Standing in the Ilonka Karasz exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum it struck me that the reality of design history and my understanding of it stood at odds with one another. Karasz’s work spans from the 1910s to the 1970s and across multiple medias including textiles, illustration, and industrial design. Throughout, she displays a preternatural understanding of her diverse materials as well as keen sense of the prevailing zeitgeist in each of the divergent decades her career encompassed. That I had never heard of her seems almost inconceivable.
“Teapot” (1920–1925), one of her earliest works in the exhibition, combines the soft touch of Art Nouveau with a simplicity of form that speaks to the functionality of Bauhaus. There is also something utterly art deco about this work — one could easily imagine Erté using it to pour a cup against a Manhattan backdrop.
This piece first appeared in a studio apartment Karasz created for the 1928 American Designers’ Gallery, a new kind of exhibition that according to the New York Times Magazine sought to “serve as a testing ground for contemporary art,” and to “work with manufacturers in adapting new materials to decorative uses.” Of the 15 participants, Karasz was the only woman invited to design an entire room, and, in fact, she did two. Her second effort was a children’s nursery. Taking cues from the then emerging field of child psychology, Karasz centered her design on bright colors and geometric shapes intending to teach children about the essential building blocks of nature while inspiring their imaginations. “Drawing for a Carpet” (1928–1932), is a fair example of the elements her nursery would have featured. The playful spirals, circles, and squares encourage children to recognize similarities and differences while the overall composition and choice of colors anticipates Josef Albers’s experiments with color and form.
That Karasz was not just included, but highlighted in this prestigious exhibition (she also designed the catalog’s cover) was probably no great surprise to her contemporaries. She’d been a veritable wunderkind since she emigrated from Hungary in 1913 and settled in Greenwich Village. Bohemianism had already taken hold of the famous neighborhood with émigrés such as herself leading a furious pace of artistic production and numerous locally produced magazines including Modern Art Collector, Bruno’s Weekly, and Playboy: A Portfolio of Art and Satire. Karasz’s illustrations soon started appearing in all of them.
Her style reflects the influences of her education at the Royal School of Arts & Crafts in Budapest where she was one of the first females to be admitted. In terms of both time and geography, her studies were perfectly positioned between the ultra-avant-garde Wiener Moderne and the state supported preservation of Hungarian peasant art.
But her designs quickly left the page to take on the form of textiles, the work for which she is arguably most well known.
In the early 1910s, while still in her teens, Karasz began submitting her designs to national competitions sponsored by periodicals such as Women’s Wear and the American Silk Journal. Her first entry to Women’s Wear seamlessly combined symbols of Guatemalan folk art with modernist geometric shapes. Quickly recognizing the design’s potential, the prominent manufacturing firm HR Mallinson & Company printed it on silk by the bolt. In short order, she went on to work with most of America’s leading textile manufacturers, including Dupont-Rayon, Standard Textile, and Belding Brothers.
Karasz’s quick success was attributable as much to her design aesthetic as to her technological savvy. By 1919 she realized the potential of mass production and began to design with machinery in mind. As one of the only designers at the time with a keen understanding of the mode of production behind the end product, contemporary designers and critics alike heralded her as one of the most innovative working artists. In 1929, regular contributor to House Beautiful and etiquette arbiter, Helen Sprackling commented that “Miss Karasz is designing with a success that can be measured by both the practical terms of the manufacturer and the strict demands of good art.”
One of Karasz’s better known textile designs, “Calico Cow” (1952), on view, draws on the imagery of Hungarian folk art with friendly looking cows, horses, sheep, ducks, goats, not to mention a farmer and his wife, populating the landscape. But the playful polka dots that stand in for fur and the almost aberrant flora that seem to share Rousseau’s formal vocabulary hint at a more complicated composition than one might initially presume. Still, as exhibition curator Greg Herringshaw says, when juxtaposed with her strictly modernist works it is “hard to believe that this was by the same designer.”
But it was Karasz’s remarkable ability to see how designs could work across media that supported her success both commercially and artistically. “Calico Cow” for example, had its first life as a 1944 New Yorker cover and was one of 186 that featured her work between 1929 and 1972. Characteristically, her illustration styles range dramatically from a 1929 ultra-modern aerial view of the Brooklyn Bridge to a 1971 Art Nouveau-meets-flower-child depiction of sunflowers rotating towards our solar system’s center.
Dated September 1939, the New Yorker cover on view at the Cooper Hewitt depicts a scene from the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Positioned from above, her gaze captures the bustling crowds, purpose built transportation that shuttled visitors from one site to the next, and the sense that New York was shaking off the Great Depression.
Of all the work on display, “Serenade” (1948) brings together her skills as a draftsperson, artist, innovator, and businesswoman. Using the newly developed Mezzotone process for printing wallpaper which allowed manufacturers to create a positive blueprint, Karasz designed three mural sized wallcoverings. The intricate detail and fantastical scenes depict a world of music, magic, and intrigue. As Herringshaw phrased it, “when you start looking at the textures and patterns and the energy she creates, it’s a kind of zen experience.”
If there is one through line in Kasarz’s work, it is that she was able to capture her time as it was, when it was. From illustration to industrial design, her work kept pace with the tastes of the tumultuous ages her career traversed. This is a rare talent and I cannot think of another designer whose work covered so much ground. So back to my original question: how was it that I had never heard of Ilonka Karasz?
One might cite her adaptability to the times as a reason historians have not remembered her. She never settled on a signature style and history likes a simple story. It seems that in working in so many different media she failed to distinguish herself in any. And finally, because her work existed in the domestic sphere, and was made to be lived with, used, and discarded, her work lacked the gravitas necessary to ground it in the canon of design.
But one could argue that despite being a woman whose work was often relegated to the domestic sphere, Karasz should still have been recognized and commended for her unique innovation within an area of design that had and has an extremely broad reach. As for the diversity of her work, one could note that variety didn’t hamper the enduring legacy of Henry Dreyfuss whose designs included everything from tractors to teapots. Nor did the diversity of practice limit the recognition of Donald Duskey, designer of the (still in use) Crest toothpaste tube and the interior of Radio City Music Hall. In other contexts this kind of adaptability is simply called genius.
Hopefully, the exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt will be the first of many to explore and unearth Karasz’s sizable and important legacy.