Every major history of postwar modernism credits Lever House and PepsiCo’s headquarters–to this day two of the best buildings in New York–to SOM principal Gordon Bunshaft, but a deeper reading of their design histories shows that both of them benefitted enormously from the work of Natalie de Blois, who died last week. SOM now credits her as the “Senior Designer” on PepsiCo, but they sure didn’t back in 1960.
de Blois rose to be a senior designer at SOM–in the New York office until 1961 and then in Chicago until 1974–and was one of those brilliant but entirely unsung figures who made the office what it was. Almost every major design firm has one or two folks who rarely get the credit that the big stars get, but who are vital in the daily life of the office.
The obit in today’s Times makes the all-too-obvious point that she never got the credit she deserved because of the blatantly sexist norms of the day. The stories of her treatment are sobering and frankly awful. It’s hard not to think that much of Bunshaft’s real talent lay in her largely uncredited work, and that his reputation ought to really be re-assessed in light of what’s now common knowledge. There’s a huge difference between PepsiCo (a vastly underrated building, one of the most rigorous things the New York office ever did and still maybe the best glass and steel curtain wall in New York) and, say, 9 East 57th Street, a building Bunshaft did with other senior designers that lacks the subtlety that seems to lie in everything de Blois worked on.
In the Art Institute’s Oral History project, de Blois was interviewed at length about her positions at SOM, the prejudice she endured, and the differences between the two offices. In particular, she brought a breath of outside air to Chicago in the midst of it’s wholesale adoption of Miesian aesthetics:
I was flabbergasted when I got to Chicago. I found out that everybody talked about nothing but Mies van der Rohe. Everything was Mies. There were people who had done detailing in Mies’ office; there were people who studied with Mies at IIT.
de Blois worked with Myron Goldsmith during her last years at SOM, in particular on the St. Joseph’s Bank in Elkhart, Indiana, a lesser-known but incredibly rigorous and beautiful low-rise building. In addition to the Art Insitute’s Oral History, there’s a good interview of de Blois by Detlef Mertens, conducted in 2004, on SOM’s website.
She deserves a few minutes reading today.