10 vintage Armstrong advertising room designs by Louisa Kostich Cowan

retro room decor renderingI have this opinion that Hazel Dell Brown was the most influential residential interior designer of the 20th Century. In 1921, she was hired by Armstrong Flooring to create an interior design team tasked with creating real rooms to show off Armstrong products in advertisements. She was super successful and led interior design there for decades to follow. I have done a lot of research about Hazel Dell Brown, and need to write a big story soon! I will, I promise! Meanwhile, the point of today’s story: Valerie, a longtime reader of this blog, recently scored a big bundle of renderings by a subsequent Armstrong designer, Louisa Kostich Cowan — a Hazel Dell Brown protege who herself went on to lead Armstrong’s interior design department for many years after Dell Brown. Valerie generously spent an afternoon photographing some of the designs — which we are so excited to show here today! 

retro room decor rendering

Valerie uploaded one of her finds to our most recent uploader. I saw it, and emailed Valerie right away. She responded just as quickly, explaining the back story and how she found this treasure trove:

Hi Pam,

I’ve been following your blog for years! So here’s the story about the Armstrong renderings. I live in Lancaster, PA — home to Armstrong World Industries. Armstrong of course is still alive and well here, but it’s certainly not the huge employer that it was in the mid-century. Armstrong did a lot for Lancaster, in that it brought great artists and designers to a place known for the Amish and farming. It really gave Lancaster County a much-needed injection of culture.

I’m in my mid-30’s, but when talking to baby boomers or their parents, it’s rare to find someone who didn’t work at Armstrong themselves or have a family, friend, or neighbor that worked there at some point.  For example, my grandfather and uncle both worked as Armstrong. I know of countless others.

My husband and I bought our current house (1957 raised ranch — leans a bit modern with floor-to-ceiling windows and beams), which we finally settled on it after looking at 23 mid-century houses over two years. That being said, we saw a lot of cool houses, some of which had Armstrong test floors in them. Again, not exactly a rarity around here, because the designers, engineers, and production staff would take stuff home to test it. My grandfather was quite handy and put in his own Armstrong ceilings and floors, which he had gotten at a deep discount while working there.

I’ve been collecting Armstrong stuff for quite a while — mostly books, including several books from the Flooring Division that were produced once a year to showcase their products. I guess you could call them sample books, though it’s images, not actual swatches. I have 1958, 1962, 1966, and 1969. I have a nice graphite sketch of my grandfather that one of the artists at Armstrong had drawn of him.  Lots of that kind of stuff around, though of course you have to dig to find out that the person worked at Armstrong!

Louisa Kostich Cowan – Creative Director, Interior Design Services, at Armstrong Flooring

Vintage-Armstrong-room-rendering-decor-38Valerie continues:

So this brings me to the renderings….Louisa Kostich Cowan passed away back in 2009. Her obituary on Lancaster Online [explains that, born in Yugoslavia, she graduated with first class honors in 1949 from the Academy of Applied Arts in Belgrade.]

retro room decor rendering

Around here, auctions are more common than estate sales. On Saturday, there was an auction at her residence. Her husband was selling their house and contents. Here’s the link.

midcentury mood board

As you can see, not a lot of mid-century stuff, rather she had lots of items from all over the world. But, there was a huge stash of these artists renderings and boards.

retro room decor rendering

I don’t know that all of them were hers, but I presume that most of them were. Many of them have something to the extent of: Return to Louisa Cowan, Interior Design Dept.

retro room decor rendering

Most of the renderings are signed Ressler (a rather common last name around here), so I am hellbent on finding out more about that person.

retro room decor rendering

But, I do believe that most of the boards with swatches and designs were probably sketched out and assembled by her. The auction … just started selling them by the lot, so it was hard to tell exactly what you were buying, what might have had missing samples, etc.

retro room decor rendering

I got some nice ones, but certainly missed out on some other great ones. I bought as many stacks as I could afford. The other interesting thing about these renderings is that some of the items featured also were for sale at the auction.

retro room decor rendering

Of course, you really had to be quick and thorough to figure this out. I bought a ceramic horse from 1958 that I believe may have been a prop for one of her designs, but I don’t know for sure yet. I have to go though my Armstrong ad book to see.

retro room decor rendering

In addition to this, she had shelves of interior design and gardening books. Oh yes, I bought a few boxes of those too!  Lots of Sunset books, Betty Pepsis, Home & Garden, etc. Almost all of them have her name or stamp in the inside, which is great. Unfortunately, she seemed to like to remove the dust jacket too, because a lot of them are missing. Oh well, I’ve got the content!

Vintage-Armstrong-room-rendering-decor-40

Armstrong Flooring’s interior design team: Incredibly influential

Yes, Valerie, you do have the content! Way to go for seeking out and snapping up all these wonderful — and important — pieces of midcentury interior design history.

Why do I believe that women like Hazel Dell Brown and Louisa Kostich Cowan were so influential? Because: Their interior designs — which were done for marketing purposes to promote the use of Armstrong Flooring — were immensely popular, blasted across virtually all print media to women everywhere.

They were in magazines, in the prime spots… there were booklets and pamphlets and flyers in stores… there were big thick catalogs, too — Valerie has collected some, and I have too… you could write the company for ideas and you would receive swatches and a letter signed by Hazel Dell Brown herself!… members of the interior design traveled the country to demonstrate the product.

Armstrong Flooring dominated the resilient flooring market. And starting with Hazel Dell Brown, their immensely talented interior design team provided the creative ideas that not only propelled Armstrong sales, but which also gave American women coast to coast the inspiration, aspiration and know-how to decorate their homes with imagination and confidence.

Sure, the Armstrong interiors were often … wacky. They pushed the envelope — and heck, they were for advertising, they had to catch your eye! But that said, they were always impeccably designed — this team had talent! Such as fascinating story. Thank you, so much, Valerie to adding to this herstory!

Louisa Kostich Cowan

In researching this story, I connected with Eugene Cowan, Louisa Kostich Cowan’s husband, to make sure he was okay with our featuring these images — which he was. 🙂 I talked with him at length and will do a follow-up story soon. He is sending me photos and more information!

In short, though, he told me that his wife worked at Armstrong for about 35 years, from 1954 until 1988. When she joined the company, she worked for Hazel Dell Brown. Cowan became head of the interior design department a few years after Dell Brown retired, Mr. Cowan recalled.

Again: More to come!

These two books were my “bibles”:

When I first started researching midcentury interiors more than 10 years ago, I literally Vulcan mind-melded with these books, collections of finished interiors by Armstrong, curated by a former longtime PR chief for the the company:

*affiliate link
*affiliate link

***

The whole thing: An amazing part of American design history! THANK YOU, Valerie!!!! Thank you, Mr. Cowan!!!!

More stories about Armstrong flooring:

All photos as featured here are copyright RetroRenovation.com 2015 (and Valerie).
Do not reproduce in any form without our explicit permission.

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Comments

  1. ineffablespace says

    I think we have lost something with the disappearance of hand rendering and its replacement with computer generated rendering.
    First we’ve lost an art form. But we’ve also lost a means of interpretation. Clients understood that a drawing was a Concept and that the real thing would vary. Now clients accept the computer rendering as a virtual Reality of the expected finished product. But the computer rendering tends to still be a pristine or romanticized version, but it’s too real for people to remember that.
    Also this realism hampers the ability of the non-visual person to interpret from a drawing. People used to understand better what something looked like from a drawing. Then people needed photos to understand and now we are at the point where people need something three dimensional to understand. But you can’t show people the real thing before it exists. People are losing their ability to imagine.

    • says

      I agree. I’ve been a graphic designer for 30 years. When I first started out in the business, we had to produce magic marker comps and story boards to pitch a concept and idea. You really did need good drawing skills. Not so much today.

    • Brooke says

      I would agree and disagree. I think people not in the industry (architecture, interior design, urban planning etc) have always needed to see some sort of visual interpretation of what something would look like. The hand renders definitely leave more to the imagination etc but they’re still used today exactly how we in the industry (I’m in Urban planning) use them today.

      One thing hand rendering are a disadvantage is that sometime they’re more inspiring than what actually gets built from them. The atmosphere and painterly quality that’s in a really nice hand render can almost never be translated into reality.

      I can see benefits for hand rendering and digital rendering. I’m lucky to do both in the work I am and it really depends on the client as to which needs to be used.

      • ineffablespace says

        I can’t imagine doing urban planning without computer drafting and rendering.

        But for interior design, which is what the Armstrong renderings are for I think it is the painterly quality that signifies for the often “non-visual” client that it is Not completely going to be translated into reality. The near photorealism of digital renderings can make a client forget that.

        I know someone who had a commercial client that was upset by the reality of the HVAC vents, and light switches and other utilities in the finished project, because they weren’t shown in the digital renderings which he took as so realistic as to represent the finished product exactly. A painterly rendering signifies no such realism in what is a conceptual drawing.

        I think if you are going to create something that is so exacting, it may be in your best interest then to depict all the vents and light switches and outlets in proper locations in the digital rendering.

        The good part of this is that it may actually lead to some consideration where those sorts of things end up, rather than having them end up in less than optimal locations.

        • Ed says

          Yeah, I’d want the vents, switches, etc. placed into the rendering, whether it be hand or computer generated. I know my Aunt was taken aback by the visual effect of an electrical outlet at the top of her new staircase. Or rather, what it detracted from the visual effect. If you’re going through the work to make renderings, they should be realistic to what the client can expect to see. In my opinion.

  2. Teresa says

    What an awesome auction find! Gives me goosebumps thinking about your day there. Will you display some of the boards?

  3. Mary Elizabeth says

    I second Pam’s comments. Thanks to Valerie for sharing the artwork and to Mr. Cowan for allowing it to appear here.

    My absolute favorite is the kitchen/dining room with the TOMATO CHAIRS! I have never seen the like. Can’t you just imagine saying to your guests, “Please, pull up a tomato and have a Bloody Mary.”

  4. tammyCA says

    Neat stuff! The frog room is quite different.
    Speaking of flooring..I was just now watching “antiques road trip” on PBS & they were showing the town linoleum built, Lancaster, England..a lord Ashton who became super rich from manufacturing linoleum in the mid-1800s..they showed some very early linoleums when it was all the rage. When we finally get our floors done in the kitchen & bathrms I’m definitely going the healthier linoleum way than vinyl.

  5. tammyCA says

    This also reminds me, Pam..are you familiar with another influential mid-century woman designer, Maria Bergson. Awhile ago I saw her article “no home too small for books” on the back of an old 1962 readers digest book jacket..I loved what she said about books & so I had to google who she was. Very interesting. She originally emigrated from Austria in 1940 after working as a successful actress with famous Max Reinhardt. Then as a NY secretary she told her bosses she could design their offices better than they were. Out went the roll top desks & in came her modular designs. She started her business & became super successful..first woman designer listed in who’s who in America in 1956. She also designed the admiral suite & crew quarters on the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the Independence.

  6. Susie Q. says

    My favorite rendering that was uploaded was the one called “Swinging Kitchen.” I’d like a better look at that one–the uploaded image had acetate covering the rendering.
    I could click and enlarge the first image from this story, but I couldn’t enlarge any of the rest.
    I used to work for an interior design firm; I used to do renderings like these–so I’d really appreciate being able to see these images as close to 1:1 as possible. 🙂

    • pam kueber says

      The darn plugin/feature that allows the images to enlarge on screen is very sensitive. Make sure the page is fully loaded. Even so, I can’t get it to work most of the time. Ugh.

  7. Jukesgrrl says

    Thanks to Valerie for sharing those images. They are beautifully done. Even Mrs. Cowan’s handwriting was gorgeous. The flooring that is shown with the drawing of the kitchen/dining room with the playing card theme was in a neighbor’s house during my childhood. I remember it vividly. It looks quite like the Moroccan-inspired patters that are so popular in area rugs today.

  8. Rick S says

    Pam,
    I love the artist renderings and agree they are a treasure. I remember the Armstrong ads with rooms built and decorated (about 1970s) showing Armstrong products. The use of Solarian floors or ceilings. The interiors looked real but alot like a tv sitcom set feel.
    rick

  9. Kathy says

    I’m also from Lancaster PA and purchased many of Louisa Kostich Cowan’s drawings at the same auction last summer as Valerie indicated. I’m in the process of framing them to be on display at a local gallery this summer. I will be inviting Loisa’s husband. If my email address could be shared with Valerie that would be great, since I think she may be interested in being a part of exhibition.

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