Natalie de Blois

August 1, 2013 § 3 Comments

pepsiphotoEvery 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.

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§ 3 Responses to Natalie de Blois

  • Interesting. I had seen her name in credits long ago, but knew nothing of her. The Times article credits her with The Equitable in Chicago. I have always thought this was one of the more elegant Miesian high-rises in Chicago, that seems to go unnoticed. The original Equitable plaza was a modernist tour de force, containing a one-story Steel & Glass Barcelona like Pavilion, complete with grid of slender steel cruciform columns. Sadly it was post-modernized in the 80’s. I remember it being ripped out, and wondering why?

  • j james moe says:

    In 2010, de Blois was invited by the Cincinnati Preservation Association to see the Terrace Plaza Hotel. The hotel—once a Cincinnati icon—had lost its spaceship-like, rooftop restaurant; the Miró mural had been moved to the Cincinnati Art Museum; the panoramic views of the Ohio River had been blocked by taller buildings; and, the retail stores occupying the first few floors had altered the base (and massing) of the building. Regardless, this was to be the first time de Blois would see the building she designed.
    …then the Terrace Plaza Hotel permanently closed the WEEK de Blois was to visit!

    Regardless of the closure, Patrick Snadon at DAAP (University of Cincinnati) was able to meet with the architect and interview her. I’m not sure where his conversations are cataloged, but the sexism she endured made for great lectures.

    For one project—I think the Cincinnati one—the owner and SOM had a design meeting. During the meeting she was stashed in closet where she could listen to the owner-architect meeting and not be seen.

    • twleslie says:

      Thanks for sharing those–she led an amazing career, makes you wonder what else she could have done if the culture had been a little different…

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