Shining a Light on Forgotten Designers

This article is part of our latest Design special report, about creative people finding fresh ways to interpret ideas from the past.

Like every other creative discipline, design has a pantheon of immortals. But for every historic figure popping up regularly in museum collections and auction catalogs, there are legions of designers who made important contributions and then faded away — people who were the “wrong” color or gender, or who were denied credit for their accomplishments or lacked a hunger for fame and thus failed to survive the corrosive forces of history. Who has been left behind?

The New York Times invited each of a baker’s dozen of curators and connoisseurs to select a designer from the past who deserves to be reintroduced to the world. The choices could emanate from any place, period or discipline. All we asked was that the work be revelatory. — Julie Lasky


Addison Bates, known as Add, was featured as a “furniture designer” in a 1951 profile in Ebony, where photographs of his custom-made designs indicate that he was adept at minimalist modern cabinetry as well as at sensitively executed period-revival objects. (To date, no extant examples of his designs have been located.) Midcentury clients included the novelist Richard Wright and the New York talent agent William Morris, and as late as the 1980s, Ralph Ellison commissioned custom-designed cabinetry from Mr. Bates for his New York apartment.

Mr. Bates is significant in the history of design because he played a key role in Black artistic networks in New York City in the middle decades of the 20th century. He staged Romare Bearden’s first solo exhibition in 1940 at the 306 Studio at 141st Street, and performed with Paul Robeson and Katherine Dunham during his career as an actor and dancer in the 1930s. His small woodworking shop, on site at 306, was later a source of inspiration for Jacob Lawrence’s series of paintings depicting cabinetmakers.

Design historians tend to privilege the stories of those who could claim to be designing for the masses — but the industry connections to achieve such large-scale work were often limited to white men. Mr. Bates, an African American, was prevented from practicing in the upholstery trade for which he had trained in the 1920s because of the racial exclusions of the American Federation of Labor. Thus his postwar business model of custom-designed furniture was not only a celebration of his craft skills but also a route around union restrictions. — Kristina Wilson, professor of art history, Clark University


Mr. Devecchi, a second-generation silversmith whom I met only once in his modest studio in the Navigli district of Milan (by that time, it was run by his two sons), created masterworks that were distinguished by a reverence for craftsmanship as well as an industrial-strength rigor often lacking in handmade studio objects, regardless of price.

Yet in every Devecchi design there is magic, an aesthetic sleight of hand that appears effortless and charming, belying a creative, concept-oriented imagination.

He invented models for a new vernacular for silver, bringing a staid material into not just a modern forum, but also a futuristic one. — Murray Moss, a design entrepreneur and author

Graziella Díaz de León’s work is a homage to delicacy, craft and sensibility. A daughter of the Mexican painter Francisco Díaz de León, she trained in several artistic disciplines, eventually concentrating on ceramics. She made contributions to the creation of Mexican stoneware that were not only technical but also aesthetic, elevating the material above its utilitarian purposes. Studying ceramics while she lived in Japan from 1958 to 1961, she benefited especially from an apprenticeship in the workshop of the master potter Shoji Hamada. Her work has barely been exhibited in Mexico. It would seem necessary, almost urgent, to re-evaluate her as a pioneer in clay and as a designer with a refined and sharp aesthetic vision. — Ana Elena Mallet, a curator based in Mexico City


During her lifetime, Dorothy Liebes was one of the most successful and influential designers in the country, yet today she is barely known outside of the textile field. Her fabrics brought color, texture and sparkling glamour to interiors including Doris Duke’s Shangri La; the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, designed by Henry Dreyfuss; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West; and the United Nations Delegates Dining Room. Her reach extended to luxury passenger ships, airplanes and cars — as one of the few women involved in the auto industry at the time, she styled the interior of Chrysler’s 1957 Plymouth Fury. Fashion designers like Bonnie Cashin, Pauline Trigère and Adrian used her luxurious fabrics for their clothing. Her opinions on color and style were constantly sought by newspapers, magazines and television personalities, making her one of the most visible and recognizable advocates for American design.

Ms. Liebes was also deeply committed to making her work accessible to all and eventually gave up her custom fabrics business to develop hand-woven samples for interpretation on industrial looms at affordable prices, providing a means for Americans with modest budgets to participate in the modern design movement. The distinctive style of her woven work — which combined vivid color, lush texture and often a metallic glint — influenced generations of designers. A 2023 exhibition at Cooper Hewitt will establish for the first time the full scope of her contributions as a designer, collaborator, mentor, public figure and tireless promoter of American modernism. — Matilda McQuaid, acting curatorial director, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York City


Loïs Mailou Jones is best known as a painter, but she also worked as a textile designer and illustrator. Born and raised in Boston, she studied design there at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1923 to 1927. The year she left, she began working as a textile designer and creating cretonne fabrics. “As I wanted my name to go down in history,” she later said, “I realized that I would have to be a painter.”

Ms. Jones’s impressionistic watercolors and paintings inspired by the African diaspora are well documented in monographs by the scholars Tritobia Hayes Benjamin and Rebecca VanDiver, who also note her early work in design. Yet the impact of Ms. Jones’s contributions merits further consideration. Her early textiles represent the vibrant style and colors that would come to epitomize some of her most appreciated artworks. — Michelle Joan Wilkinson, architecture and design curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution


I recently learned about Anna Russell Jones through the work of the curator Huewayne Watson. Ms. Russell Jones was the first African American graduate of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now Moore College of Art and Design. From 1924 to 1928, she designed rugs at the James G. Speck design studio in Philadelphia before setting out to establish her own studio and working freelance on rugs and wallpaper. Many of her designs, which incorporated Persian, colonial and modern motifs, are now part of the collection of the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Ms. Russell Jones went on to become a graphic designer for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in World War II, and then trained in medical illustration at Howard University Medical School (now Howard University College of Medicine), where she was the only artist assigned to illustrate procedures on Black patients for research purposes.

Though she was accomplished, her path was not easy. “You see, I had three strikes against me,” she often noted. “I was a woman, Black and a freelancer.” Nonetheless, she blazed a trail, and her story resonates far beyond Philadelphia. — Zoë Ryan, Daniel W. Dietrich II director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

Jacqueline Bouvier wore one of Ann Lowe’s gowns when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953.

Yet what we know about this talented designer of color comes largely from fashion curators and historians like Lois K. Alexander-Lane, who founded the Black Fashion Museum in 1979; its collection is now part of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Ms. Lowe’s lack of recognition raises issues about how history is written and journalism is practiced. There is a need to ensure that marginalized individuals are uncovered, and that questions are asked about subjugation.

A retrospective of Ms. Lowe’s work planned for the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, in Delaware, in the fall of 2023, brings hope that she will receive the singular attention she deserves. — Nina Stritzler-Levine, professor of curatorial practice and director of the Focus Project, Bard Graduate Center


The German-born, Los Angeles-based Jock Peters was one of the 20th century’s unsung polymaths. He designed buildings, interiors, furniture and Hollywood film sets. He also refused to limit himself to one signature style and roamed across a spectrum from Art Deco to Bauhaus Modernism. At the same time, his life and career deepen our understanding of the trans-Atlantic dialogues that shaped avant-garde architecture and design in the United States and, specifically, Southern California, in the 1920s and ’30s. While I knew about — and have visited — his Bullocks Wilshire department store in Los Angeles, I was delighted to discover its little-known and now-gone cousin, the L.P. Hollander store in Manhattan. My source was Christopher Long’s new book, “Jock Peters, Architecture and Design: The Varieties of Modernism,” due out in November from Bauer and Dean Publishers. —Donald Albrecht, a New York City-based curator


In design history, the reputation of Fritz Rosen is largely eclipsed by that of Lucian Bernhard, a pioneer of the early-20th-century modern poster. Mr. Bernhard freed this ubiquitous advertising medium from distracting typography and intricate vignettes, showing only a single product (a shoe, a piano, matchsticks, a wine bottle) coupled with a simple brand name or logo.

The “object poster” has influenced ad designs ever since. It also cast a long shadow over Mr. Rosen, who was Mr. Bernhard’s business associate and is barely acknowledged for his own design work. When, in 1923, the master emigrated to New York, where he opened an office and remained for the rest of his life, Mr. Rosen successfully continued to manage the Berlin office under the name Atelier Bernhard-Rosen until he left Germany himself in 1933. He inhabited Mr. Bernhard’s graphic style with precision in his illustrations, posters, trademarks and more, yet he was not a clone. His most durable creation is the green S-Bahn logo representing Berlin’s suburban rapid railway system. Only last March did the Berliner Zeitung newspaper get around to telling the story of the designer behind the 1930 symbol, “which now identifies all S-Bahn trains in Germany.” — Steven Heller, a design historian and educator


Abu Ishaq al-Sahili’s Djinguereber mosque in Timbuktu (in what is now Mali) is not just a beautiful medieval building that redefined a city around a cosmopolitan and liberal vision of Islam; it also remains an exquisitely, effectively engineered structure that is a physical and spiritual shelter from one of the toughest environmental and culturally conflicted landscapes on earth. —Augustus Casely-Hayford, director, V&A East, opening in London in 2024


Creators of the graphic identities for architecture firms are among the unsung heroes of the design world. Marion Sampler, who joined the Los Angeles-based Victor Gruen Associates in 1957, was the first Black graphic designer to do work in a firm in that city. He became the department head after six years, supervising up to 14 people, for more than 20 years. For this retail and shopping mall giant, Mr. Sampler designed everything from environmental graphics and logos to door pulls and tile walls before he left in the mid-1980s to start his own firm. Bold, colorful geometric abstraction characterized his commercial work as well as his paintings.

Although recognized during his lifetime by his peers at Art Directors Clubs in both New York and Los Angeles, Mr. Sampler has had little acknowledgment since. He has been listed in a few dictionaries of Black artists and was included in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way” and its accompanying publications, but deserves far more attention. For example, the window displays (including his groundbreaking sculptural lettering) at the Joseph Magnin department store in Century City were advertising innovations, and the enormous stained-glass dome he designed at the South Coast Plaza shopping mall mesmerizes still.

Mr. Sampler’s relative obscurity today is due to his race, the inherently collaborative nature of graphic design in a large company and his own self-effacing nature. In a 1967 interview in Communication Arts, he stated that the graphic designer in an architecture firm “functions best when his work becomes anonymous [and] indivisible from the hand of the architect.” — Wendy Kaplan, department head and curator of decorative art and design, Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Jade Snow Wong used to be quite famous. Not so much for her ceramics and enamel work — though she was a brilliant and refined designer in both media — but rather as an author.

Her memoir “Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950) was the “Joy Luck Club” of its day, a portrait of the Chinese American immigrant family experience, written with humanity and insight. It was also a publishing phenomenon, promoted by the State Department when U.S.-Chinese relations were of prime strategic importance. The book was translated into multiple languages, and Ms. Wong was sent on a speaking tour across Asia.

Despite this brush with soft-power politics, she maintained that her happiest experiences were making things at a Chinatown shop in San Francisco: “a woman in the window, her legs astride a potter’s wheel, her hair in braids, her hands perpetually messy with sticky California clay.” — Glenn Adamson, a curator and writer based in New York

Tobias Wong died too soon — at the age of 35 in 2010, having always been ahead of his time. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, he collapsed the boundaries between design, art and fashion; popular culture and the avant-garde; and authorship and copying. He borrowed and remixed references to hold a mirror to our desires, using a language of appropriation and a vocabulary of high and low that foreshadowed the artist-designer Virgil Abloh by a decade. Whether dipping pearl earrings from Tiffany in rubber, fighting off lawsuits from brands he had riffed on (only to have them copy his copies), or sticking a light bulb in Philippe Starck’s plastic Bubble Club chair and calling it a lamp, Mr. Wong channeled his own rarefied infatuations — with Fluxus, Donald Judd, Comme des Garçons (with which he collaborated) — into witty sendups of our collective narcissism. Who could forget his pill capsules, filled with bits of gilt foil, that turn your you-know-what gold? — Aric Chen, general and artistic director, Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Katheleen Knopf

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