July 21, 2017
Rediscovering Olga Gueft, Foremother of Interior Design
While reading archival copies of Interiors magazines, a student of interior design discovers how Gueft brought the profession into the 20th century, defining its future.
She always signed her editorials O.G. But we, especially the new generation of interior designers, should know her name in full. Olga Gueft (1915 – 2015) was a key figure in chronicling, as well as cheerleading, our profession’s evolution. As the editor of Interiors from approximately 1953 to 1974, Gueft led the premiere industry magazine of its day.
In the years that followed the deprivations of WWII, Americans earned more money and had more leisure time than ever before. The demand for new home construction and furnishings, especially well designed yet affordable items, was high. This was also the era when American corporations were consolidating their workers in sleek modern headquarters. Leading architects, interior designers, and industrial designers gave us the iconic mid-century structures and furnishings that we still covet today. Showing their work was critical to establishing interior design as the serious and necessary discipline we have come to know.
We know Florence Knoll, Vladimir Kagan, and Edward Wormley because Olga often published their work in Interiors. She had an excellent eye for talent and recognized potential. She was just as likely to highlight the work of established designers as unknowns. She was fascinated by the creative work of artists, architects, industrial designers as well as interior designers. In the 1950s she put the work of a young Andy Warhol, a commercial illustrator at the time, on several of the magazine’s covers.
During her long reign as editor, before the popularity of shelter magazines, the Internet, and social media, Interiors was the primary source for designers of industry news, trends, and musings on the processes of pioneering practitioners. Olga recognized the importance of interior design as both art and business. She promoted interior designers and elevated the status of the AID, the American Institute of Decorators, one of the trade organizations that would eventually become ASID, the American Society of Interior Designers. In 1954 Miss Gueft, as she called herself, began publishing the programs for the AID’s annual conferences and covered their events extensively. That same year, she added the AID credential after members’ names, anytime they were mentioned in the magazine. She often featured the work of many AID members, both male and female. She knew that a strong and well-established professional organization with proficiency requirements and codes of professional practice and ethics is one of the most important foundation stones in building an industry.
I have spent some quality time in the New York School of Interior Design library for several months, reading the Interiors archive. Reading Interiors, it becomes clear that Olga was passionate and driven. She was completely dedicated to the industry and never shied away from even the most difficult subjects. When, for instance, the U.S. government did not appropriate funding for an official U.S. Pavilion at the Tenth Triennale in Milan in 1954, Olga became their “official American agent” (Not that she ever said this in the magazine, but the Triennale organizers gave Olga an award, a Diploma of “Benemerenza” or merit). She believed in the importance and value of American designers’ work and made every effort to put them on the world stage. And in 1955, when Harper’s, a small but prominent magazine at the time, published a chapter from a forthcoming book by a psychoanalyst, Decorating the Home: A Special Neurosis in Women, which demeaned the interiors profession, Olga, along with her posse of designers, took great offense. Her next editorial was an Open Letter to the Harper’s editor in chief where she fiercely denounced the article and rebuked the editor. Harper’s editor wrote a letter that Olga published in the following month. He claimed it was a “big joke” and meant to be an amusing tongue-in-cheek article. But Olga was a mother defending her young.
Recently, in New York City, when I passed The North Face store at 43rd and Fifth Avenue, I caught a glimpse of a large brass sculpture inside the building. I was fascinated by the story of Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s 1954 building for Manufacturers Trust Company, for which Harry Bertoia created a 70-foot-long, 16-foot-high, 5.25-ton nickel, copper and brass sculpture. The sculpture was a vital component in SOM’s luminous interior. I subsequently discovered that the work had been removed from the original interior until 2012, when preservations prevailed and the sculpture, restored, was returned to the space it was made for. Still, this amazing work of art now sits in a colorful retail store. The preservation and re-installation of the work is a wonderful victory for public art, but, I wonder, as I often do these days, what would O.G. have done?
Sylvia Sirabella is a graduate student at the New York School of Interior Design. She has been reading the Interiors archive for the years during Olga’s editorship to establish her contributions to the history of the interior design profession. [email protected]
If you enjoyed this, you may want to read “Farewell Sir Lady Jane: Design Icon Jane Thompson Dies at 89.”