Ilonka Karasz Receives her due in Cooper Hewitt Exhibition

"Calico Cow" textile designed by Ilonka Karasz, 1952

American Textile History Museum Collection, gift of Michele Palmer; 2017-24-7
"Calico Cow" textile designed by Ilonka Karasz, 1952
The multi-talented designer is often overlooked in art and design history. The Cooper Hewitt, which recently received a gift of her eclectic works, has sought to change that.

The multi-talented designer is often overlooked in art and design history. The Cooper Hewitt, which recently received a gift of her eclectic works, has sought to change that.

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

“The New York World's Fair, September 2, 1939,” cover of The New Yorker, designed by Ilonka Karasz, 1939, offset lithograph print

One cover of her many New Yorker covers is on view at the Cooper Hewitt: the September 2, 1939 issue celebrating the World’s Fair with a crowd bustling down the Avenue of Patriots, where a tram tries to navigate around tourists transfixed by their map, sailors lean against flag poles, and a group of Catholic school girls are guided by attentive nuns.

Ilonka Karasz excelled in adapting to the changing trends and new manufacturing processes of 20th-century design, from bringing modernist geometries to silver work and furniture in the 1920s, to earthenware ceramics and pioneering nursery design in the 1930s, to wallpaper with a hand drawn folk art aesthetic in the 1940s. Beginning with her arrival in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1913, until the 1970s, she contributed woodcuts and illustrations to books and magazines, including 186 New Yorker covers. Perhaps it’s this fragmentation of Karasz’s prolific career that has made her legacy obscure.

“She worked for a long time, so there certainly is evolution in her style, but she was consistently modern, emphasizing geometry and simplified lines,” said curator and scholar Ashley Callahan. “She also embraced folk art influences, nature, color, and charm.” Callahan began studying Karasz’s work in 1997 while a graduate student, and when she joined the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia as its first curator of decorative arts, she organized a 2003-04 exhibition on Karasz and explored her work in an accompanying monograph titled Enchanting Modern: Ilonka Karasz.

Now through April 22, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York is exhibiting almost 30 objects by Karasz in a small retrospective that visualizes her range. “One of the main reasons for doing it now was to celebrate a large gift of her work that we received at the end of last year,” said Greg Herringshaw, assistant curator in charge of the Wallcoverings Department and organizer of the exhibition. “We received a number of her mural wallpapers along with the original drawings for these, which is really amazing. The murals are printed in a technique that required the drawings to be the full scale. So the drawings for these wallpapers are about 10 feet tall and all colored with graphite and ink.”

Lamelleware Plate designed by Ilonka Karasz
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Lamelleware Plates, ca. 1935; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); glazed earthenware; H x diam.: 2.2 × 22.8 cm (7/8 in. × 9 in.); Gift of Ashley and Mark Callahan in memory of Solveig Cox; 2017-40-1

Folder with trees, designed by Ilonka Karasz
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Folder, Trees, 1960; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); USA; luxograph print on paper; L x W (closed): 35.6 x 22.2 cm (14 in. x 8-3/4 in.); Gift of Marilyn Friedman; 2014-12-3

Drawing, Serenade, 1948, by Ilonka Karasz
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian American Design Museum

Drawing, Serenade, 1948; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); graphite, pen and ink on linen; 365.8 × 101.6 cm (12 ft. × 40 in.); Gift of Matthew L. Edelman; 2016-37-1

Sugar bowl and creamer, 1928, by Ilonka Karasz
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian American Design Museum

Sugar Bowl (USA) and Creamer (USA), ca. 1928; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); electro-plated nickel silver; Gift of George R. Kravis II; 2013-54-2 and 2013-54-3

Teapot designed by Ilonka Karasz
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian American Design Museum

Teapot (USA), ca. 1920–25; Designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); electro-plated nickel silver, walnut; H x W x D: 11.7 x 15.9 x 10.2 cm (4-5/8 in. x 6-1/4 in. x 4 in.); Gift of Harry C. Sigman; 2013-21-38-a,b

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."
Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."
Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."
Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."
Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."
Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Installation view of "Ilonka Karasz, Works from the Collection."

Some of Karasz’s influences were drawn from her youth in Budapest, where she was born on July 13, 1896, as well as her studies at the city’s Royal School of Arts and Crafts where she was one of the first female students. When she moved to New York at 17, she became an active part of the artistic community in Greenwich Village. Photographs from these days show her dressed in eclectic bohemian clothes, her long dark hair wound in an updo. Sculptor William Zorach later recalled in his biography Art Is My Life that she was among “the outstanding personalities of the Village. She had a great talent and great beauty of a very extraordinary kind. It was the period of Wiener Werkstätte design in furniture, colorful and original textiles, and astonishing interior decoration from Austria. Ilonka belonged to this movement. She had such talent and ability that I think she could have done almost anything in the way of creative art but this is what she chose to do.”

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Drawing for textile design, “Stylized Flowers,” 1931, designed by Ilonka Karasz (American, b. Hungary, 1896–1981); USA; brush and gouache, graphite; ruled border in graphite on off-white illustration board; 45.8 x 35.3 cm (18-1/16 x 13-7/8 in.); Gift of Donald Deskey; 1975-11-34

“She worked for a long time, so there certainly is evolution in her style, but she was consistently modern, emphasizing geometry and simplified lines.”

Ashley Callahan, curator and scholar

She would, however, indeed do almost everything, whether pictorial maps in the 1920s or ceramic designs for Buffalo China used on American railroads in the 1930s, while also collaborating with leading designers like Donald Deskey, whose interiors often involved her textiles. She was conscious of how an interior could impact a person’s daily life, particularly in her nursery designs, like her room at the 1928 American Designers' Gallery exhibition. With color and shape, she considered how a child’s psychological development could be supported by their room, such as color-coded dresser knobs so they could learn to find their own things. Easily washable fabrics and child-scale convertible furniture were also central. A 1928-32 carpet design at Cooper Hewitt with orange and yellow geometric shapes is similar to one in the 1928 nursery. As she explained in 1935 in an article for House and Garden, “As children always do, he will imagine these cubes to be not only boxes but will relate them to things in Nature and the world around him … [these rooms] have more vision than the manufacturer who still insists upon Little Bo-Peep.”

Similarly, her 1940s and ‘50s wallpaper murals, mostly made for Katzenbach and Warren, create explorable environments in two dimensions. Although they at first appear simple, the sketched details of fauna, people, and passageways are only revealed through long looking, something that would keep the design from becoming stale in the home. One large three-panel example called “Serenade” that stretches across a wall at Cooper Hewitt has an Asian-inspired tableau of buildings and gardens all lively with people holding pinwheels, peering from windows, and flying a fish kite. A 1960 pamphlet for a “Trees” mural was printed with the technique used for the full-sized installation to communicate its possible ink and paper combinations. “When you look at the drawing, the bark on each tree is drawn differently,” Herringshaw said. “It's a textural pattern and it just feels like you could walk into that forest because it's so huge.”

Sometimes the imagery is strange and surreal, such as the looming portals of negative and positive space in the 1948 “Arches” mural, still the tone is always peaceful. Her covers for the New Yorker are likewise serene, and never political, with overhead views of ice skaters in Central Park and daytrippers picnicking alongside waterfalls in the 1950s, and hills of wildflowers and snowy lanes in the 1970s. Only one cover is on view at Cooper Hewitt: the September 2, 1939 issue celebrating the World’s Fair with a crowd bustling down the Avenue of Patriots, where a tram tries to navigate around tourists transfixed by their map, sailors lean against flag poles, and a group of Catholic school girls are guided by attentive nuns.

The pieces at Cooper Hewitt represent most of their Karasz collections, yet they’re only a sampling of her oeuvre. “I started keeping track and making a list of her wallpaper, and she designed well over 50 patterns starting in 1947 up until 1960,” Herringshaw noted.

Karasz died on May 26, 1981 at the age of 84. While a viewer might not guess the same mind was behind the angular 1928 silver-plated nickel sugar bowl based around an inverted cone and cube, and the 1952 “Calico Cow” textile with its dense rustic puzzle of farmers and farm animals, they share an enduring interest in a modernist simplicity and attention to the possibilities of materials.

“Her career may not have been as tidy and focused as those of many of her peers — which makes hers a more challenging story to tell — but that should not eliminate her from the historical narrative,” Callahan stated. “It's a remarkable achievement to have found success in so many media.”

About the Author

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.