From “Decorators” to Designers: How Olga Gueft Helped Evolve the Interior Design Profession

Gueft's advocacy for the American Institute of Decorators helped give the growing interiors industry the promotional boost it needed.

Interiors‘ April 1956 cover commemorating the 25th anniversary of the American Institute of Decorators (AID). The cover was designed by Aldo Giurgola, the magazine’s art director.

This is the second in a series of articles (first installment) on Interiors magazine editor Olga Gueft (1915 – 2015), a pioneering champion of the interior design profession. 

Olga Gueft joined Interiors in 1945 as the magazine’s managing editor. World War II was nearing an end, and returning American GIs would bring back home a renewed energy. The country turned from war production to manufacturing consumer goods of all kinds, a pivot that raised hopes for new housing and affordable home furnishings.

At that time, interior designers were often called “decorators,” even by their professional organizations. The largest such organization, the American Institute of Decorators (AID), was established in 1931; its membership grew slowly but steadily over time. The moment was coming when the field of interior design would begin to expand and evolve in significant ways. Olga understood that this was a tremendous moment for the interiors profession.

By 1953, Olga’s name appears on the Interiors masthead with her new title—editor. The tone of the magazine began to reflect her interest in interior design as an important business; her coverage of AID was an indication of this shift. In 1955, the ambitious editor began a new series of articles entitled “The Race to Design.” Each month readers were introduced to different categories of design such as transportation, retail stores, and restaurants. Not surprisingly, the first area of focus was offices.

As America embarked on a period of aggressive growth, in both economic and building terms, there was a great urgency for businesses to build their workplaces as quickly and smartly as possible. These were the years when huge corporate headquarters were built for the sole purpose of housing their rapidly expanding workforces. The architects and interior designers who worked on these buildings responded to the new demands for flexible space planning and furnishings—necessary for planning for future growth. The complexities of this growth and the vast amounts of capital investment created a growing demand for architects and interior designers who understood the dynamic and functional requirements of these burgeoning companies. By the mid-1950s interior designers were rising in prominence; their professional organization needed to reflect this new phase of professionalization. Olga was more than happy to help them accomplish this goal.  

Giurgola’s successor, Jerry Lieberman, designed this cover for the May 1958 issue, which celebrated the 27th annual AID Conference.

Starting in 1951, Interiors began devoting more pages to promoting AID and its annual national conference;  but in 1954, after Olga took the reins, coverage expanded significantly. Interiors began publishing both the programming and events calendar as well as information and maps of the host city. In 1955, for the 24th Annual Conference, AID organized a six-week European “Grand Tour” which journeyed to Lisbon, Naples, Rome, Athens, Florence, Venice, Paris, and London by sea, land, and air.  The extensive trip was planned as an educational experience that would enhance the American interior designers’ knowledge and understanding of the world and its art and design history. Interiors devoted 14 pages to the trip itinerary, showcasing tour highlights in each city, down to the best local restaurants and wines. The scope and length of this popular conference, unimaginable today, marked a milestone in AID history—the association wanted to give its members the World, metaphorically and literally. It’s clear that AID’s (and Interiors’) agenda was to educate American designers, inspire their work, and lead them to a new level of sophistication rooted in the grand traditions of European classicism.

By 1956, Interiors coverage of the 25th annual conference, to be held in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, swelled to 49 pages (70% of the editorial space) in the April issue. Programming included informational and educational seminars, AID leadership meetings and elections, home tours, parties, and “The Decorators’ Big Show,” a major exhibition by designers, manufacturers, and distributors for the interiors trade which featured room settings designed and executed by members of regional AID chapters. Additional exhibitions included works from AID’s student competition and winning submissions from AID’s Annual Home Furnishings Awards. Notably, the Decorators’ Big Show was open to the public and also served the critical function of educating the American consumer on good design. Interiors coverage of the conference also offered detailed information about Jackson Square, the primary decorative trade center in San Francisco, in addition to local museums. Most importantly, Olga published the work of San Francisco AID members and promoted these interiors as part of a recommended tour of the city.  In elevating the status of AID and its members with this remarkable level of coverage, Olga became a recognized champion of the growing industry. 

The 25th Annual Conference was also the topic of Olga’s editorial letter to the readers that month. She wrote that membership in AID had grown from 342 in 1931 to more than 1,400 by 1956. Increasing the ranks of the organization with qualified professional designers was an important priority for the leaders of AID, and Olga offered her belief that “it is … essential that all qualified members of the profession be in AID.” By this time AID had long established minimum requirements for its members’ training and experience. The association had already been taking steps to solidify its importance to the profession, as well as the furnishing industry, by developing its code of professional practice and ethics. But now they needed to better establish the industry in the minds of American business and the public. The fastest and best way to do this seemed to be through the support of the media, and especially, Interiors with its intrepid editor, Olga Gueft.

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 Gueft’s editorship to establish her contributions to the history of the interior design profession. She can be contacted at sylviasirabella@gmail.com. This research was funded by a grant from the ASID Foundation.

If you enjoyed this, you may want to read the first article in this series, “Rediscovering Olga Gueft, Foremother of Interior Design.”

Categories: Interiors

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