Maria Kipp — textile engineer and designer — mid-century modern design icon

maria kipp 1958I am very interested in researching mid-mod topics — products, people, concepts — not covered widely in other online home and design media. One area ripe for more exploration: Women designers working in mid-century America. Today: Maria Kipp, a textile engineer and designer who led her own successful company, Maria Kipp, Inc., in Los Angeles from 1926 through the 1977. Her hand-woven textile designs — used for draperies, upholstery and lampshades — were specified by some of the most famous modernist designers. Now that I’ve discovered vintage Maria Kipp textiles and lampshades, I understand why. They are Exquisite. Just exquisite.

Above: A Maria Kipp, Inc., publicity photo from 1959, from my personal collection. Click on the image and it will enlarge — See what seems to be this rare photo of Maria Kipp along with beauteous “samples of her newest hand-loomed fabrics.” The caption says that, “Weaving has been her business for 32 years.” Maria Kipp was born in 1900, so in this photo she was around 59 years old, during a period when her business was going strong.

Designing women of mid-century America

It’s been my experience that women designers then often worked in the “less prestigious” field of the decorative arts. They were not typically the big-name architects or even furniture designers, who got a lot of media spotlight back in the day — and still, now. This makes these women designers of the post-war era wonderful subjects to study and bring back into the light of present day glory. Some other women designers we have written about here:

maria kipp textiles

Woah, the folks at LAMA bought up a boatload of Maria Kipp textiles samples at her estate sale in 2000. See their complete archive of stories about their samples here. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Maria Kipp — hand-woven textile designer to the Hollywood stars

In researching Kipp, I found several academic-type papers online. The most comprehensive one — the MUST READ — is this story by Marily Musicant that reviews the autobiography that Kipp wrote at in 1978, the year after she retired. Tip: If you logon to the JSTOR site, you can read the entire article for free. This is a terrific story, highlights include:

Here are some highlights of Maria Kipp’s life and contribution to mid-century interior design, taken from these online sources:

  • Born in Weisenbruhn, Germany in 1900, Kipp had a relatively well-to-do childhood. However, her life was was marred by tragedies — the death of her younger brother, mother and father by the time she was 17 — which likely played an important role in strengthening her resolve to defy tradition and become a successful artist and businesswoman.
  • In 1918 — against the opposition of family, she began studies at Munich’s Kunstgewerbeschüle — one of a few elite schools of arts and crafts in the country. Cultured young women were expected to be wives and mothers. And working in the arts? Decadent!  By this time, her parents had both died, and her inheritance was being contested. It seems she also was motivated by the basic fact need to pursue her own financial security. There was a beau involved, too — Ernst Haeckel. (They would later marry.) The pair had been courting for several years already, and Haeckel was already a student at the Kustegwerbeschule. In her autobiography, Kipp does not say what she studied at the school. However, it is believed that women were pushed into the decorative arts — textile design, embroidery, and glass- and ceramic painting.
  • In 1920, Kipp put up a fight again — and became the first woman to attend the Staatliche Höhere Fachschule für Textilindustrie (State Higher Technical School for the Textile Industry) in Münchberg, Bavaria. She immersed herself in studying to become a textile engineer. Her studies we an alchemy of the art and the science, both… They included the intensely technical — the woman ultimately built her own Jacquard loom, the precursor to a computer! Kipp excelled and in 1923 earned her degree.
  • Kipp and Haeckel married in late 1923. Some time that year, a friend gave her a handloom and once again, Kipp started her own business, not only defying tradition again but also somehow sidestepping what had been rigorous German guild regulations. Haeckel helped with the business.
  • In 1924, amidst continued social and economic disruption in Germany, Kipp and Haeckel emigrated to Los Angeles.

    maria kipp lamp shade

    Paul Laszlo sculpted lamp with Maria Kipp lamp shade. From Wikipedia, image copyright placed into in public domain

  • By 1926, the couple was able to relaunch their textile business — it was named “Maria Haeckel, Exclusive Handweaving”. Haeckel handled the business-side, Kipp, the design and manufacturing. Los Angeles’ population grew from 100,000 in 1920 to 1.2 million by 1930 — and modernism had its following — so it was a ripe environment for architects and designers alike. Indeed, one of the company’s earliest clients was famed modernish architect Rudolph Schindler. It sounds like Kipp’s business ramped up pretty quickly, with many noteworthy commissions.

  • In 1931, Kipp and Haeckel divorced. Her firm continued, as “Maria Kipp.”
  • She remarried in 1933, to accountant George Engelke. They had one son, George F. Engelke.
  • It’s unclear how her business fared during the worst of the Depression and World War II itself. But most certainly, she thrived once the war ended and housing construction boomed nationwide and especially in California, the epicenter of the new modern way of American living.
  • Her textiles were used by movie stars and celebrities. They also were used in leading hotels and nightclubs — even Air Force One.
    maria-kipp-lamp-shade

    Above: Empoli Glass decanter lamps with their original Maria Kipp shades from modpro1 on ebay. They sold for $200.

    maria kipp

    Above: Empoli Glass decanter lamps with their original Maria Kipp shades from modpro1 on ebay.

  • Kipp worked for 51 years, finally retiring in 1977. Her shop, which had been located at  3425 West First Street in Los Angeles, continued to operate through the early 1990s. She died in 1988.”
  • In 1978, Kipp wrote an autobiography, by hand. A copy of the typed version, 90 pages long, is housed at the Doris Stein Research Center for Costume and Textiles at the LA County Museum of Art. Another item to add for my must-do list for a future trip to Los Angeles: Spend an afternoon reading Maria Kipp’s autobiography!

Another fun write up was this story from the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, Calif. (another of my home towns….) After Kipp died in 1988, one of her hand-built Jacquard looms was donated to this museum. It sat unused for a long while, and only recently was restored to its original workable condition. In addition, the story describes how jacquard looms were mechanical precursors to, get this: Modern computers! Who woulda thunk it?

I love Maria Kipp

Maria Kipp’s work was — and remains — exquisite. What a woman! What an amazing legacy!

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Comments

  1. virginia says

    Thanks for this — very interesting.

    Anni Albers — Josef’s wife. Great textile artist and member of Bauhaus — on staff at Black Mountain College. Born in 1899 and famous for her comments on how best to present butter on the table.

    These artists in textiles are always amazing. Awesome medium that requires enormous skill and talent.

      • virginia says

        Not mentioned on her Wiki page but she had a solo exhibition at the Renwick Gallery (part of the Smithsonian) in the mid to late 80s. I worked there at the time as a secretary and transcribed many hours of interviews with her — fascinating person. Her views on butter – slap it on the table as is! Part of that tribe that found beauty in function. Fascinating to do a side by side of the couple’s work.

        Thanks for the information about this other talented artist. And hope you are getting better and better. Your site is such a pleasure and such an island of beauty, creativity, and civility. It’s a tonic for the soul.

  2. Jay says

    Nice history lesson.
    I had a textiles class in college but it was more of a historical overview and did not zero in on particular designers/weavers.
    The jaquard/computer connection – wonder how many people recall the IBM punch cards.

  3. Karin Jeffrey says

    Thank you for this. It is so important to learn more about these amazing and brilliant designers. When I was in art school and taking design history, so many brilliant 20th century designers were overlooked or dismissed. For this reason, I decided to do a paper on one of my favorite 20th century designers, Eileen Grey. My prof said it was refreshing to read about somebody other than Eames.

    • pam kueber says

      Thanks, Karin — YES, there were so many other people besides the ones who have received so much press already. I am wondering — if you can, I’d love to read you paper!

  4. Andi says

    This is fascinating….the work, and the woman behind it. I’ve never heard of Maria Kipp before, but won’t forget about her now. I love reading about these creative people so ahead of their time!

      • Andi says

        Oh my goodness, 100 comments! If your dashboard widget tracks everyone’s comments, it must look like the Starship Enterprise! I am picturing you in your retro polka dot dress, holding your drill aloft, at the helm of a Captain Kirk-like station, overlooking a massive dashboard twinkling with all sorts of colored lights! Beeping sounds, buzzers…..

  5. tammyCA says

    Neat, I like hearing about the little known women designers from this era. One of my favorites (’cause I love ceramics so much) is Hedi Schoop. She was another artist who left Nazi Germany for the freedom of America & started her own very popular ceramics co. in SoCal. She made a lot of those fab figural t.v. Lamps…harlequins, Asian, dancers.

  6. Susan D says

    Thanks so much for the information on a designer I had not heard of before. I collect vintage costume jewelry & that was another field with many strong, creative women who broke the stereotypes of the era.

    I do have to point out a small typo: I’m assuming the State Higher School, etc, was founded in 1894, not 1984 (unless time traveling was one of Maria’s lesser-known talents!)

  7. Heart says

    What about ‘Greta Magnusson Grossman’ 1906-1999, ‘Clarisse Cliff’ 1899-1972?

    Love these feature articles on women artist who paved the way. Thank you Pam!

  8. Mary Elizabeth says

    I’ve been so busy and away from the site so long you must have thought I’d lost interest. That will never happen! Glad you are featuring some of the women home designers on your site, and hope the reader’s paper on Eileen Grey will morph into a post on her.

    Next, how about Erica Wilson? Did you feature her before? I have a huge crewelwork picture, “Unicorn in Captivity” adapted from the Unicorn Tapestries, hanging in my living room. I began working when I was at the height of my needlework hobby and put it away for years, only to finish it after moving into my new ranch house while recovering from cancer surgery. Almost every bit of crewel work I did–some kits, some of my own design–was given away as gifts, so I was delighted I hadn’t finished this and given it to its then intended recipient! It’s 1970s classic colors fit perfectly in my living room.

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