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Nash gets the girl: From Leipzig to Detroit, the journeys of automotive interior stylist Helene Rother

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Image courtesy Michigan State University.

[Editor’s note: We’re pleased to feature frequent contributor Francesca Steele‘s profile of auto stylist Helene Rother this week.]

“The better half has, since the early twentieth century, mysteriously acquired 70 percent of the nation’s wealth and she is determined to spend 120 percent of it!” –Helene Rother SAE Speech, 11/15/1948

The creamy drift of Panatela cigars mixed with the crisp intensity of Vitalis mingled in the air at the annual meeting of the Society of Automobile Engineers (SAE). Since its inception in 1904 no woman designer, illustrator, or engineer had been invited to speak, until now. As Helene Rother took center stage, she inhaled deeply and pressed her palms against her tweed skirt. Waiting for silence she could barely make out the mumblings under heavily waxed mustaches, “What could a woman designer of refrigerators tell us about selling automobiles?”

“Handsome, big and powerful…” Helene observed on the current styles of the American automobile, “yet inside there was little to distinguish them apart from one another.” –Helene Rother SAE Speech, 11/15/1948

Perhaps she was subtly alluding to industry giants like Orville Wright, Henry Ford, or Charles Kettering. Amid such esteemed men of industry, what had prompted the all-male body of the SAE to even entertain a woman’s point of view? By 1945 they had been granted over $150 million for retooling and new construction by the War Production Board (WPB) which had lifted the nationwide materials ban. But by 1946 the major automobile manufacturers had only re-entered the market with new old stock and essentially gussied up 1941 models. As well, the ongoing pressure from the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) — who wanted the post-war production rate at 10 million vehicles per year, thus assuring one million jobs to avoid post-war massive unemployment — surely had worried the industry.

If not instinctively, perhaps practically, these automakers understood that the opinions of women like Helene Rother, and the growing middle class, were holding the car keys to the color revolution that would make the American Automobiles of the 1950s appealing to a changing market.

In Helene’s mind, bold color was exactly what was needed:

“Perhaps our new stylists fear to use colors that are too extreme. This results in our being presented again and again with gray and tan interiors or could it have something to do with the bad climate in Detroit?” –Helene Rother SAE Speech, 11/15/1948

Helene knew all about bad climate. Born Helene Bohlitz Rother in Leipzig, Germany, in 1908, she experienced both world wars. Leipzig had held the War Crimes Trials of WWI, and by 1933 was the sixth-largest city in Hitler’s war machine. As a child, Helene showed promise in the applied arts and crafts and was sent to the Kunstgewerbe School in Hamburg where she learned metalcraft, enamels, and goldsmithing. At the age of 24, she met and married Erwin Heinz Ackerknecht, a noted Trotskyist revolutionary and active member of the Communist Party of Germany. They had a daughter, Ina, but soon the little family fled from the spreading Nazis to France. Erwin was arrested, leaving Helene and Ina alone in Paris.

Surrounded by the haute couture of central Paris, she found work crafting fashionable broaches for lady’s hats. Then, as Germans in jackboots and grey trousers encroached upon the avenues of Place Vendomê and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the famed salons of Chanel, Jean Patou and Elsa Schiaparelli closed, and the designers fled south.

Helene and now seven-year-old Ina made their way along the migration route to a refugee camp in Morocco, where they awaited a benefactor and usually guaranteed employment in the United States. Ina recounted in an interview with author Patrick Foster that, after arriving in New York, her mother worked at first making metal casts for jewelry. However, by 1941, mandatory materials rationing as well as a decline in public displays of affluence resulted in Helene losing her job.

For a short time, Helene worked as an illustrator for a monthly comic, before responding to an ad in The New York Times for an automotive interior stylist at General Motors in Detroit.

The WPB had anticipated a return to civilian automobile manufacturing after the war and had granted Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, and Nash-Kelvinator authorization to do preliminary work on experimental models on condition it did not interfere with war projects or moonlight employees from other departments. Helene was hired and the little family was on the move again.

From 1943 to 1946, Helene was responsible for adding a “woman’s touch” to upholstery colors and fabric, lighting, door hardware, and seat construction. She may have been a muse in Harley Earl’s future vision of “The Damsels of Design”; a female design team trained on GM-owned Frigidaire appliances, then advanced to automotive design to select fabric, liners, and trim to match newly styled color schemes and convenience accessories like matching luggage.

She was not the first female automotive interior designer. Edsel Ford had begun his styling department as early as 1932 and hired women as stylists as early as 1938, but by the time of Edsel’s death, five years later, his father had reduced the design studio by half and all the women were let go. In 1955, Dodge offered the La Femme, a specially styled Custom Royal Lancer with tapestried pink rosebud upholstery, specifically for the female market. It was discontinued after two years, perhaps due to lack of models supplied to dealerships. And in 1958, shortly after Harley Earl’s retirement from GM, the “Damsels” had all been disbanded.

Image courtesy of Michigan State University.

Helene seemed to have a knack for seeing the writing on the wall and left GM in 1947 to start her own styling business, Rother Design Styling Studios. Some of her larger clients were Magnavox, Samuel Kirk & Sons, Elgin American, BFGoodrich, Goodyear, U.S. Rubber Co., Stromberg, Carlson, and others; however, Nash-Kelvinator was her biggest. As an independent, she could do her own research and choose projects in which she could showcase her vision of a future with color. Sharing her confidential research with the audience of the SAE she explained:

“I have interviewed a number of women in different groups in the different cities, in the East, South and North West on the subject of colors in cars… the overwhelming preference with women was red. And after that, a dreamy deep green with a touch of silver.” –Helene Rother SAE Speech, 11/15/1948

It can’t be ignored that the all-male members of the WPB had also had a lasting influence on women’s fashion choices. Besides regulating and rationing materials, they also encouraged make-up companies to offer popular products with patriotic names like: Victory, Auxiliary or Jeep red lipsticks, along with Alert red nail polish. In a 1941 issue of Vogue, a popular women’s magazine, an anonymous caption meant to compel make-up sales suggests, “To look unattractive these days is downright moral-breaking and should be considered treason.”

Concurrently, innovations in paint technology for sun-resistant clear coating permitted lasting bright colors and quick drying times. And the replacement of cloth and rubber for vinyl-coated color wires and printed waterproof fabrics created a consumer demand for the new materials.

“Women very often asked me, when do we get the new fabrics — the ones we can wash and clean, the more colorful ones?” –Helene Rother SAE Speech, 11/15/1948

While the bigger car companies were pushing larger platforms, more chrome and more power, Nash remained loyal to founder Charles Nash’s company slogan, “Give the customer more than he [/she] has paid for.” One way they could offer value was by adding new innovations such as the Weather-Eye fresh air system, and fully folding seat-beds with a European flair. Tapping into Helene’s jewelry manufacturing skills and Paris fashion experience, Nash first assigned Helene to re-style the interior of the Nash 600 Custom. Helene specially coordinated fabric hues such as Tampico Brown, Neopolitan Blue, and Sherwood Green to accentuate body colors like Canterbury Gray Light, Winterleaf Brown, or Sunset Maroon.

Annual International Auto Salon at the Grand Palais in Paris, October 12, 1951. Left to right: Helene Rother, Pinin Farina, Meade Moore, and Theo Ulrich. Photographer: Rene Jarland. Image courtesy of Michigan State University.

Helene instinctively knew that the civilian automobile was to become as ubiquitous as the household appliance. In her speech she speculated upon the future convenience of interior “gadgets” like outlets for heating baby bottles and canned soup, cigarette lighters on springs, umbrella holders and safety belts:

“It is the gadget,” she reminds her audience, “that will sell the car of tomorrow.” –Helene Rother SAE Speech, 11/15/1948

Image courtesy of Michigan State University.

From 1948 to 1956, she worked on flagship Nash automobiles as well as economy and sports cars, such as the 1950 Rambler, America’s first compact car, and the 1952 Nash-Healey, a Pinin Farina redesign and third place winner in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1954, a featured Nash-Healey roadster would get-the-girl in the Hollywood film, Sabrina. The story of an American Industrialist, Linus Larrabee (played by Humphry Bogart), who falls in love with the chauffer’s daughter, Sabrina (played by Audrey Hepburn), after she returns home as a sophisticate from Paris. If you’ll pardon the movie metaphor, like Sabrina, the Nash-Healey also returned home from Le Grand Prix all grown up, a stylish American in a sexy dress of the finest European design.

“Men and women alike are more or less ignorant about the mechanics of a car.” She explains to an audience of mostly engineers who probably agreed. “Everything is a wonder to him the desires that at the touch of a button the car will start, at another, the lights go on and off in the same way that windows go up and down and on and on. This is progress.”

Yet for Helene, “progress” may have tasted bittersweet. She certainly would have celebrated the liberation of Paris in 1944, however, Leipzig had been bombed repeatedly by the Allies. Churches where Bach and Mendelssohn had once played were destroyed, and the Augustus Platz, which had stood since medieval times, was reduced to rubble. And to add insult to catastrophe, Leipzig would fall behind the gray shadow of Stalin’s Iron Curtain.

Image courtesy of Rev. Lobb, Lapeer Trinity United Methodist Church.

In later years, after being inspired by the rebuilding efforts of postwar Europe, Helene had been moved to design stained glass windows for several churches in Michigan. Some show a sublime sense of color and modern form as well as a masterly understanding of emblem design, probably a remnant of the automotive badge. And by her late 80s she may have been comforted by the fact that Leipzig had been the center of the peaceful Monday Demonstrations that would light the fire that led to the eventual reunification of East and West Germany.

At the close of her SAE speech, Helene left the mesmerized audience with a summary of her manifesto:

“Transportation vehicles are one of the most visible expressions of the cultural standards of a people. There can be no doubt that our car interiors are better than any produced in the cars of other countries. But even so, tomorrow they must and will be better.”

Honoring Helene this year, the inaugural Las Vegas Concours d’Elegance has created The Helene Award; a stunning statuette designed in the whimsical style of a René Lalique bonnet ornament in Helene’s likeness. Reminding automobile enthusiasts that Helene Rother, and other women in early automotive design, had been, and are, a part of the “expression of our cultural standards,” and thusly, tomorrow will be better if not certainly more colorful.