Women designers and the making of a modern General Motors

On a perfect summer day in 2015, General Motors celebrated the designation of its Technical Center in Warren as a National Historic Landmark. The campus, with its clean surfaces, rectilinear forms, cantilevered lobbies, and staircases that are marvels of physics, finally received the recognition it deserved as a masterpiece of mid-century architecture.
But you'd be forgiven if you never heard of it. The Technical Center is where the next line of automobiles for GM is designed, and these trade secrets have made GM cautious about opening their doors to guests.
The celebration of the designation was, not surprisingly, a subdued affair closed to the public. GM executives and a representative from Michigan's Historic Preservation Office made short speeches. A simple plaque was unveiled near the shore of the rectangular central lake that sits between the Design and Research & Development buildings.
Then came a group photo that included Eric Saarinen, son of Eero Saarinen, the campus's designer and one of the giants of modern architecture. While taking photos, someone said, "At some point, we need to get Susan up here."
That would be Susan Skarsgard, manager of GM's Design Archive, and perhaps the world's foremost expert on the Technical Center. She was instrumental in securing the designation from the U.S. Department of the Interior. She's also been amassing a collection of everything associated with design at GM.
Skarsgard's path to her current position within the world's third largest automaker was circuitous and unlikely. "I didn't have a linear career path like most folks here," she says.
Skarsgard was born in Detroit and graduated from Cody High School. After college, it took some time to figure out what she wanted to do—first getting into Ann Arbor's baroque music scene, then working as a ward clerk at the University of Michigan Hospital. On a whim, she took up calligraphy and realized she had talent—and possibly a career.
From there, she was apprenticed in Austria and freelanced in the studio of commercial artist Jerry Campbell. Based on her accumulated portfolio, she eventually got a job at GM in 1994 as a lettering specialist designing graphics—emblems and nameplates—for cars.
Skarsgard performed this job for 12 years. At first it was difficult for her to settle into corporate life, but one thing that's defined Skarsgard's career is the pursuit of her own interests. That eventually would lead her to carving out a niche archiving GM's illustrious design history.
The women who designed GM
Harley Earl pioneered many things in the automobile industry. He was the first to hold the title of "Vice President of Design" at any automaker. He brought a flare to cars that hadn't existed before, making them recognizable, an expression of personal identity. He was also the first automobile executive to advocate for the hiring of women. The first seven female designers, dubbed by the press the "Damsels of Design," worked in the color department under Earl's watch in the 1950s.
Ultimately, their employment didn't last long, as the next VP of Design let all but one of the "damsels" go. But Earl's progressive hiring practices demonstrated the possibilities of women in the field, and perhaps inspired others to pursue it as a career.
Automakers have an uphill task in diversifying the gender of their workforce because people interested in cars tend to be male. But making a car involves designing many smaller components—everything from color schemes to seats to steering wheels. All of these fall under the header of "industrial design," but aren't of exclusive interest to gearheads.
Earl, along with Alexander and Rowena Kostellow, codified the industrial design program at the the Pratt Institute in New York City and encouraged ties with GM. That's where Pamela Waters, one of the second wave of female designers at GM, got her education. Originally she enrolled at Pratt to study fashion design. "My mother said that I should learn something that I could do from home," says Waters with a laugh. "That way, once I married and had children, I could fix hems."
Over the course of her studies, Waters discovered industrial design, which quickly captured her interest. "I had no idea there was such a profession," she says.
In 1963, she was hired by GM to design interiors for Cadillac—insert panels, steering wheels, seats, and doors. She stayed there for four years before moving on and eventually starting her own firm, Pamela Waters Studios, in 1970, which specializes in designing public spaces. But her time at GM was special. "I felt very creatively fulfilled while I was there," she says. "And I learned a great deal."
In 1963, it was even less common for women to work in industrial design. But Waters never felt discriminated against—she simply worked. "I was just part of the gang," she says. "It was fun. You're solving problems together. Every day the goal was to see how many new ideas you could come up with."
It's easy to draw a straight line from Earl and the Damsels of Design to Waters and other women who helped paved the way for this generation's female designers.
Alexandra Dymowska was born in Lodz, Poland (a post-industrial town with similarities to Detroit, as explored in the film "After the Factory") and immigrated to America with her family when she was 15. For years she thought art was her calling, but, like Waters, she ended up studying industrial design at Pratt and working for GM. "I didn't decide to enter auto—it just happened," says Dymowska. "That's the story of a lot of women in this field."
Niether Skarsgard, Waters, nor Dymowska planned on becoming industrial designers, but all take immense satisfaction from it. "It thrills me that I can design something that serves so many people," says Dymowska. "Designing an interior is about humanizing technology, about taking new technology and interpreting it in an artistic, elegant way."
Gathering the past
Skarsgard gradually transitioned to working on special projects for GM and discovered thousands of unorganized documents that had never seen the light of day. During GM's recent declaration of bankruptcy in 2009, some of the darkest days in the company's history, she counter-intuitively proposed the founding a new department to archive design.
"They didn't know what they had," says Skarsgard. What they had was a trove of sketches and prints documenting the history of design at GM. "Because of the uncertainty at that time, they either had to take care of the materials or get them somewhere safe."
Fortunately Skarsgard got the green light to form the department, thanks, according to her, to the foresight of Ed Welburn, GM's current vice president of design.
"Now there's a repository for researchers and designers that they can use as inspiration for their work," says Skarsgard. "But also GM can tell its own story. My job here is not just documenting GM's design, but American design. GM has influenced so many areas of design over the years."
This collection continues to grow because the work of her department has expanded beyond the walls of the Technical Center. Skarsgard and her team have interviewed designers from the early days about their work, back to a time when automakers started to take design seriously and the title "industrial designer" first came into use. Back to the time of Harley Earl.
When Dymowska met Skarsgard and learned about her archival work, she put her in touch with Waters, who is an associate professor at Pratt. Because of this connection, Skarsgard filmed a video interview between the two and photographed some of her sketches, which were added to the archive.
"Susan has done an amazing job collecting and archiving all the design work at GM," says Waters. "So many people had no concept of the human beings behind the work."
That's been probably the most gratifying aspect of her new role. "I never anticipated the amount of goodwill this endeavor would generate," says Skarsgard. "Unless you're an extreme car nut, you don't care who the designer was. Some designers spent their entire careers here. To have them come back and display their work and talk to people who want to know everything about them has a profound effect. It's brought some to tears."
Skarsgard has also documented the history of the Technical Center and promoted its importance and beauty beyond the confines of the architectural community. She goes to conferences, gives speeches, and teaches courses. She also made a book practically all by herself, "Where Today Meets Tomorrow," for the 50th Anniversary of the Technical Center in 2006. A true labor of love, the book is 20x14 inches, leather bound with an inside cover of green automotive fabric from a 1956 Buick, and contains popups of the Technical Center's design dome and conference table (with executives and "damsels"). Amazingly, it's probably been seen by less than a thousand people.
Skarsgard has crafted a career on her own terms and continually worked on independent projects, even earning a Master of Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 2004 (here's a video about her thesis). You'd think, given her varied interests and prior work as a freelancer, she'd never truly adapt to the corporate lifestyle. That's what she thought, too.
"It will be nice at some point to retire and do my own thing," says Skarsgard. "But it's kind of hard when you really like your job. They've made it difficult for me to leave, which I never thought would happen."
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmondry.
Photos by Nick Hagen.
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