Your library for sassy, creative ladies

TOTAL BABE: Our girl Norma Sklarek, first black female architect in the U.S.

"Everywhere she went she was first." -Marshall Purnell, 2008 AIA President

Photographer: Rich Schmitt

Damn she looks good in blue! Hello to Norma Sklarek, a woman of serious firsts:

- First registered black female architect in the U.S.
- First black female Fellow of the AIA (1980)
- First black woman to form and manage an architecture firm – Siegel, Sklarek,
  Diamond – the largest woman-owned / woman-staffed one in the U.S.


So inspiring! Ms. Sklarek was a pioneer, to say the least. After graduating from Columbia University in 1950 (with a kid!), the architect had trouble finding employment, obviously; not only was she a woman, she was also black and living in 1950. But our girl kept going!

"Women have a rough time in architecture and you have to be willing to stick with it." -Norma Sklarek

Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill - the first firm to recognize Ms. Sklarek’s talent as an architect - brought her on, thoroughly impressed: our girl passed all seven parts of the four-day architect’s licensing exam the first time around. That’s what I’m talking about! Ms. Sklarek went on to eventually become a Principle Architect with the Jerde Partnership. 

In 2008 she was honored with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for her extraordinary work in designing architecture for the social good – things like affordable housing and minority inclusiveness. These much-needed deeds have earned her the title as the “Rosa Parks of architecture.” 

But FYI - According to the Directory of African American Architects, there are still only 262 black female architects in the U.S. And how many black men? 1,522. Come on, ladies! 

(Source: info.aia.org)


Presenting the lovely Russian-born industrial designer, Belle Kogan, who was one of the first American female designers. In 1994, at 92 years old she finally received the Personal Recognition Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America – just 6 years before her death in 2000. Yeh, girl!

Designer Belle Kogan

Throughout her career, Ms. Kogan designed a mix of products including silverware, ceramics, glassware, tables, and doll furniture. One of the first industrial designers to take an interest in plastics, she experimented with celluloid toilet sets, plastic toaster bases, Bakelite jewelry, and clocks. Clocks

Check out Kogan’s fantastic Electric Quacker clock for Telechron

The Quacker was produced circa 1932-38 during Telechron’s “golden age.” Kogan also designed an alarm clock version, called “The Smug,” which unfortunately never actually quacked, although it apparently has a “nice buzzer/bell sound. Good to know! Kogan’s clock also came in black and blue.

Sketch for the Electric Quacker

I said to my father, ‘Well, I’m going to have a career, goodbye. I am never going to get married, and I’m never going to have children. I had a family all my life I helped raised. I helped you in business. I want a life of my own.’

Belle Kogan, Industrial Deisgner

CREATIVE COUPLE: Lella and Massimo Vignelli

What’s fascinating about married creative couples — beyond whether or not they’re happy together — is how they work together. Is it collaborative? Or are they simply just working alongside one another?

It would seem that married designers are more likely to collaborate than married artists. However, married artists clearly influence each other’s work; it’s impossible not to see the similarities between the couples’ paintings.

But otherwise, art is personal expression, and more often than not a solitary practice. Design, on the other hand, whose root is in problem-solving, requires collaboration. The more heads involved, the better the product.

Well, might as well solve things head-to-head with your sweetheart.

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The Perfect Pair: Lella and Massimo Vignelli

  • Married in: 1957
  • Status: Still oh so happily married
  • Occupation: Industrial / graphic design
  • Work produced: Together 



American Airlines corporate identity, 1967 

NYC MTA subway sign system, 1966


"Let us use the hands for what they were meant to be: the tools of a creative man, not just the repetitive instrument of unimaginative procedures." –Marguerite Wildenhain, from her Open Letter to Bernard Leach, 1953

Otto Hagel, Marguerite Wildenhain throwing a pot, c. 1945

Hello to the fabulous master ceramicist Ms. Marguerite Wildenhain, who, in 1953, wrote a particularly sassy open letter to celebrated British potter, Bernard Leach.

The letter is a candid four-page rebuttal in response to Leach’s objections to the heterogeneousness of American ceramics (apparently there were too many styles). In her note to the artist, Wildenhain advocates diversity and creativity within the arts – specifically American arts; its many expressions, she writes, is its greatest beauty.  

Marguerite Wildenhain, c. 1971, glazed stoneware

She begins her letter:

… If the aim of your lecture is to narrow down to one way of life, one special manifestation of art, one century of one certain culture the manifold ways of the creative potters of the world, if your aim is to “save” our 20th century by taking over the forms, the techniques, the way of life and the work methods of the Orientals of the 8th or 10th century of contemporary rural population in Japan – it is obvious that we must reject that.

Holy cow, that was sharp – get it, girl! Wildenhain, save for a few romantic tangents, articulates her beef (and beliefs) in an assertive, matter-of-fact way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to track down Leach’s reaction to the letter, although – whether good or bad – I wager he had strong feelings toward it. 

A bit more from Wildenhain’s fascinating letter:

… A country like America cannot have just one expression, it forcibly must have as many forms of expression as the total life has. That is America’s beauty its greatest and for nothing in the world (I say that as a European born American) would I want to see just one single form, one single way of thinking grow on this continent. Our tradition is the free choice of each. 

You cannot possibly believe that the U.S. craftsmen would grow roots by imitating Sung, be those as beautiful as they are. How could anything but the worst makeshift value grow out of a conscious imitating any form that is not related to the mind and soul of our generation, our country, our time?


Betye Saar is a rock star boxer. No, not the Muhammad Ali kind. I’m talking about the Joseph Cornell variety: assembling materials into small-sized containers (collages!). Inspired by Cornell’s assemblage work, Saar, a lifelong random object collector, realized his boxes were the perfect medium for arranging her own findings, which she could assign deeper meanings to once merged.

Inside Saar’s studio: collage materials

Saar uses Cornell only as a starting point. His boxes tend to employ softer colors and imagery, producing a precious effect. Saar’s boxes, on the other hand, are much darker in tone. There’s nothing precious about her 1972 box, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Aunt Jemima’s got a rifle in one arm, and a pointed broomstick and grenade in the other – lady means business. But what’s so disturbing here isn’t the weapons; it’s the early renderings of Aunt Jemima. Audiences are confronted with real imagery of racism and sexism. 

Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972

Part of Saar’s childhood collection were derogatory depictions of blacks in pop culture – what the artist calls her “black heroes.” Talking about the use of her heros in her box art, Saar says, “I like to think I recycled those images from negative to positive. At any rate, it was how I got my anger out.” Get it, girl!

Betye Saar, Pour Vous Madame, 1999

Betye Saar, Lullaby, 1999

Betye Saar, photograph by Robert Hale

(Source: betyesaar.net)