I 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.
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:
- Erica Wilson — “America’s first lady of stitchery”
- Beatrice West — Color harmony consultant to industry
- Tammis Keefe — Illustrated soft goods
- Vera Neumann — Illustrated soft goods
- Eva Zeisel — Ceramics, lighting and other decorative arts designs
- Maija Isola — Fabric designs for Marimekko
- Grete Lihotzky — Designer of the “Frankfurt Kitchen”
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 Marilyn 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.
- 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.
- 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!