Discovering My Grandmother, A Designing Woman
I would guess most readers of Lustre no longer have living grandmothers. Nor do I. My maternal grandmother died young at 47 before I was born. But through my mother's memorabilia, stashed in the back of closets and drawers, I have come to know and treasure her. I even recently wrote a book about her.
It turns out that in her too short life, my grandmother Marguerita Mergentime was a well known textile and industrial designer. She designed for the original Radio City Music Hall and for three the World's Fairs. That made me even more curious. I dove in with both feet and became immersed in her environment and the decorative arts and design of her era--the time between the wars, the Roaring Twenties through the Great Depression up to the beginnings of the Second World War. Here's what I learned.
Margeurita began by designing beachwear and silk dress fabrics. She became a part of the avant garde design movement in New York City made up of pioneering designers who sought to bring good design to the burgeoning middle class. Through one of her colleagues, Radio City's designer Donald Deskey, she obtained a commission in 1932 to design a wall covering and carpet for the then under construction Radio City Music Hall. It's still there today on the Grand Lounge level!
But her real passion, and what she is most known for revolutionizing, was informal table linens. Marguerita loved to entertain and, in the 1930's, she sought in vain for suitably modern table linens for her own home. She didn't want white and she didn't want lace. She wanted modern designs and modern colors. And so, not finding any she liked, she started designing her own.
Her first designs were presented at an industrial arts exposition at Rockefeller Center in 1934 and caused a sensation. What were presented were not prototypes. They were already being sold in stores you may remember – New York City's B. Altman’s and Gimbels as well as out of town department stores. But this time her designs were the subject of a great deal of media attention and were recognized to be revolutionary in their colors and designs.
She foresaw the informal direction of home entertaining and family life. She looked to modern art, billboards and theater marquees as well as her varied interests to find subject matter for her cloths which ranged from folk art to nautical symbols, geometrics to asymmetrical designs. Perhaps the most innovative of her designs, and some of my favorites, were her linens designed to prompt conversation. They included words and ideas of the day presented in artistic fonts and bold colors to engage the diner and ensure that the dinner party conversation was lively. Decades before the concept of user experience, her cloths, mat sets and cocktail napkins engaged those gathered in talk of politics, culture, history and fun.
My grandmother was also a savvy networker – way before Linkedin. She was an early member of the still operating Fashion Group – an organization of women engaged in the fashion, retailing and home fields. She presented at forums and chaired committees and built relationships. One of the most fruitful was with Dorothy Shaver, then a vice president and later president of Lord and Taylor. Women helping women - Shaver was a pioneer in the promotion of American design and designers in the store.
Marguerita was also one of very few women who were early members of AUDAC (American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen), an organization that only admitted members actively involved in industrial design. This membership connected her to people in all areas of modern design from architecture to furniture, advertising to packaging. Among the other members were not only Deskey, but also Frank Lloyd Wright, Russel Wright, Eliel Saarinen and Frederick Kiesler. Throughout the decade of the 1930s she participated with many AUDAC colleagues in major museum exhibits and events of that time.
I spent two years researching - in the archives in the NY Public Library’s awesome Rare Book Room as well as with 21st century digital search tools. The thrill of the discovery of articles and correspondence was palpable and the result was the publication (with two co-authors) of a beautiful book - Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas. While I did “get to know” my grandmother, I also painfully realized that I had missed the opportunity to learn the more personal details about Marguerita from my mother while she was still living. Which leads me back to where I started about knowing your grandparents and an important lesson learned.
Leave a record of what you have done, who you did it with and how you felt about it. It does not have to be a stylistic legacy or have been in the public eye but it matters and it will enrich your grandchildren’s and even your children’s lives to know what your values were, what you contributed, the struggles you faced and successes you had and how you made a difference in the areas of your interests.
I loved the journey to find my grandmother. I loved honoring her legacy. I wish I knew even more.