “Glorified inside and outside by the genius of Helen Dryden styling, the State President belongs in the upper brackets of fine car luxury from its tiny fender lamps to its chromium strip running boards and its costly custom pillow type upholstery.”
Studebaker’s 1937 brochures led with Helen Dryden’s image, though photo was clearly borrowed from a circa 1929 photo shoot.
A 1937 Studebaker brochure states, “…no manufacturer in the business has done so much as Studebaker in creating cars that the modern woman instantly approves. In designing its 1937 line of Dictators and Presidents, Studebaker, for the second consecutive year, employed one of the best regarded women stylists in the world for counsel and suggestions.”
As quoted in a Studebaker ad, the December, 1937, issue of Magazine of Art had little praise for 1938 cars in general: “The new cars this year are disappointing. However well they run, however safe, however economical they are, the designers have failed to produce better looking automobiles. To this generalization there is one exception: Studebaker brings out the car of the year and the best looking car in its history. Raymond Loewy shaped the exteriors and Helen Dryden designed the harmonious interiors…”
The Studebaker Wheel, a monthly magazine published by the manufacturer, includes articles by, and references to, Dryden from May, 1936 to September, 1938.
In their co-authored book, A Century of Automotive Style, Michael Lamm and Dave Hollis offer that, “Helen Dryden, the automotive interior designer, had consulted for Studebaker and would continue to work with Loewy until 1940.”
Previous to, and throughout Dryden’s time at Studebaker, in addition to illustration and design projects for numerous clients, Dryden exhibited work at the Brooklyn Museum as a member of the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen, applied for numerous patents for containers and product packaging, received awards for commercial design, entered design competitions, and even designed a “modernistic” piano (above) for Hardman, Peck & Company. She was a regular at New York A-list social gatherings and charitable fundraisers, and earned a reputation as a leading expert on contemporary design and the last word on contemporary good taste.
A 1938 reference in The New York Times lists her address as 320 Park Avenue.
Seemingly at the top of her game, in 1940 her trail goes cold—stone cold—for a decade and a half. We find no newspaper reports, no trade magazine articles, no social or society references. Two sisters, Eugenie and Elizabeth, each died in the 1930s; a brother, W. Ferdinand, remains unaccounted for. She is not known to have married.
The New York Times reported in July 25, 1956, “Helen Dryden, the nation’s first successful woman industrial designer and once the highest paid woman artist, has had her semi-monthly Welfare Department check reduced to $30 because she refused to leave a drably furnished East Side hotel room.
“The 73-year-old Miss Dryden’s past, which included a Fifth Avenue penthouse and a $200-a-month Tenth Street duplex, is betrayed now only by her still articulate patterns of speech. Only stacked and yellowed clippings recall the years in which she designed 12 Vogue covers or a Studebaker automobile. She said she had suffered a great ‘personal shock,’ lost her ability to work and slowly eaten away her principal savings.
“The cut in welfare payments was not fully explained… The department said Miss Dryden was exceeding by 50 cents its weekly rent limit and had refused to look at another room uptown. She said she was too infirm to make the trip. The Welfare investigator, she added, had been ‘very rude.’ ”
A follow-up article from July 26, 1956, carried the headline “Welfare Department rectifies mistake; ex-artist’s relief pay raised to $44.72” and continued, “Yesterday, in her shabby room made even more painfully so by the sharp sunlight that entered its one window, Miss Dryden received the news of her ‘raise’ with little elation. Once the highest-paid woman artist in the country, she could not conceal her feelings that $5.52 every two weeks would not make much change for the better in her life. ‘Nothing good ever happens any more,’ she said quietly.”
A quarter century earlier, in a May, 1930 magazine interview, Dryden revealed that “I have always been fascinated by the psychology of environment. Even when I was a child I noticed the effect on people of run-down or shabby clothes, rooms or houses… As we get older, it sometimes has less effect on our sensibilities—but we only think so! The insidious thing about immediate environment is that it has an effect on people without their knowing it.”
After 1956 we again find no information. Helen Dryden is reported to have died in October, 1972, her ground-breaking accomplishments largely forgotten.
Helen Dryden is seated at the speaker’s table, attending a Studebaker dealers luncheon in New York City, November 1, 1935, with John F. Fennelly (left) and James G. Blaine. Image courtesy Richard Quinn collection.
Various published sources have offered conflicting dates, ages and details on the life and achievements of Helen Dryden. We solicit any additional information to better understand one of our nation’s pioneering fashion illustrators, costume designers and commercial, industrial and automotive design personalities. Please refer correspondence to email@example.com
Many thanks to:
Karson Kiesinger, Research Librarian, Bennington Free Library
Michael Lora, Manager, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library
Christopher Geoffrey McPherson, journalist, plasticliving.com
David Pilachowski, Director of Libraries, Williams College
Richard Quinn, Studebaker historian, thestudebakerwheel.com
Burd Schlessinger, Archivist, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Janet Thompson, Assistant to the Director, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute