Open Design

Helene Rother may be best-known for her pioneering work in automotive interiors, but her creative talents spanned stained glass to silverware.
Helene Rother
She’s A Rainbow: As a designer of car interiors and home furnishings, Rother used a wide palette. “Americans, men and women alike, are the most color-loving people in our Western Civilization,” she said. // Courtesy of the Automotive Hall of Fame

Helene Rother had eluded the Nazis during World War II and spent an interval as a refugee in Morocco before coming to America — a harrowing ordeal. On Nov. 15, 1948, she faced another test of courage as she stood before the Society of Automotive Engineers — a roomful of men — to say, “And even today, after six years (as a designer), the automotive industry is still unique in its lack of employing women in creative positions.”

Born in Germany in 1908, Rother designed jewelry in Paris at her own Contempora Studio before the war. After arriving in New York City, she worked as an illustrator at Marvel Comics until her hiring, in 1942, by General Motors. She and her daughter, Ina, came to Detroit and took an apartment at 999 Whitmore Rd. in Palmer Park. Even without experience — she was likely the first woman to work in automotive design — she received the extravagant salary of $600 per month and enjoyed great leeway in her practice.

After four years of designing seating, lighting, and door hardware for GM, she opened her own studio, first on the 16th floor of the Fisher Building, later in a house along West Chicago Boulevard in the Boston-Edison Historic District.

In her SAE speech, Rother asked, “Do the interiors we make satisfy the American public?” She urged the use of better-matched fabrics and recommended hiring more women designers to choose them. One brand’s interior was indistinguishable from the next, she said, as if  “the styling stopped behind the instrument panel.”

Her new studio won the account of Nash- Kelvinator Corp., led by George Mason and George Romney. As an independent automaker, Nash was eager to experiment. “Once known for being somewhat stodgy in its styling approach, Nash was soon featuring some of the most stylish interior colors and trim in the business,” Hemmings Classic Car reports. “The instrument board of a car shows more than anything else how well-styled the car is,” Rother contended. The compact Nash Rambler she worked on was an industry breakthrough.

After Nash and Hudson combined in 1954 to form American Motors, Rother devoted herself to other clients such as Elgin American, which crafted cigarette lighters, ladies’ compacts, and various accessories. “There is another fact which should not be overlooked,” she had told the SAE. “High-pressure advertising has made women very gadget-conscious.”

In addition, she created Skylark sterling-silver flatware, a pattern that Samuel Kirk and Son, of Baltimore, kept in production more than three decades. Meanwhile, Rother continued to score in the auto field through her work for Miller-Meteor, the Ohio coachbuilder that produced hearses and ambulances on Cadillac commercial chassis.

Yet, what automotive designer doesn’t yearn to do stained glass windows? Demonstrating impressive command of the medium, Rother conjured up spectacularly sophisticated windows for United Methodist Church in Farmington Hills and Trinity United Methodist Church in Lapeer, and created an intricate series for St. Lazarus Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Detroit.

Besides her city home, she also raised horses on a farm near Metamora. The attic of her house there was filled with models of her stained glass. She donated this treasure to the Michigan Stained Glass Census before her death in 1999.

One of her utterances in particular is notable: “Lightness is the aristocracy of mechanical technique. Lightness, effortlessness, and simplicity must be the basic consideration of our automotive designs.” Earlier this year Rother was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, a fitting tribute to one of the most accomplished designers ever to practice in Detroit.